Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the Emir of Kuwait who led his small oil-rich country on an independent path through Middle Eastern rivalries and feuds for four decades as foreign minister and then ruler of the country , died on Tuesday. He was 91 years old.
An official statement read on state television announced his death. According to Kuwait’s state news agency KUNA, the emir had undergone surgery and was then flown to the United States for medical treatment in July.
His death is expected to elevate his 82-year-old half-brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, to the leadership of Kuwait. While the policies of the incoming emir were not yet apparent, analysts predicted that Kuwait would continue to act as a mediator in its turbulent neighborhood, skillfully navigating between Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side and the enemies of those. Arab states, Iran and Qatar. , on the other.
Sheikh Sabah was the architect and often the embodiment of that independent and non-aligned foreign policy.
Kuwait served as a regional intermediary in 2014, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain fought with Qatar for allegations that Qatar had undermined the rulers of other countries by financing terrorism, meddling in their internal affairs, financing the Al Jazeera satellite network, and messing with Iran.
Immersed in the tribal, religious and political dynamics of the region, Sheikh Sabah personally flew from the Arab capital to the capital when he was in his eighties, leading rounds of negotiations that ultimately convinced the two sides to uneasy detente.
When Qatar’s antagonists cut ties with the country altogether in 2017 – this time it joined Egypt – Kuwait played the middleman again, albeit with much less success. Qatar and its opponents remain bitterly estranged, with diplomatic and economic ties frozen and a land and sea blockade against Qatar still in place. (Qatar denies interfering with other countries or sponsoring terrorism.)
Despite periods of upheaval, Kuwait has remained politically stable. With an elected parliament, political party-like blocs, and sometimes vigorous public debate, Kuwaitis can participate in their government to a greater extent than their Gulf Arab neighbors, who are ruled by absolute monarchies.
And the country has remained an important ally of the United States since 1991, when US-led forces repelled an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait during the Gulf War. Today Kuwait is home to around 13,000 American soldiers.
James A. Baker III, who was secretary of state during the war, said in a statement Tuesday that Sheikh Sabah was “always an outspoken and trusted ally.”
“Whether it’s working to calm the difficult rivalries between competing nations or committing to rescuing refugees from war-torn countries,” he added. “Sheikh Sabah has remained focused on helping us build a better world.”
That stability has been tested, however. Under Kuwait’s political system, the emir appoints the Sabah family as prime minister and keeps the last word on state affairs, an arrangement that has fueled longstanding tensions between the appointed government and the elected parliament. And that imbalance led, in the second half of Sheikh Sabah’s reign, to its greatest internal crisis – when the Arab Spring riots that swept across the Middle East in 2011 reached Kuwait, bringing to light the open questions about the of the power of the ruling family. .
Kuwaiti protesters and opposition lawmakers, fueled by what they saw as attempts by the government to interfere with a parliamentary election and corruption scandal among members of parliament, he pushed for constitutional amendments to loosen the family’s grip in power and bring the country closer to a complete parliamentary system.
The protests brought tens of thousands of Kuwaitis to the streets, forcing the emir to replace the prime minister and dissolve parliament. Two years of unrest followed, during which the emir used emergency laws to change electoral rules in a way the opposition said preferred candidates for government.
An opposition-dominated parliament was dissolved, protesters repeatedly confronted police in the streets, and dozens of protesters were arrested for criticizing the emir.
Sheikh Sabah was born in Kuwait on June 6, 1929, the Emir’s fourth child at the time. His family had ruled Kuwait continuously since the mid-18th century. The young sheikh was educated in Kuwaiti schools and by private tutors, according to an official biography posted on a Kuwaiti embassy website.
Appointed to a government committee at the age of 25, he remained in various government posts until his death. His most significant role before becoming emir was that of foreign minister, a title he held for most of the years from 1963 to 2003, when he was appointed prime minister.
According to the Kuwaiti tradition, which dictates that the office of emir should alternate between the two branches of the ruling family, Sheikh Sabah should not have governed. But it was pushed to power in 2006 after a health crisis sidelined his predecessor, Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah, nine days into Sheikh Saad’s reign. Sheikh Saad died in 2008 at the age of 78.