Kuwait’s emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, regarded as the architect of the nation’s modern foreign policy, died on Tuesday at the age of 91, according to the royal court.
“With great sadness and sorrow, we mourn… the death of Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Emir of the State of Kuwait,” said Sheikh Ali Jarrah Al-Sabah, the minister in charge of royal affairs, in a televised statement.
State television had cut its regular programming and switched to a broadcast of Koranic recital before the announcement.
The emir had been receiving hospital treatment in the United States since July after undergoing surgery in Kuwait City.
No details have been disclosed on the nature of the emir’s illness or treatment, and the palace did not say where he died.
The emir, who has ruled the oil-rich Gulf state since 2006, had his appendix removed in 2002, two years after having a pacemaker fitted. In 2007, he underwent urinary tract surgery in the US.
Under Kuwaiti law, when the emir is absent, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, 83, the emir’s half-brother, is acting ruler.
Sheikh Nawaf, an elder statesman who has held high office for decades including the defence and interior ministries, is now expected to be appointed the new ruler.
Monarch, mediator, maverick
The Arab “dean of diplomacy”, Sheikh Sabah, survived Kuwait’s worst crises with an iron hand and a reputation as a shrewd, unshakeable monarch.
Even before his appointment as emir, he spent decades manoeuvring in the shadows of his predecessors; his half-brother Jaber Al-Sabah and cousin Saad Al-Sabah.
In 2006, in a move widely recognised as engineered by Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, parliament voted to dethrone Saad — just one week after his appointment — citing concerns for the 75-year-old’s physical well-being.
The long-time foreign minister thus ascended to the Kuwaiti throne and a regional role as mediator in some of the worst crises to grip the Gulf.
Born on June 16, 1929, he was the great-grandson of the founder of modern Kuwait, Mubarak Al-Sabah — a forerunner notorious for ordering the murder of his brothers to consolidate power under one emir.
The 15th leader in a family that has ruled for over 250 years, Sheikh Sabah helped steer his country through invasion, the crash of the global oil market and crises in parliament, government and on the streets.
Despite his advanced years, he remained deeply involved in global affairs, and in May 2019 attended a summit of Arab leaders in Mecca where marathon sessions extended into the night.
At that summit, he argued strongly for de-escalation in the Gulf as tensions between Iran and the United States surged to dangerous levels. “We must make every effort to contain the situation,” he said.
In the twilight of his reign, the emir led his country’s efforts to fight the novel coronavirus. More than 104,000 cases have been registered in Kuwait so far, including some 605 deaths.
Sheikh Sabah operated as a political maverick, which helped to shield his regional reputation despite turmoil at home.
He took his first government post in 1962, at the age of 33, before being named foreign minister the following year — a position he held for nearly 40 years, before a brief interruption to his service.
He was without a cabinet portfolio between April 1991 and October 1992, against a backdrop where many felt he could have done more as foreign minister to prevent Iraq’s invasion.
But the break did not hinder his rise through the ranks, and in 2003 he was named prime minister, moving one step closer to the throne.
He was quick to assert his authority after being appointed emir in 2006, dissolving parliament after four months in power over a feud between legislators and the government.
During his first year in the throne, mass protests created pressure for an elected government. The demonstrations quickly turned violent and were speedily repressed.
There were also a record number of political arrests under his tenure, mainly of dissidents charged with criticising the ruler.
Parliament was a frequent arena of contention, with two rounds of Islamist-led election boycotts.
Kuwait’s legislative assembly was dissolved seven times by court order or under the instruction of Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, most recently in October 2016.
The following year saw one of Kuwait’s most infamous court cases: a mass trial in which 67 activists, including three lawmakers, were jailed for storming parliament six years earlier.
Dozens more have been put on trial for publicly criticising the ruler in person or on social media, both banned by law. Many of them have ended up behind bars.
Foreign policy architect
The emir was widely regarded as the architect of modern Kuwait’s foreign policy.
As the country’s top diplomat for nearly four decades, he fostered close ties with the West, most notably the United States, which was at the helm of the international coalition that freed Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991.
The sheikh had stood by Iraq during its 1980-1988 war with Iran before steering Kuwait through the 1990 invasion by its former ally.
He later emerged as mediator between the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran, and between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, following Riyadh’s 2017 decision to cut ties with Doha.
The early years of his tenure saw relative financial prosperity, with the emirate’s fiscal assets topping $600 billion for the first time thanks to high oil prices.
But the 2014 oil market crash hit Kuwait hard, forcing the government to hike charges on public services and fuel.
He had three children — fewer than many other Arab monarchs. One of his two sons is a businessman, and the other is a former defence minister.
His death comes in the same year as the passing of another famed regional mediator, Oman’s long-reigning sultan Qaboos.