On September 29, 2020, Kuwait lost its leader, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, 91, who was hospitalized and treated in the US. “With great sadness and sorrow, we mourn to the Kuwaiti people, the Arab and Islamic nations, and the friendly peoples of the world, the death of the late His Highness Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, Emir of the State of Kuwait who moved next to his Lord,” the royal palace said in a Tuesday statement, according to Kuwaiti state television.
Before assuming power in 2006, he was Kuwait’s top diplomat, and during that time, he worked to mend fences with Iraq, with whom Kuwait’s relations were fractured since the 1990 Gulf War, and before, liberated Kuwait after Iraq invaded.
Moreover, Sheikh Sabah hosted donor conferences to raise money for Iraq, Syria, and other war-torn countries. He also worked to ease continuing tensions between Qatar and other Arab states. Internally, Sheikh Sabah’s tenure was marked by strong political rivalries, the 2011 Arab Spring and unstable oil prices. “He represented the older generation of 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. “No question he has suffered from the lack of deference and respect shown by the younger and more brash young princes holding power today.”
The late emir was praised by world leaders for his diplomatic skills and for his contribution to regional politics, being hailed as ‘the emir of humanity’ and a ‘wise leader’ by his contemporaries. Having steered Kuwait’s foreign policy for more than 50 years, Sheikh Sabah’s role as leader of Kuwait since 2006 was also marked by efforts to calm regional disputes.
He was regarded as the architect of modern Kuwait’s foreign policy and a respected voice in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region and the broader Middle East. “Sheikh Sabah was a man of peace known to be a mediator in any conflict in the GCC. It is a big loss to the citizens and expatriates here in Kuwait. He will be missed,” Michelle Fe Santiago, a Filipino journalist based in Kuwait since 1999, told Al-Jazeera.
He maintained good ties with Iran, which is considered a rival by many nations in the Gulf, and maintained ties to Qatar when several other Gulf nations severed ties dramatically in 2017.
To maintain continuation in the country’s leadership, on September 30th, the new Emir, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, was sworn in and pledged to preserve the country’s unity and stability. The 83-year-old Sheikh Nawaf is the former crown prince of Kuwait, succeeding his half-brother. Sheikh Nawaf is the 16th ruler in Kuwait’s al-Sabah dynasty, which dates to 1752. He is the sixth emir since Kuwait gained independence from Britain in 1961. The elder statesman, who was named heir apparent in 2006, served as defence minister when Iraqi troops rolled into the oil-rich emirate in 1990, and also as interior minister in the face of challenges from militants.
At age 83, Sheikh Nawaf is not expected to deviate from the diplomatic path charted by his predecessor, the late Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. He became the crown prince under Sheikh Sabah in February 2006, reported however to have been a consensus choice for the ruler, not being known for making any major political decisions during his tenure. The new leader is popular within the ruling al-Sabah family, enjoying a reputation for modesty and has largely maintained a low profile.
While his taking the reins was prescribed by Kuwait’s constitution, the succession plan remains uncertain. The late Sheikh Sabah came to power by jumping a traditional order of alternating rule between two branches of the royal family when parliament voted to oust his predecessor, the ailing Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah, just nine days into his rule.
Now Sheikh Nawaf has inherited the fraught task of appointing a new crown prince. Kuwait stands out in the region for the power of its parliament, which retains the right to reject the emir’s choice.
International reactions to the death of the late emir
Tributes and condolences poured in from across the Arab world for Kuwait’s late ruler, Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah as several countries in the Gulf and wider region announced periods of mourning.
In a joint statement by the President of the European Council, the President of the European Commission and the High Representative on the passing of late Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the EU leaders declared the following: “Today we learnt with sadness of the passing of His Highness Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, late Emir of the State of Kuwait. We would like to express our deepest condolences to his family, to the people and to the Government of Kuwait. Under His Highness’s leadership, widely regarded as the architect of modern Kuwait’s foreign policy, Kuwait assumed the role of a respected international partner and regional mediator. His vision steered a foreign policy that placed Kuwait among the EU’s close partners. The EU has been a staunch supporter of the indefatigable efforts of His Highness to promote dialogue towards the settlement of disputes in the Gulf region. His Highness’s dedication to humanitarian relief worldwide have earned him much deserved recognition as a global humanitarian leader. His loss will be mourned for years to come. The EU will continue to work towards consolidating a strong and enduring partnership with the State of Kuwait and its people.”
Mary Robinson, chair of the international non-governmental organization of public figures known as The Elders, described Sheikh Sabah as “a force for moderation, reason, and continuity”.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump awarded the US Legion of Merit, Degree Chief Commander, to Sheikh Sabah in what the White House said was the first time the honour had been given since 1991. The emir’s eldest son, Sheikh Nasser, accepted the award. “I am deeply saddened by the passing of my dear friend… Sheikh Sabah was an unwavering friend and partner to the United States,” Trump said in a statement. “The emir was an unparalleled diplomat having served as foreign minister for 40 years. His tireless mediation of disputes in the Middle East bridged divides under the most challenging circumstances. I hope that the Gulf nations will come together to honour his legacy and work toward the cooperative future he envisioned.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described Sabah as “an extraordinary symbol of wisdom and generosity, a messenger of peace, a bridge-builder”.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called Sheikh Sabah a “close friend of the United Nations” who “always sought to strengthen relations for the shared goal of sustaining peace and stability in the region and around the world”. Also, “His Highness was a distinguished statesman and an outstanding humanitarian who contributed to building bridges of understanding in the Gulf region and beyond,” the spokesman added.
