Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the emir of Kuwait who steered his tiny oil-rich country on an independent path through the Middle East’s rivalries and feuds for four decades as the country’s foreign minister and then ruler, died on Tuesday. He was 91.
An official statement read on state television announced his death. The emir had undergone surgery and was then flown to the United States for medical treatment in July, according to Kuwait’s state-run news agency, KUNA.
His death is expected to elevate his 82-year-old half brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, to Kuwait’s leadership. While the incoming emir’s policies were not yet apparent, analysts have predicted that Kuwait would continue to act as a mediator in its turbulent neighborhood, deftly navigating between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on one side and those Arab states’ enemies, Iran and Qatar.
A Persian Gulf country of 4.2 million people burrowed between Saudi Arabia to the south and Iraq to the north, Kuwait has the world’s sixth-largest known reserves, giving it immense wealth that has granted it a degree of independence from its more powerful neighbors.
Sheikh Sabah was the architect and often the embodiment of that independent, nonaligned foreign policy.
Kuwait served as a regional go-between in 2014, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain feuded with Qatar over accusations that Qatar had undermined the other countries’ rulers by financing terrorism, meddling in their domestic affairs, funding the Al Jazeera satellite network and cozying up to Iran.
Steeped in the tribal, religious and political dynamics of the region, he personally flew from Arab capital to capital, when he was in his mid-80s, leading rounds of negotiations that eventually coaxed the two sides into an uneasy détente.
When Qatar’s antagonists cut ties with the country altogether in 2017, this time joined by Egypt, Kuwait again played intermediary, though with far less success. Qatar and its adversaries remain bitterly estranged, with diplomatic and economic ties still frozen and a land and sea blockade against Qatar still in place. (Qatar denies that it has interfered with the other countries or sponsored terrorism.)
Inside Kuwait, the second half of the emir’s reign and the Arab Spring uprisings that spread across the Middle East in 2011 brought into the open questions about the extent of the ruling family’s power.
Despite the upheaval, Kuwait remains politically stable. An important ally of the United States since American-led forces repelled an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War, it hosts about 13,000 American troops.
With an elected Parliament, blocs resembling political parties and sometimes vigorous public debate, Kuwaitis can participate in their government to a greater extent than their Gulf Arab neighbors, who are ruled by absolute monarchies. But the emir appoints the prime minister from the Sabah family and maintains final say over state affairs, an imbalance that eventually led to Sheikh Sabah’s greatest domestic crisis.
The Arab Spring eventually reached Kuwait, intensifying the longstanding tension between the appointed cabinet and the elected Parliament.
Fueled by what they saw as the government’s attempts to interfere with a parliamentary election and a corruption scandal among members of Parliament, Kuwaiti protesters and opposition lawmakers pushed for constitutional amendments to loosen the ruling family’s hold on power and bring the country closer to a full parliamentary system.
The protests eventually drew tens of thousands of Kuwaitis to the streets, forcing the emir to replace the prime minister and dissolve Parliament. Two years of unrest followed, during which the emir used emergency laws to change election rules in a way that the opposition said favored government candidates.
An opposition-dominated Parliament was dissolved, protesters repeatedly faced off with the police in the streets and dozens of protesters were arrested for criticizing the emir.
Sheikh Sabah was born in Kuwait on June 6, 1929, the fourth son of the emir at the time, into a family that had ruled Kuwait continuously since the mid-18th century. The young sheikh was educated in Kuwaiti schools and by private tutors, according to an official biography posted on a Kuwaiti embassy website.
Appointed to a government committee at age 25, he remained in various government posts until his death. His most significant role before he became emir was as foreign minister, a title he held for most years from 1963 until 2003, when he was named prime minister.
By Kuwaiti tradition, which dictates that the post of emir should alternate between the ruling family’s two branches, Sheikh Sabah was not supposed to rule. But he was propelled to power in 2006 after a health crisis sidelined his predecessor, Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah, nine days into Sheikh Saad’s reign.