Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah dies at 91

Kuwait‘s emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, has died at the age of 91, state media reported Tuesday morning.

He is expected to be succeeded by this 83-year-old half-brother and crown prince Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah.

“With sincere sadness, Kuwait, its people, the people of the Arab and Muslim world, and the people of the world offer their condolences for the death of Emir Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, may God forgive him,” said Minister of Royal Court Affairs Sheikh Ali Jarrah Al Sabah on state TV.

The emir had ruled the oil-rich Gulf Arab state since 2006 and oversaw its foreign policy for more than five decades.

His ascension in Kuwait, a staunch U.S. ally since the American-led war that expelled occupying Iraqi troops, came after parliament voted unanimously to oust his predecessor, the ailing Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah, just nine days into his rule.

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Dubbed the “dean of Arab diplomacy,” Sabah had also worked to restore relations with states that backed Iraq during the 1990-1991 Gulf War – when Kuwait was invaded by Iraqi forces. The emir was also the go-to mediator in regional disputes, most recently between Saudi Arabia, its allies, and Qatar.

Under Sabah’s leadership, Kuwait also steered clear of Syria’s civil war. Instead, Kuwait hosted several international donor conferences and provided humanitarian aid to Syria.

Yet as Kuwait’s ruling emir, Sabah struggled with internal political disputes, the fallout of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, and seesawing crude oil prices that chewed into a national budget providing cradle-to-grave subsidies.

“He represents the older generation of Gulf leaders who valued discretion and moderation and the importance of personal ties amongst fellow monarchs,” said Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington who studies Kuwait. “No question he has suffered from the lack of deference and respect shown by the younger and more brash young princes holding power today.”

Sabah’s life spanned two very different Kuwaits. He was born June 16, 1929, just as the country’s pearl-diving industry collapsed. Within the decade, Kuwait would strike oil. Engineers would eventually confirm that the tiny country, slightly smaller than the U.S. state of New Jersey, had the world’s sixth-largest known oil reserves.

Sabah became Kuwait’s foreign minister in 1963 after holding a number of other governmental posts. He would remain in that position for four decades, making him one of the world’s longest-serving foreign ministers.

His country’s greatest crisis came in 1990, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and occupied the nation for seven months. Fleeing with other Kuwaiti officials to neighboring Saudi Arabia, Sabah collapsed and lost consciousness at one particularly stormy meeting of Arab leaders.

On Feb. 24, 1991, U.S. troops and their allies stormed into Kuwait. It ended 100 hours later. America suffered only 148 combat deaths during the whole campaign, while over 20,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed.

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Even before the U.S. entered Kuwait, Sabah and others began suggesting a permanent American presence in the region might provide them protection from Iraq and others.

“One learns from the past and learns about it for the future,” Sabah reportedly said. “One has to consider arrangements that would make not only my country stable but make the whole area stable.”

Today, Kuwait hosts some 13,500 American troops, many at Camp Arifjan south of Kuwait City, which is also home to the forward command of U.S. Army Central.

In 2003, his half brother and Kuwait’s then-emir, Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Al Sabah, named Sheikh Sabah as the country’s prime minister. Although the move kept members of the Al Sabah family firmly in control of Kuwait, it was seen as a modest step toward reform as it marked the first time that the roles of prime minister and crown prince — the next in line to the throne — were split.

It also formalized Sheikh Sabah’s role in running the daily affairs of the country — a responsibility he had increasingly assumed while the former prime minister, Saad, struggled with health problems.

Despite those health problems, Saad took power in 2006 after the death of Jaber. Concerns mounted during his brief reign as he was seen in public only in a wheelchair and did not speak.

Parliament ended up voting 64-0 to have Sheikh Sabah become emir, following a similar Cabinet decision. Sheikh Saad then submitted a letter of resignation. The vote, while largely symbolic, marked a small victory for democracy among the autocratic Gulf Arab states. It was the first time in Kuwait’s history that the legislature had a role in choosing the emir.

“Sheikh Sabah proved a savvy player of the internal politics of the ruling family,” Diwan said.

Domestically, Sabah faced the challenge of falling oil prices in recent years. He dissolved parliament several times as lawmakers kept questioning appointed government ministers, some of them members of his extended family.

As the 2011 Arab Spring swept the region, Sabah ordered 1,000 dinar ($3,559) grants and free food coupons for every Kuwaiti. But allegations swirled at the time that some lawmakers had been bribed $350 million by the government to sway their votes, along with rumors that they were involved in embezzling state funds.

Amid strikes and confrontations with police, protesters briefly entered parliament, waving flags and singing the country’s national anthem. Sheikh Sabah nevertheless maintained power while still allowing protests, a rarity among Gulf leaders.

Internationally, Sheikh Sabah embraced Iraq after the U.S.-led 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam. He twice visited the country and helped Iraq and Kuwait reach a $500 million deal in 2012 to settle a long-running legal dispute between their state airlines over allegations of large-scale theft by Saddam.

The emir also hosted a summit in 2018 that saw $30 billion pledged to help rebuild Iraq after the war against the Islamic State group. That’s even as Iraq still owes Kuwait reparations from Saddam’s 1990 invasion.

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In July, Sabah was flown to the United States for medical treatment following an unspecified surgery in Kuwait.

Sabah’s cause of death has not yet been released.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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