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‘Wise Leader’ Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah of Kuwait passes away at age 91

Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah of Kuwait passed away on September 29th, 2020. He was 91 and had just completed his 16th year as Emir. His death was followed by a 40-day mourning period in which schools, public institutions, and government offices were closed. His reign as Emir was marked by domestic and regional conflict in which he served as mediator, earning him the nickname of “The Wise Leader” among his Gulf counterparts. 

Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah played an integral role as mediator in Middle East regional politics throughout his rule. As Emir, he came in 2014 at the start of a so-called “Second Arab Cold War” triggered by the cut off of diplomatic ties between Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Doha. After being accused of funding radical Islamist factions by the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Emir Tamim bin-Hamad al-Thani of Qatar turned to his Kuwaiti neighbor for diplomatic aid. This first round of talks only momentarily paused diplomatic cut-offs until 2017. Sheikh Sabah of Kuwait was tasked with leading negotiation talks between Saudis and Qataris at the GCC summit that year.

When the issue escalated, Sheikh Sabah also played a crucial role in later mediation efforts when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan broke off all social, political, and trade ties with Qatar. Emir Tamim bin-Hamad al-Thani of Qatar flew to Kuwait City shortly after to host diplomatic talks with Sheikh Sabah and was received at Daman Palace. In his efforts to calm Middle Eastern tensions further, Sheikh Sabah flew to Washington D.C. in hopes of using the American influence to dissuade any further escalation of conflict between the Saudi and Qatari. His main goal, as Saudi began to deploy tanks to the Qatar-Saudi border, was to prevent further military buildup between the two countries. After the meeting with President Donald Trump, Sheikh Sabah reported to newspapers, “Thank God, now, what is important is that we have stopped military action.” Thanks to these talks, the Saudi-Qatari tensions have since relaxed.

Just as he had acted as mediator in the 2017 regional crisis, Sheikh Sabah would also play a key role in domestic disputes back home. In 2008 and 2009, Islamist extremist groups began to increase in representative numbers within the National Assembly, Kuwait’s unicameral parliament. This made it extremely hard for cooperation among MP’s from differing factions, therefore leading to gridlock in the functions of government. Sheikh Sabah stepped in, appointing Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Ahmad, a family relative, as Prime Minister. Just under a year later, in March 2009, Sheikh Sabah was forced to dismiss his nephew on allegations of corruption, speaking to his moral responsibilities as Emir at the time. Additionally, the parliament under Sheikh Sabah was one of the earliest proponents of women’s rights within the Middle East and Gulf region. Some of the rights granted to women under his rule included universal suffrage and the ability to obtain a passport without the consent of a male relative.

The early 2010s marked a particularly brutal time in Kuwait, under which Sheikh Sabah took repeated action to dissolve the National Assembly after unjust elections were reported. In 2011 and 2012, massive protests against corruption and proposed constitutional changes forced the Emir to intervene. Repeated parliamentary elections were called due to accusations of corruption, yet no consensus between parties in the National Assembly could be reached. In this time, Sheikh Sabah himself was the victim of plots to overthrow the Kuwaiti monarchy, although no such plan was actually carried out.

The reaction to Emir Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad al Sabah’s death garnered responses from throughout the Arab world. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates declared a three-day mourning period on national radio, going on to praise the life of the late Emir. In Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud reminisced about their diplomatic and personal relationship throughout the years, saying, “I lost a dear brother, a generous friend, and a great stature, who had in myself a great stature and appreciation he deserved.” King Abdullah of Jordan II bin Al-Hussein joined King Salman by tweeting out his own condolences, “Today we lost a great brother and a wise leader who loves Jordan.”

The new Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah ascended to the throne on September 29, 2020. Emir Nawaf’s short reign has been characterized with issues including the COVID-19 pandemic, extremely low oil prices, and ever evolving tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Working with the new Crown Prince Sheikh Meshaal Al Ahmad Al Sabah, Emir Nawaf intends to continue the legacy of Sheikh Sabah as a key player in Middle Eastern and domestic affairs.

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