Sheikh Sabah al-Sabah, emir of Kuwait obituary

By Ian Black

The emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who has died aged 91, ruled his country for 14 years and acquired a reputation for being committed to peaceful dialogue and unity among other Gulf states known for their divisive quarrels in recent times. Discreet, mild-mannered and valuing his personal links with fellow monarchs, Sabah was known as “the dean of Arab diplomacy”.

Since 2017, however, when the younger, more assertive leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates boycotted their rival Qatar, he found it increasingly hard to play the role of regional mediator, but was still credited with having forestalled potentially disastrous military action. The war in Yemen, scene of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, was another nightmarish situation.

Sabah’s renown for diplomacy was aided by the fact that he ruled a small country with the world’s sixth-largest oil reserves. His sheer longevity was another factor. The reputation he gained for prioritising Gulf unity predated his formal ascent to the throne in 2006.

He spent 40 years – from 1963 to 2003, with a brief gap – as Kuwait’s foreign minister. As such, he played a key role in creating the six-nation Gulf cooperation council in 1981 – and regretted that it proved unable to resolve the Qatar crisis. He was fond of saying that a country could not choose its neighbours – the most challenging of his being Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990, which lasted for seven months, was a traumatic experience. Sabah fled to Saudi Arabia, with other members of the government-in-exile, and returned after the US-led Operation Desert Storm liberated the country. That intensified already close relations with Washington to the extent that the US military used Kuwait to invade Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 2001 attacks. Around 13,000 US personnel are still based there.

Under his leadership in the aftermath of the Saddam era Kuwait cautiously rebuilt its relationship with Baghdad. From 2003 to 2006 he served as prime minister under his half-brother, Jaber al-Ahmad. He became emir in 2006 when Jaber died and his cousin, Saad al-Abdullah, stepped down a few days into his rule as parliament moved to depose him on health grounds.

Sabah was born into the family that had ruled Kuwait for more than 250 years, just as the country’s traditional pearl-diving industry was collapsing to be replaced by oil. He was the fourth son of Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah and his wife Munira al-Ayyar.

He was schooled locally, growing up under British rule, and became foreign minister two years after his country gained its independence in 1961 and as his dynasty consolidated its position. As a young man he enjoyed driving fast cars and had a lively sense of humour that contrasted starkly with the often delphic style he used in formal diplomatic exchanges.

Kuwait’s domestic politics were as challenging as regional issues. Its raucous parliament has more power than anywhere else in the Gulf, but the emir still appoints the prime minister from his own family and has the final say over affairs of state – a structure that has fostered longstanding tensions and frequently paralysis between the cabinet and MPs.

The period of the Arab spring, from late 2010, was especially challenging, though Kuwait saw fewer protests than elsewhere. Like the Saudis, Sabah used money to suppress the potential for unrest. Ostensibly to celebrate both the 50th anniversary of independence in 1961 and the 20th anniversary of liberation from Iraqi forces in 1991, he granted around $3,500 to every Kuwaiti national in February 2011 and announced that basic items of food would be free for two years. In November that year, parliament was stormed when he decreed a change to voting rules that would weaken opposition in advance of elections.

In 2013, when the Egyptian military overthrew the elected Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, Kuwait pledged, with the Saudis and the Emiratis, $12bn to the new army-appointed government in Cairo. Overall Sabah failed to tackle issues such as state subsidies and high levels of public sector employment. On the plus side Kuwait enjoyed a largely free press, lively political debate and unusually high standards of rights for women, who were allowed to vote from 2005.

And in June 2015 he visited a Shia mosque that had been suicide-bombed by Islamic State, resulting in 27 dead and more than 200 injured. He was praised at home and abroad for his understanding that a Sunni Muslim ruler needed to be seen to combat sectarianism and condemn terrorism.

Still, Sabah’s international record was better than his domestic one. In 2014, the UN named him a “humanitarian leader”. In 2018 he hosted a summit that saw $30bn promised to help rebuild Iraq after the war against Isis. Sabah also raised funds for Syrians suffering as a result of that country’s civil war by hosting international donor conferences.

On the regional level he was especially supportive of the Palestinian cause – in contrast to the UAE and Bahrain, which last month signed an important “normalisation” agreement with Israel. Kuwait initially backed the Saudi-led intervention against the Houthi rebels in Yemen but it has also hosted negotiations for the warring parties and has sought to de-escalate the conflict.

The emirate’s special relationship with Washington benefited him to the end of his life: in July a US Air Force C-17 flying hospital transported Sabah from Kuwait to Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic.

He married his wife Fatuwah, a cousin, in 1947. She died in 1990 and his son, Ahmed, died in an accident in 1969. Sabah lived for years in a palace known as Dar Salwa, named after his daughter, Salwa, who died of cancer in 2002. His sons Nasser and Hamad survive him.

• Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, ruler of Kuwait, born 16 June 1929; died 29 September 2020