Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) holds hands with Emir of Kuwait Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 6 June 2017
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) holds hands with Emir of Kuwait Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 6 June 2017Reuters

Kuwait’s emir, an unwavering champion of Arab detente amid wars and regional tumult, helped lead his country out of the ruin of Iraq’s 1990 invasion to renewed riches and a Gulf mediator role, first as its top diplomat and later as ruler.

Keenly aware of Kuwait’s small size and huge oil wealth, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah saw astute diplomacy as crucial to its recovery from Iraq’s seven-month occupation, navigating frequent tensions between much larger neighbours Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran.

But he saw his dream of Gulf unity implode after a new generation of hawkish leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates led a boycott of Qatar in mid-2017, shattering the 39-year-old Gulf Cooperation Council bloc he helped build and defend from external threats.

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An official statement read out on state television on Tuesday said Sheikh Sabah, 91, had died. He had been in hospital in the United States since July following surgery for an unspecified condition in Kuwait that same month.

Dubbed the “dean of Arab diplomacy” after four decades as Kuwait’s foreign minister, the emir tried up until his death to resolve the row over Qatar which he said left him “bitter”.

Sabah let slip in remarks shortly after the embargo that he helped ward off a military attack on Qatar, prompting an angry denial by boycotting states in a rare personal rebuke of him.

After Sheikh Sabah, we will be weaker
Kuwaiti source

“The emir was worried about the Gulf, Yemen, Qatar,” said one Kuwaiti source who met the emir regularly, summarising his surprise at the behaviour of assertive younger Gulf Arab rulers with the phrase: “Just look at what the young people did.”

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“After Sheikh Sabah, we will be weaker,” he said, noting that none of the other senior family figures have the same experience in navigating regional tensions, a view shared by other sources close to the ruling family and diplomats.

Sabah kept strong ties with the United States, which led a coalition that ended Iraq’s 1990-91 occupation and used Kuwait as a launchpad for the 2003 Iraq invasion. Despite some public unease about rapprochement, in 2012 he visited Iraq to start rebuilding ties with Baghdad.

He pushed back when close ally Riyadh sought greater control over shared oilfields during a September 2018 visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 34, sources familiar with the talks have said. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia finally agreed last December on the shared oilfields, ending a five-year dispute

He pushed back when close ally Riyadh sought greater control over shared oilfields during a September 2018 visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 34, sources familiar with the talks have said. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia finally agreed last December on the shared oilfields, ending a five-year dispute.

A diplomat described Kuwait’s ties with Saudi Arabia, which sheltered the al-Sabah family during the Iraqi occupation, as its closest but most complicated foreign relationship.

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“Kuwait does not want to back down on issues of sovereignty,” a second source close to the family said.

Sabah also diverged from other Gulf leaders in refusing to back Syria’s rebel fighters with arms as he believed that would only fuel the conflict there. Instead, he made fundraising for humanitarian aid in Syria one of Kuwait’s priorities.

He was critical of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen and took a strong stand for Palestinian rights as other Gulf states welcomed Israeli overtures, and, in the case of the UAE and Bahrain, sealed diplomatic accords.

Domestic Tensions

A small figure with a beaming smile and husky voice, his negotiating skills at home were repeatedly put to the test as escalating tensions between his hand-picked government and the elected parliament held up investment and economic reforms.

In a rare interview in 2010, Sheikh Sabah traced Kuwait’s political problems back to the constitution, which describes a system that is both presidential and parliamentary.

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“The authorities of the legislative and executive overlap. This has led to a conflict between the two, in which everyone tries to curtail the powers of the other,” he told Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Illness at the top of the ruling family left Sabah as the de facto policymaker for years before he became emir, chosen as an experienced pair of hands to run the country.

Analysts say parliament’s backing for his leadership in 2006 gave him a strong political base. He was active in policymaking and regularly used his executive powers to dissolve parliament, which plays a key role in the succession and has in the past pushed an ailing emir out of office.

Sabah’s successor and half-brother, crown prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, is expected to assume power. Nawaf, who is 83, would appoint a new crown prince after a meeting of senior family members aimed at reaching consensus. Parliament would also need to approve the new crown prince.

Balancing Act

Senior family members have been jostling for position - some of them quite openly - and a rift between the dynasty’s two most powerful branches lies beneath the surface.

The split emerged in 2006 after Sabah interrupted the tradition of alternating power between the family’s Jaber and Salem branches.

Sheikh Sabah also broke the hold of opposition groups, both Islamists and liberals, on parliament by using executive powers to amend the voting system in 2012. Kuwaitis angered by the move staged some the largest marches in the country’s history.

Although Kuwait managed to escape Arab Spring unrest in 2011, that year protesters stormed parliament when MPs were prevented from questioning the prime minister, a nephew of the emir, over corruption allegations. The premier later resigned.

“He showed firmness, even with members of his own family,” a Kuwait-based diplomat said at the time of protests.

Dozens of Kuwaiti opposition figures were arrested for openly criticising the emir. The constitution says the emir, who has the last say in state matters, is “immune and inviolable”.

Sabah acted firmly against sectarianism. After an Islamist militant blew himself up in a Shi’ite Muslim mosque in 2015, the emir comforted families, calling the victims “my children”.