The emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, 91, died in the United States on Tuesday where he was recovering from surgery he underwent two months ago.
Sheikh Sabah came to power in 2006 at the age of 77, succeeding Sheikh Saad Al-Salem Al-Sabah after a brief power struggle that ended with the latter, too ill to speak the oath before parliament, abdicating in favour of Sheikh Sabah.
Before he became emir, Sheikh Sabah was Kuwait’s foreign minister for 40 years after 1963. He was the last surviving figure of Kuwait’s popular ruling elite that was associated with the modernisation of the small oil-rich Gulf emirate in the 1970s. Both he and his predecessors maintained a consistent pan-Arab identity for the emirate that withstood the rise of a new and significantly different generation of neighbouring Gulf monarchies.
His half-brother, Crown-Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, 83, is slated to become the next emir. Should he succeed Sheikh Sabah, the new emir is constitutionally required to choose a crown-prince who needs the majority support of parliament to be approved. The process of nominating and selecting a crown-prince within the Sabah family, traditionally alternating between the Al-Jaber and Al-Salem branches, is largely opaque.
Crown-Prince Nawaf’s past positions include deputy chief of the Kuwaiti National Guard, deputy prime minister and minister of the interior. Rarely in the spotlight, little is known about his leadership abilities, even though it was announced in July that he had temporarily assumed Sheikh Sabah’s powers.
Under Sheikh Sabah’s leadership, Kuwait has emerged as a respected regional mediator and a voice of reason in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) diplomatic crisis with Qatar. Kuwait has also acted as a go-between for Pakistan and Bangladesh, Turkey and Bulgaria, Palestine and Jordan, factions in the civil war in Lebanon, in the Gulf States and in Iran.
Sheikh Sabah was born in Kuwait on 16 June 1929 and received his primary education at the Al-Mubarakia School in the 1930s, completing his education under tutors. He is the half-brother of the previous emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, who appointed Sabah as prime minister in July 2003.
As foreign minister, Sabah restored Kuwait’s international relations after the Gulf War. He was also first deputy prime minister while serving as foreign minister.
On 19 September, US President Donald Trump awarded Sheikh Sabah the US Legion of Merit, Degree Chief Commander. Because of his ill health, the award was received by his eldest son Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah at the White House in Washington.
The Legion of Merit is a rarely awarded decoration that can only be bestowed by the US president, typically to the heads of state or government of other countries. The honour was last awarded in 1991. Trump’s move came days after both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain said they would normalise their relations with Israel. The US president then said the other Gulf monarchies were expected to follow.
Sheikh Sabah has been vocal in his support for Palestinian rights. He praised Kuwait’s Parliamentary Speaker Marzouk Al-Ghanem’s criticism of the Israeli occupation of Palestine in international venues, for example.
With his death and the likely succession of another octogenarian, the question of the succession and changes to the system is now paramount in Kuwait.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.