The legacy of Kuwait’s emir Sheikh Saba: farewell ‘Mr Fix-It’ | Middle East


United Nations – When world leaders mount marble podiums during the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), they often speak of a lot of doom and gloom.

Not so for Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabar al-Sabah. When he made global headlines as a newly independent Kuwait foreign minister in October 1963, he was impressed with more passion and optimism than your average diplomat.

He said “signs of real hope for lasting peace on earth are visible on the horizon” and called for “colonialism, racial discrimination, religious intolerance” to be eliminated while ending war, poverty and hunger.

He never gave up. Sheikh Saba, who died after a medical setback on Tuesday at the age of 91, will be remembered as a hopeful optimist in a volatile region who spent 70 years in the country and abroad extinguishing a fire. did.

“Sheikh Sabah was known internationally as a decider,” said Gregory Gauss, head of global affairs at Texas A&M University and a former scholar at American University in Kuwait.

They often had vassals when they tried to mediate among other Gulf monarchies, including the boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. His gentle-style was more successful at intervals in the world of diplomacy than Kuwait’s domestic politics.

‘Positive neutrality’

Sheikh Saba was born in Kuwait in June 1929, the British protector, son of Amir Sheikh Ahmed al-Jabar al-Saba.

He attended school in Kuwait and later held several government positions. After Kuwait gained independence in 1961, he began a four-decade term as foreign minister, which was involved in the latter half of the so-called “Golden Age” of the Emirate.

Kuwait had already started developing its oil wealth earlier than some of its neighbors and was known for its rapidly rising standard of living, good universities, fun theaters, relatively free press and one of the region’s most vibrant parliaments .

According to Clemens Chai, a scholar of Kuwait and Gulf politics at the National University of Singapore, Sheikh Sabah was “one of the architects” of Kuwaiti foreign policy and pursued a course of “positive neutrality”.

Sheikh Sabah did not like to take sides between the United States and the Soviet Union in a world that was under the shadow of the Cold War. Chai told Al Jazeera.

“Instead, he used Kuwait’s economic leverage and resource money to make friends and win the country’s identity on the world stage.”

In the early 1970s, regional power Iran revived its territorial claims over Bahrain, ready for independence from Britain. Sheikh said that helped establish a United Nations survey that smoothed the island’s path of self-governance.

During the 1980 tanker war – a spillover of the Iran-Iraq conflict saw attack on merchant ships – Sheikh Sabah managed to cut deals with the Americans and the Soviet for protection for vulnerable ships in the Gulf.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud joined hands with the Emir of Kuwait Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabar al-Sabah in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in June 2017. [Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court via Reuters]

Against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war, Sheikh Sabah was instrumental in the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981 – a blatant, six-group, hydrocarbon-rich Arab state of members who wanted members to promote this fight was designed.

In August 1990, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s forces attacked Kuwait, with Sheikh Sabah playing an important role in Kuwait’s government exile in Saudi Arabia, for UN contacts and “rally support for the Kuwait cause” overseas. I approached.

What Sheikh Sabah called the “excruciating experience” of his motherland occupied by Iraqi forces. He spent the following year calling for compensation and the return of detainees, hostages and the remains of the deceased Kuwait.

‘Exemplary human’

In January 2006, Sheikh Sabah became wealthy after a power struggle within Kuwait’s ruling family. During his tenure, Kuwait was humiliated by imperial battles and gridlock and a crisis in an uncontrolled political system.

He often stepped in to dissolve parliament and reshuffle cabinets. The country of thirty million faced unprecedented public discontent in 2011 amid Arab Spring protests when young Kuwaiti activists and others raided against corruption.

There were also benefits. In May 2009, four women won seats in Kuwait’s parliamentary elections for the first time.

Sheikh Saba won the UN’s “Exemplary Humanitarian Leadership” award in 2014 for his aid work and for hosting large donors. The then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised “excellent generosity in need for Syria and Iraqis”.

He returned to diplomatic violations following the GCC’s near-breakup in 2017, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and others cut ties with Doha and imposed a blockade on Qatar, which accused it of supporting “terrorism” Imposed and also accused of being. Friendly with Iran.

Sheikh Sabah repeatedly tried to end the crisis with brokers, shuttering across the region and meeting US President Donald Trump at the White House – but a resolution proved elusive. For many, the generation of Sheikh Sabah was replaced by young, folder and at-risk rulers.

In public appearances, Sheikh Saba clings to his screenplay with a diplomatic pointless face under his screen, mustache and goggles. The widowed father was known to enjoy fishing in southern Oman and shopping in New York City.

He was fitted with a pacemaker in 2000 and suffered health failures in later years. In July 2020, he was hospitalized and some of his duties were assigned to his stepbrother and designated successor, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah.

Kristin Smith Dewan, an expert in Kuwait at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, a think-tank, said Sheikh Sabah was “diplomatic, pragmatic and solution-oriented” because of the unrest at home and abroad.

“His rule was characterized by the strategic balance of competing forces within the ruling family and within society. He was successful in maintaining this balance, but perhaps at the cost of great ambitions for the country, ”Diwan told Al Jazeera.

“His ability to initiate Kuwait through turbulent regional divisions, most notably communal conflict and fierce rivalry between Gulf neighbors, earned him respect at home.”

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