Amr Nabil / AP
The ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, passed away at the age of 91. He was born in an era when the economy of the small Gulf emirate depended on diving in search of pearls, and his life extended to the discovery of oil and the emergence of Kuwait as one of the richest countries in the world.
Kuwaiti state television announced the death of the Emir on Tuesday after performing a Quranic prayer.
Sheikh Sabah spent four decades as Foreign Minister of Kuwait before becoming emir in 2006. He had ties with the US-led coalition that expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the emirate in 1990.
He supported the presence of American forces in the highly conservative Gulf region, and encouraged the establishment of American military bases there, including in Kuwait, where more than 13,000 American soldiers are stationed.
Sheikh Sabah was also known as a professional diplomat who tried to mediate disputes in the troubled region. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 – despite widespread hatred by most of the Sunni Gulf states for the Shiite-led government in the country – Sabah led the normalization of relations with Baghdad. This step, including his visits to Iraq, helped achieve reconciliation between Iraq and the other Gulf states. Two years ago, he hosted a summit aimed at financing the reconstruction of Iraq after its battles against ISIS. He also made raising funds for the reconstruction of war-torn Syria a priority.
In recent years, Sheikh Sabah has also tried to mediate a bitter dispute between Qatar and the other Gulf states. Within Kuwait, he also struggled with the fallout from the 2011 Arab Spring protests that called for an end to old regimes and more freedoms.
An official in the royal court, Sheikh Ali Jarrah Al-Sabah, announced on state television the death of the prince, reading from a statement he shook hands with and said that Sheikh Sabah had “moved to the kingdom of the master.” The cause of death was not mentioned.
In July, in an unusual move for a foreign leader, a US Air Force C-17 evacuated the Kuwaiti ruler to the United States, where he was admitted to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. An official source in Jordan, who asked not to be identified because Kuwait has not yet announced the news, said the prince died in the United States. His body is expected to arrive in Kuwait on Wednesday.
“Today we lost a great brother and a wise and loving leader … who spared no effort for Arab unity,” Jordan’s King Abdullah said on Twitter.
The former White House envoy to the Middle East, Brett McGurk, tweeted that the prince was a peacemaker as well as a good friend of the United States: “His role in the early days in building the coalition against ISIS was essential. He always sought to bring people together.”
The successor to Emir Al-Moein is his 83-year-old brother and Crown Prince, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah. Sheikh Nawwaf is not expected to initiate any radical change in oil or foreign policy.
Unusually in a region where polygamy and scores of children are expected for an Arab ruler, Sheikh Sabah has been a longtime widower and has never remarried. He was survived by two sons and died by a daughter who died of cancer in 2002.