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Kuwaiti ruler, longtime diplomat Sheik Sabah dies at 91

Kuwait's ruling emir, Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Jabbar al Sabah, in March 2019
Kuwait’s ruling emir, Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Jabbar al Sabah, attends the opening of the 30th Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia, in March 2019.
(Fethi Belaid / Pool photo)

Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Jabbar al Sabah, the ruler of Kuwait who drew on his decades as the oil-rich nation’s top diplomat to push for closer ties to Iraq despite the 1991 Persian Gulf War and to come up with solutions to other regional crises, died Tuesday. He was 91.

In a Middle East replete with elderly rulers, Sheik Sabah stood out for his efforts to resolve a bitter dispute between Qatar and other Arab nations that continues to this day.

His 2006 ascension in Kuwait, a staunch U.S. ally since the American-led war that expelled occupying Iraqi troops in 1991, came after the parliament voted unanimously to oust his predecessor, the ailing Sheik Saad al Abdullah al Sabah, just nine days into his rule.

Yet as Kuwait’s ruling emir, he 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.

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“He represents the older generation of [Persian] 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.”

State television announced his death after playing Quranic prayers, with Royal Court Minister Sheikh Ali Jarrah al Sabah reading a brief statement, his hands shaking.

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“With great sadness and sorrow, the Kuwaiti people, the Arab and Islamic nations, and the friendly peoples of the world mourn the death of the late His Highness Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Jabbar al Sabah, emir of the state of Kuwait, who moved to the realm of the Lord,” the sheikh said, without offering a cause of death.

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Kuwait’s Cabinet later announced that Sheikh Sabah had been succeeded by his half brother, the crown prince Sheikh Nawaf al Ahmad al Sabah.

The high regard for Sheik Sabah could be seen in the outpouring of support for him across the Middle East when he suddenly fell ill in July 2020, leading to a quick hospitalization and surgery in Kuwait City amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Authorities did not say what ailed him.

A U.S. Air Force C-17 flying hospital then transported Sheik Sabah from Kuwait to Rochester, Minn., home of the Mayo Clinic — an extraordinary gesture by the American government for a foreign head of state. The Mayo Clinic did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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

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Sheik Sabah became Kuwait’s foreign minister in 1963 after holding a number of other government posts. He would remain in that job 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, Sheik 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. The United States suffered only 148 combat deaths during the whole campaign, while more than 20,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed.

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Even before the U.S. entered Kuwait, Sheik Sabah and others began suggesting that 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,” Sheik 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, Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah, named Sheik 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.

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

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

The parliament ended up voting 64-0 to have Sheik Sabah become emir, following a similar Cabinet decision. Sheik 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.

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

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Domestically, Sheik 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, Sheik Sabah ordered $3,559 grants and free food coupons for every Kuwaiti. But allegations swirled at the time that some lawmakers had been bribed a total of $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. Sheik Sabah nevertheless maintained power while still allowing protests, a rarity among Persian Gulf leaders.

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

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

Sheik Sabah also played a role in raising aid funds for Syrians suffering as a result of that country’s civil war, hosting international donor conferences in 2013 and 2014, and pledging hundreds of millions of dollars of Kuwaiti wealth.

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One of his greatest challenges as a diplomat, however, came with the boycott of Qatar by four Arab nations that began in 2017. Sheik Sabah positioned himself as a mediator in the political dispute, which he warned in a 2017 White House appearance could have led to an armed conflict.

“Thank God now, what is important is that we have stopped any military action,” Sheik Sabah said.

Those mediation efforts have yet to resolve the crisis, but he did manage to get Qatar’s prime minister to shake hands on live television with Saudi King Salman at a 2019 meeting in Mecca.

“We believe that wisdom will prevail,” Sheik Sabah once said.

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A longtime widower, Sheik Sabah lived for years in a palace known as Dar Salwa, which was named after his daughter, Salwa, who died of cancer in 2002. He is survived by three sons.


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