Today’s passing of His Highness Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah is sad news for Kuwait, the Gulf region, and the greater international community. As a veteran diplomat, Sheikh Sabah will long be remembered for his balancing role in the Middle East. Under his leadership, Kuwait managed to successfully navigate the region’s dangerous waters and help various actors try to settle disputes peacefully.
It is difficult for many to not associate modern-day Kuwait with Sheikh Sabah. Only two years after Kuwait gained its independence in 1961, he became his country’s foreign minister. Sheikh Sabah served this role during Kuwait’s darkest moment—the Iraqi invasion and subsequent occupation in 1990, as well as the country’s liberation the following year. As the Kuwaiti foreign minister, he worked tirelessly to unite the international community against Saddam Hussein in defense of Kuwait’s national sovereignty. He became Kuwait’s prime minister in 2003.
A Careful Balancer
Three years after becoming prime minister, Sheikh Sabah became the 15th ruler in the Al Sabah dynasty. During his 14 years on the throne, he rebuilt good relations with Baghdad and strengthened his country’s ties with many regional and global powers, including Kuwait’s traditional western partners, as well as China, India, and Russia. As Dr. Courtney Freer, a research fellow at LSE Middle East Centre, put it, Sheikh Sabah “will be remembered as the architect of Kuwait’s foreign policy” and a “trusted mediator throughout the Arab world.”[i]
The late Emir of Kuwait “represents the older generation of Gulf leaders who valued discretion and moderation and the importance of personal ties amongst fellow monarchs.”
Sheikh Sabah, a wise Gulf statesman, always struck careful balances and sought to work in harmony with fellow Arab/Islamic countries when it came to the most difficult challenges of our time. Correctly described by the Wall Street Journal as a “giant of Arab diplomacy,” the late Emir of Kuwait “represents the older generation of Gulf leaders who valued discretion and moderation and the importance of personal ties amongst fellow monarchs,” explained Dr. Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
After the Arab Spring revolts broke out in 2010/11, Kuwait did not join Qatar in actively supporting Arab revolutions, nor did Kuwait enlist in the counter-revolutionary camp made up of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and post-2013 Egypt. During Bahrain’s Arab Spring uprising, for example, Kuwait deployed a naval force to the archipelago kingdom’s waters to show symbolic support for the Al Khalifa royals, but he never sent Kuwaiti forces onto Bahraini soil to help local security forces quell the mostly non-violent protests. Sheikh Sabah also always kept Kuwait neutral in Libya, never joining Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in supporting ex-General Khalifa Haftar’s campaign to return the North African country to dictatorship.
While in March 2015 Kuwait did join the Saudi-UAE-led coalition in Yemen, Sheikh Sabah soon switched his sheikdom from having a military role in the conflict to a diplomatic one. Kuwait has spent years working to bring Yemen’s different factions to a mediated settlement. Along with Oman, Kuwait will continue to represent channels of communication and diplomacy between the Houthi rebels on one side, and Riyadh’s coalition and the UN-recognized Yemeni government on the other.
After the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis erupted in mid-2017, virtually the whole world lent their support to Sheikh Sabah’s mediation efforts. After Qatar came under siege, the Kuwaiti leader was busy flying between different Gulf capitals as part of his rigorous efforts to achieve successful shuttle diplomacy in order to preserve the GCC’s institutional relevance. As a Kuwaiti diplomat who was deeply involved in the GCC’s establishment in 1981 and, as a believer in strong Arab institutions, Sheikh Sabah saw resolving the Gulf feud as necessary. Although the blockade of Qatar has outlived the Kuwaiti ruler, it is to the credit of his diplomacy that the dispute did not escalate into a military confrontation, at least according to his own words.
The Qatar rift was not the only dispute within the GCC that the Kuwaiti Emir worked to resolve. In 2011, Sheikh Sabah shuttled between Oman and the UAE in order to mediate a resolution to a spy scandal that fueled tension between Muscat and Abu Dhabi.
In 2011, Sheikh Sabah shuttled between Oman and the UAE in order to mediate a resolution to a spy scandal.
When it came to the grander set of issues involving Iran, Kuwait constantly maintained a careful balance. While Kuwait, an important ally of Saudi Arabia, has had its share of problems with Iran since 1979, Sheikh Sabah often approached Tehran pragmatically and maturely. In the interest of averting war and seeking to prevent sectarian tensions from heating up within Kuwait (where one-third of the population is Shi’a), Sheikh Sabah constantly sought opportunities to decrease tensions with the Islamic Republic.
All in all, with Sheikh Sabah at the helm, Kuwait maintained cordial relations with Tehran. At times, this meant disagreeing with the US, such as in May 2018, when Kuwait refused to join Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain in welcoming President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Iranian nuclear deal. Moreover, the Emir tried to serve a bridging role between Iran and some of Kuwait’s fellow GCC members, underscoring his keenness to facilitate diplomatic openings across the Islamic world.
Also, at a time when more Arab states have been dwindling on their support for the Palestinian cause—and in the UAE and Bahrain’s cases, have recently abandoned the Arab Peace Initiative officially—the Kuwaiti Emir was always one of the staunchest defenders of Palestinian rights. When Kuwait was a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (2018-19), Sheikh Sabah used the opportunity to bring more global attention to the Palestinian struggle. Although Kuwait’s pro-Palestinian stances have led to White House advisor Jared Kushner accusing the sheikdom of having a “radical” stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Kuwait’s firm position has been a reminder of the country’s commitment to pan-Arab causes, even while under pressure from Washington to bury (as opposed to resolve) the question of Palestine.
The Road Ahead
There is no denying that Kuwait’s new ruler, His Highness Emir Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, will face major tests, both internally and externally, and so will the new head of state’s successor (whoever that will be). With a liquidity squeeze and growing deficit, Kuwait must contend with some economic difficulties, as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. With US-Iran brinkmanship as well as Iraq’s various crises continuing to threaten Kuwait’s stability and security, Sheikh Nawaf must also strike a delicate balance in the realm of foreign policy in order to preserve his country’s position as an oasis of peace in a turbulent region.
With a liquidity squeeze and growing deficit, Kuwait must contend with some economic difficulties.
Regardless of what the future holds, many Kuwaitis as well as people of countless countries worldwide will remember Sheikh Sabah as a Kuwaiti ruler who led amid a special period in which his country developed in many important ways. “His legacy will not only be framed by his strong acumen for diplomacy but will be remembered as one of the founding fathers of the modern Kuwaiti state,” said Dr. Dania Thafer, Director of the Gulf International Forum.[ii] “As Kuwait approaches a difficult economic downturn that the full effects have yet to be felt, he will be associated with the previous golden era of oil wealth and economic prosperity.”[iii]
[i] Dr. Courtney Freer, Interview with author, September 29, 2020.
[ii] Dr. Dania Thafer, Interview with author, September 29, 2020.