In a Middle East replete with elderly rulers, Sheikh Sabah stood out for his efforts for diplomacy to resolve a bitter dispute between Qatar and other Arab nations that continues to this day.
His 2006 ascension in Kuwait, a staunch US ally since the American-led war that expelled occupying Iraqi troops, came after parliament voted unanimously to oust his predecessor, the ailing Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah, nine days into his rule.
As Kuwait’s ruling emir, he struggled with internal political disputes, the fallout of the 2011 Arab Spring protests and see-sawing crude oil prices that hit a national budget providing cradle-to-grave subsidies.
“He represents 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 who studies Kuwait.
“No question he has suffered from the lack of deference and respect shown by the younger and more brash young princes holding power today.”
State television announced his death after playing Koranic prayers.
“With great sadness and sorrow, the Kuwaiti people, the Arab and Islamic nations, and the friendly peoples of the world mourn the death of the late His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, emir of the state of Kuwait who moved to the realm of the Lord,” an Emiri official said.
Kuwait’s cabinet said later that Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah has been sworn in as ruling emir.
Sheikh Nawaf, 83, had served as crown prince since 2006, jumping a traditional order of alternating rule between the Al Jaber and Al Salam branches of the country’s ruling family.
The high regard for Sheikh Sabah could be seen in the outpouring of support for him across the Middle East as he suddenly fell ill in July, leading to a quick admission to hospital and surgery in Kuwait City amid the coronavirus pandemic. Authorities did not say what was wrong with him.
A US Air Force C-17 then transported him from Kuwait to Rochester, Minnesota, home of the flagship campus of the Mayo Clinic — an extraordinary gesture by the American government for a foreign head of state.
Sheikh Sabah’s life spanned two very different Kuwaits. He was born on June 16 1929, just as the country’s pearl-diving industry was collapsing.
Within the decade, Kuwait would strike oil. Engineers eventually confirmed that the tiny country had the world’s sixth-largest known oil reserves.
Sheikh Sabah became Kuwait’s foreign minister in 1963 after holding a number of other governmental posts. He remained in that position for four decades, making him one of the world’s longest-serving foreign ministers.
His country’s greatest crisis came in 1990, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and occupied the nation for seven months. Fleeing with other Kuwaiti officials to neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Sabah collapsed and lost consciousness at one particularly stormy meeting of Arab leaders.
On February 24 1991, US troops and their allies stormed into Kuwait. It ended 100 hours later, and America suffered only 148 combat deaths during the whole campaign, while more than 20,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed.
Even before the US entered Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah and others had been suggesting a permanent American presence in the region might provide protection from Iraq and others.
“One learns from the past and learns about it for the future,” Sheikh Sabah reportedly said. “One has to consider arrangements that would make not only my country stable but make the whole area stable.”
Today, Kuwait hosts 13,500 American troops, many at Camp Arifjan, south of Kuwait City, which is also home to the forward command of US Army Central.
Domestically, Sheikh Sabah had faced the challenge of falling oil prices in recent years. He dissolved parliament several times as legislators kept questioning appointed government ministers, some of them members of his extended family.
As the 2011 Arab Spring swept the region, Sheikh Sabah ordered grants and free food coupons for every Kuwaiti, but allegations swirled that some legislators had been bribed 350 million dollars by the government to sway their votes, along with rumours that they were involved in embezzling state funds.
Amid strikes and confrontations with police, protesters briefly entered parliament, waving flags and singing the country’s national anthem. Sheikh Sabah nevertheless maintained power while still allowing protests, a rarity among Gulf leaders.
A long-time widower, Sheikh Sabah lived for years in a palace known as Dar Salwa, which was named after his daughter Salwa, who died of cancer in 2002. He is survived by two sons.