Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah sought long-term stability at home and abroad
Obituary: A veteran practitioner of diplomacy, the ruler experienced first hand the risks of a breakdown in regional order
Sheikh Sabah, Kuwait’s ruler for 14 years who died on Tuesday, was an elder statesman of the Middle East who led by example.
He was often at the centre of mediation, charting a path of reconciliation in a troubled region beset by conflict, displacement and tension. Sheikh Sabah was 91.
He and Kuwait were key partners to Saudi Arabia in mediating the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the Lebanese war and enhanced the reputation of the then foreign minister as an accomplished diplomat.
But much of Sheikh Sabah’s time as foreign minister between 1963 and 2003 was spent countering a belligerent Iraq after Saddam Hussein became the country’s autocratic leader in 1979.
In September 1989, Sheikh Sabah visited Baghdad and met Saddam to try to solve long-standing border disputes and claims by Iraq on Kuwaiti islands.
Ultimately, Sheikh Sabah and Kuwait felt the effects of war first-hand with the Iraqi invasion in 1990 and this shaped his outlook for the foundation of peace and stability.
While he led Kuwait’s insistence on securing war reparations from Iraq to pay for the widespread looting of the state by Saddam’s forces, Sheikh Sabah also reached out to the country and its people.
As prime minister, he spoke of his country’s support for the Iraqi people at the UN General Assembly in New York in 2003 and continued to work on improving relations between the neighbours.
He visited the country after Saddam was toppled in 2003 and regularly spoke of the need for regional consensus.
Twenty-one years after the invasion, Sheikh Sabah was one of the few Arab leaders to attend an Arab League summit in Iraq.
The March 2012 meeting was widely avoided because of a sense in many Middle East capitals that Baghdad had become too closely aligned with Tehran.
"I express my happiness since my foot stepped on to the land of the friend Iraq, after it gained back its freedom, dignity and democracy after a dark phase," Sheikh Sabah said at the summit.
In Kuwait in 2018, he chaired the International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq, which brought together representatives of 76 nations and international organisations.
Kuwait pledged $2 billion of the $30bn in credit and investment for Iraq to help the country after the ISIS insurgency.
Ultimately, however, corruption and political instability in Baghdad prevented the disbursement of the funds.
Kuwait in May this year welcomed the advent of a more neutral government in Baghdad, led by former intelligence chief Mustafa Al Kadhimi.
Shortly after his appointment, Mr Al Kadhimi sent Finance Minister Ali Allawi to Kuwait to discuss reactivating some of the projects agreed to in the 2018 summit.
Kuwaiti officials soon visited Baghdad in a sign of growing co-operation.
His experiences of war with Iraq and the subsequent path to mending ties exemplified Sheikh Sabah’s attitude to all conflict in the region.
During the last GCC summit hosted by Kuwait in 2017, Sheikh Sabah described the conflict in Yemen as tragic, calling on the Iran-backed Houthi militias “to comply with the international community's demand for a serious political solution to end this crisis".
Kuwait hosted two Yemen peace summits in an effort to end the fighting sparked by the Iran-backed rebels seizing the capital.
It was the second time he had tried to help end a war in Yemen.
In the 1970s, he was involved in attempts to end hostilities between North and South Yemen, and fighting between Oman and Yemen.
He was also a key player in halting violence between Pakistan and Bangladesh in the 1970s, and between Bulgaria and Turkey in the 1980s.
Sheikh Sabah also tried to act as a moderating influence on Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, who constantly sought confrontation with Riyadh.
More recently, Sheikh Sabah’s efforts helped to contain a 2014 GCC row after Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar.
He was behind several initiatives trying to heal the schism that broke out in mid-2017.
“It is no longer acceptable or bearable for the dispute that erupted between our GCC brethren to continue,” he told Kuwaiti Parliament in October last year.
In 2006, Sheikh Sabah became Kuwait’s ruler, succeeding his half-brother. He maintained a GCC-focused foreign policy while building ties with Iran.
As a member of the dynasty that ruled Kuwait since its independence in 1961, Sheikh Sabah was a major player in shaping the tenets of the modern Kuwaiti state, one of the world's top oil exporters.
The fundamentals rested on an alliance with the US, keeping larger regional powers at bay and a drive to distinguish Kuwait as a relatively open society.
Through his ties with Lebanon and the rest of the region, Sheikh Sabah also helped to attract Arab writers, journalists and academics to Kuwait, and promoted it as a place of Arab culture.
His internal policy was built around providing citizens with high living standards.
Sheikh Sabah pointed to Kuwait’s vibrant Parliament and lively internal political debates as a source of stability.
"We have also been blessed with the spirit of democracy, which has allowed us to protect the rights and dignity of all Kuwaitis – something our society has struggled for since its inception," he wrote in an Oxford Business Group report published in 2012.
"Kuwait has a great potential for growth, advancement and prosperity.
"After half a century of independence and two decades of liberation, Kuwait is entering a phase full of new trials and obligations.
"Henceforth, Kuwait must adhere to sound planning and devote its time and abilities towards fulfilling obligations and prioritising national interests."
In 2014, Sheikh Sabah visited Tehran for his only visit to the Iran as emir.
The country maintained official ties even after many states cut their formal relations.
But the relationship, centred on trade and mutually beneficial economic development, was not always easy.
Kuwait expelled the Iranian ambassador in 2017 after 23 Kuwaiti men were convicted of spying for Hezbollah.
Sheikh Sabah was a patient political leader who relentlessly pursued stability.
As tensions flared anew in recent years, he strived to stop the region repeating the errors of the past.
While Kuwait has lost a leader, the Middle East has lost one of its most respected diplomats.
Updated: September 30, 2020 02:32 AM