“Today we lost a great brother and a wise leader … who spared no effort for Arab unity,” Jordan’s King Abdullah said on Twitter as he announced a 40-day mourning period in the kingdom starting on Tuesday.
Leaders of the UAE and Egypt also mourned Sheikh Sabah saying he was a great leader, and each announced a three-day mourning period. “The Arab and Muslim world has lost one of its most valuable leaders,” Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said in a tweet.
Bahrain said Kuwait had lost a “wise leader, an emir of humanity who loved what is good for the people”.
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani announced a three-day mourning period for his country, with flags to be lowered at half-mast. Sheikh Tamim described the late Kuwaiti leader as “a great leader who was wise, moderate and long-term oriented, and dedicated his life to serving his country”.
Speaking to Al-Jazeera, Qatar’s ambassador to Russia, Fahad Al-Attiyah, said the late ruler’s greatest quality was “his integrity and commitment to truth”. “Sheikh Sabah had demonstrated he was a man who sought to listen to others and give them the time to hear their grievances,” Al Attiyah said, speaking from Moscow. “All these qualities made him the person that people trusted with their issues.”
Even Yemen’s rival sides – who have yet to reach a political solution to the years-long war – paid tribute to the emir on Tuesday. Yemen’s Foreign Minister Mohammad al-Hadhrami offered his “sincere, heartfelt, condolences to our brothers in Kuwait” on Twitter. Meanwhile, Houthi rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam tweeted that the rebels “will never forget [the emir’s] position in support of peace negotiations … love for Yemen and keenness to extinguish the fire of war”.
Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) also mourned the Kuwaiti leader, praising his “achievements and endeavours” to serve his country and the region.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also wrote a tweet in Arabic expressing his sorrow and condolences for Sabah’s death.
The future of Kuwait in the region
On January 10, the GCC’s second defender of regional unity and peaceful dialogue, Oman’s Qaboos bin Said Al-Said, passed away at the age of 79. Therefore, the loss of the late Omani ruler and Sheikh Sabah, known as the “wise man of the region”, is giving room to a new and more assertive generation of Gulf rulers incarnated by Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
At a time when the GCC experiences its worst political crisis in decades, the region is left without a regionally respected figure to promote dialogue and multilateral cooperation.
“There is no indication a future leadership would want to change Kuwait’s posture,” Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC, who studies Kuwait, told Al-Jazeera. The death of Sheikh Sabah comes as Kuwait and the GCC region continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 103,981 people in the country of 4.1 million. The double blow of the health crisis and low oil prices led to an economic downturn. Earlier this month, Kuwait cut about $3bn from its 2020-2021 budget as the nearly $140bn economy is now facing a $46bn deficit. Deutsche Bank estimates Kuwait’s economy will contract by 7.8 per cent this year.
The late emir was cited by the state news agency KUNA as saying: “Kuwait is facing the big and unprecedented challenge of shielding our economy from the external shocks caused by this virus, specifically the decline in oil prices and the value of investments and assets.” Oil-rich GCC nations have long relied on hydrocarbon revenues to sustain generous social welfare systems and employ a large part of their citizens. Last year oil revenues made up 89 percent of Kuwait’s revenues. As experts forecast a global slowdown in oil demand in the coming decades, Gulf nations face the daunting challenge to reinvent their economies.
A major credit agency last week downgraded Kuwait for the first time in its history, citing the government’s swelling budget deficit. Plunging oil prices amid the pandemic have robbed the wealthy country of cash. The economy still feeds on petrodollars and has been slow to diversify. Other headwinds include “unchecked corruption, mediocre government services and unresolved issues, such as the status of stateless persons,” wrote Bader al-Saif, a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
According to Stratfor, Kuwait’s chances for economic reform and reputation for neutrality in a turbulent region hang in the balance.
Kuwait’s new Emir has big shoes to fill and formidable issues to deal with – balancing relations with regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran, steering the economy through the crisis, and selecting a new crown prince. The hot topic of whether to establish ties with Israel and how to respond to low oil prices amid the coronavirus slump will also preoccupy the 83-year-old Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah.
“The general image is that he is a calm person who, when it calls for it, can take firm decisions,” said Mohammed al-Faily, an expert in constitutional law and professor at Kuwait University. But experts note that Sheikh Nawaf does not have the stature of the late emir, a political veteran who guided the nation through its worst crises and made Kuwait a respected regional mediator.
Normalization with the Jewish state is highly unpopular among the Kuwaiti public, which largely supports the Arab world’s historic position of demanding a resolution of the Palestinian cause before giving diplomatic concessions to Israel.
Kuwait, unlike other Gulf states, has a lively political life with an elected parliament that enjoys wide legislative powers and can vote ministers out of office. Political rows often burst into the open.
This article was edited using data from the following websites: www.aljazeera.com, www.eeas.europa.com, www.al-monitor.com, www.theguardian.com, www.france24.com, www.apnews.com, www.gulfnews.com, www.voanews.com, and www.timeskuwait.com.