Kuwait mourns loss of emir Sheikh Sabah aged 91
Successor Sheikh Nawaf faces growing budget deficit in the oil-dependent nation and a changing regional political landscape
Kuwait’s ruler Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, a seasoned diplomat who tried to heal rifts between feuding Gulf states and rebuilt ties with former foe Iraq, has died. He was 91.
In line with the constitution, the emir was succeeded by Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, 83, a half brother who has served as interior minister and deputy chief of the national guard. Nawaf had been acting emir since Sabah left Kuwait for medical treatment in the US where he died Tuesday.
The energy-dependent monarchy, whose 1.4-million citizens are among the world’s wealthiest by average per capita income, is home to about 8.5% of global oil reserves, according to the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. Oil and gas account for about 40% of Kuwait’s economic output and more than 90% of export revenues.
As foreign minister for more than 40 years, Sheikh Sabah sought to make Kuwait a regional power broker by mediating intra-Arab disputes, maintaining strong ties with the US and the UK, and rebuilding relations with Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait in August 1990. At home, he on occasion dismissed parliament, entrenching a struggle with the legislature that often led to political and economic stalemate.
The death of the emir could reopen debates over the nation’s political system, according to Shafeeq Ghabra, a political-science professor at Kuwait University. Democracy watchdog Freedom House says Kuwait is “partly free”, citing constraints on freedom of speech and assembly while noting that it has an elected parliament that often challenges the government.
“It’s a transition, there will be changes, there could be reconciliation, there could be challenges, there could be some power vacuum,” Ghabra said. “To his credit, the emir has managed a very thoughtful foreign policy for a small country, and he was the only viable mediator in the Gulf crisis” that pits Qatar against an alliance of Arab states.
Sheikh Nawaf, while a largely unknown quantity to many Kuwaitis, shares similar character traits, said Ghabra. “He’s reflective, and sometimes when you get someone like that, he’s not extremely opinionated. It allows for others to come about and find common ground.”
The Gulf standoff was the defining cause of Sabah’s last few years in power. He sought to resolve the conflict among Gulf Co-operation Council states triggered when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain slapped an embargo on Qatar over its ties to Iran and alleged funding of terrorism. Qatar remains under boycott, but Kuwait has maintained relations with both sides of the dispute, while keeping open a channel of communication with Iran.
At home, the charismatic Sabah was a tactical ruler and largely revered by his own people. Still, he maintained a strong hold on power and fended off opposition-led street protests in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts demanding an overhaul of Kuwait’s democracy. He instead undertook only minor modifications while dissolving parliament multiple times and changing the electoral system in 2012 to limit the number of candidates voters could pick in their constituency.
During his tenure, successive governments pushed to one side difficult decisions over issues including trimming expensive subsidies and introducing taxes. The executive and legislative powers have often failed to see eye-to-eye on the implementation of key economic reforms. Political dysfunction led to a revolving door at the critical oil ministry, with ministers rarely lasting long in office.
During Sabah’s rule, Kuwait’s economy stagnated, dependent almost entirely on swings in energy prices as diversification efforts never moved past the blueprint phase. The sharp decline in oil prices after 2014, combined with a lavish welfare system, left the country running persistently large budget deficits. Kuwait has forecast its biggest-ever shortfall in the current fiscal year, predicted to reach 40% of GDP, compounded by lower oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic.
Sabah was born in Kuwait on June 16 1929, before the country became a wealthy oil exporter. He was the fourth son of a former emir, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, who ruled from 1921 to 1950, and was educated by Kuwaiti schools and private tutors. He named New York among his favourite places, frequented Oman on fishing trips and was an avid fan of FC Barcelona.
In 1962, he became minister for guidance and information, a year before being appointed foreign minister, a post he held until he became prime minister in 2003. In the 1970s and ’80s, he was information minister, in addition to foreign minister and deputy prime minister from 1978.
Sabah was named emir in 2006. Even before that, he had assumed the role of de facto ruler when other leading family members were too ill or frail to do the job. He took the leadership mantle after Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah, who was emir for nine days, was voted out of office by parliament on the grounds that he was too ill to rule.
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