The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, died Tuesday at the age of 91, announced the royal palace of this rich oil country in the Gulf.
“It is with great sadness and sorrow that we cry […] the death of Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, Emir of Kuwait, ”said Sheikh Ali Jarrah al-Sabah, Minister of Royal Affairs, in a recording broadcast on television. Television in Kuwait had interrupted its programs and broadcast verses from the Koran before the official announcement.
Medical treatment followed in the United States
After his hospitalization in Kuwait on July 18, the Head of State, who came to power in 2006, transferred “temporarily” part of his powers to the Crown Prince, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah. The latter, his 83-year-old half-brother, is expected to succeed him. Sheikh Sabah then went to the United States at the end of July to continue medical treatment, according to the authorities, who had not given any details on the nature of his illness.
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It was not immediately clear whether the Emir was still in the United States at the time of his death or whether he had returned to his country.
He had undergone an appendix removed in 2002 and had a pacemaker inserted in February 2000. In 2007, he had urinary tract surgery in the United States. In September 2019, Sheikh Sabah had undergone medical examinations after arriving in the United States, resulting in the postponement and then the cancellation of his meeting with US President Donald Trump.
Sheikh Sabah was considered the architect of modern Kuwait’s foreign policy by being both a great ally of the United States and Saudi Arabia while maintaining good relations with the latter’s rival, Iran.
His hospitalization in July preceded that of King Salman of Saudi Arabia, 84, who was discharged from hospital after spending 10 days there and having his gallbladder removed.
The ruler has held several prominent positions in government and was appointed crown prince in 2006, after a consensus of the ruling family who chose him to take the post, due to his popularity within the family.
An influential mediator
After the death in January of Sultan Qaboos of Oman, it is therefore another influential mediator who disappears in a region marked by tensions with Iran and the dispute that broke out in 2017 between Qatar on the one hand and the Saudi Arabia and its allies on the other hand. In this case, Sheikh Sabah has adopted a posture of mediation by calling for de-escalation in the Gulf.
His death “will have a profound impact, both because of his role as a diplomat and regional mediator, but also as a unifying figure in his country,” says Kristin Diwan of the Washington-based Arab Gulf States Institute. “The Kuwaitis appreciated its ability to keep the emirate out of regional conflicts and rivalries,” adds the expert.
Stability and normalization
His reign, however, was marked by political turmoil, demonstrations and arrests of opponents, but also falling oil prices, on which the country depends. Considered a liberal, in particular on the economic and social reforms he carried out and the rights of women, he however ruled out the legalization of political parties.
His successor’s policy should not stray too far from that of Sheikh Sabah, even as two of his neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have decided to normalize their relationship with Israel. Normalization remains very unpopular within Kuwaiti society, which largely supports the consensus that had prevailed until then and made the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the condition for any normalization with Arab countries.
“The priority of the leaders will be first internal stability then that of their regional policies”, affirms Kristin Diwan, stressing that the legislative elections must take place within two months and that no sign has been given on a change in Kuwait’s posture on standardization.
Appointed Crown Prince in 2006, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah has held several important positions in the government. Fifth son of Sheikh Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, who ruled Kuwait from 1921 until his death in 1950, Sheikh Nawaf was Minister of Defense in 1990, when the emirate was invaded by troops Iraqi women of Saddam Hussein.