Kuwait is mourning its Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, who died on Tuesday, aged 91. The Arab world is also grieving for Sheikh Sabah, with a number of countries announcing official days of mourning and lowering their flags in deference to the late Gulf ruler who governed Kuwait for 14 years. He will be remembered as a man who strove to build bridges and resolve disputes across the region.
Sheikh Nawaf Al Sabah, who succeeded his brother as Emir yesterday, committed to continuing the important work of Sheikh Sabah and “to preserve the country’s dignity and protect its security”.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, wrote in a tweet that "Sheikh Sabah epitomised wisdom, tolerance, and peace and he was a great pioneer of Gulf cooperation". US President Donald Trump described the late ruler as a man who “tirelessly mediated to end conflicts in the Middle East”. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Sheikh Sabah “was an extraordinary symbol of wisdom and generosity, a messenger of peace, a bridge-builder”.
Sheikh Sabah was indeed a man of peace. He was Kuwait’s foreign minister for four decades, and served as prime minister before becoming Emir in January 2006. Throughout his career, Sheikh Sabah used his power to bolster diplomacy and preserve peace and stability in his home country and beyond.
This was an especially difficult task at a time when Kuwait’s much larger neighbour, Iraq, was under Baathist rule. Border disputes intensified under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who ordered the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Sheikh Sabah also led negotiations to secure war reparations after the Iraqi army retreated. Despite painful memories of the invasion, he did not allow for his country to hold grudges and reached out to Iraqis at their time of need. He stated Kuwait’s support for Iraq’s right to chart its own path after the fall of Saddam, at the UN General Assembly in 2003, and worked tirelessly towards improving relations between the two countries. He visited Iraq in 2012 and declared from there the importance of ties between the people of the two nations, followed by another visit in 2019. Kuwait pledged $2 billion to help Iraq rebuild after ISIS was defeated in 2017.
Sheikh Sabah’s positive influence reached across the Arab world. He worked alongside Saudi Arabia to broker the 1989 Taif Accord. The agreement, which many considered a gold standard of diplomacy, ended 15 years of civil war in Lebanon. He was also involved in peace talks between South and North Yemen in the 1970’s, and hosted two summits to resolve Yemen’s ongoing civil war. His moderating influence succeeded in ending violence and de-escalating conflict from Turkey to Bangladesh.
The late Emir of Kuwait combined an acute awareness of geopolitics with a humanitarian approach to foreign affairs, which became a hallmark to Kuwait’s brand of diplomacy. In 2014, he was recognised as an “exemplary humanitarian leader'' by then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He called for a political solution to Syria’s conflict and hosted several donor conferences to raise money for victims of the war. In 2015, Kuwait pledged half a billion dollars in aid at the third annual Syria donors conference in Kuwait City. Sheikh Sabah described Syria’s civil war as the “biggest humanitarian catastrophe in the modern history of mankind”.
The late Emir has left a legacy of peace, tolerance and solidarity, and will be remembered for his work to promote peace and prosperity in the Gulf and beyond. His wisdom and moderation have proven effective diplomatic tools and generations of Kuwaiti statesmen and politicians will continue to be inspired by his legacy.