By James Reinl,
When world leaders mount the marble podium during the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), they often spout a lot of doom and gloom.
Not so for Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah. When he entered the global spotlight in October 1963 as foreign minister of a newly independent Kuwait, he gushed with more passion and optimism than your average diplomat.
He said, “genuine hopeful signs of lasting peace on Earth are appearing on the horizon” and issued a call to “banish colonialism, racial discrimination, religious intolerance” while also ending war, poverty and hunger.
He never let up. Sheikh Sabah, who died on Tuesday aged 91 after a series of medical setbacks, will be remembered as a steadfast optimist in a volatile region who spent a 70-year career putting out fires at home and abroad.
“Sheikh Sabah was known internationally as a conciliator,” Gregory Gause, head of global affairs at Texas A&M University and a former scholar at the American University in Kuwait, told Al Jazeera.
“He frequently took the lead in trying to mediate among the other Gulf monarchies when they had spats, including the boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. His mild-mannered style was more successful at bridging gaps in the world of diplomacy than in Kuwait’s domestic politics.”
Sheikh Sabah was born in June 1929 in Kuwait, then a British protectorate, the son of the Emir Sheikh Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah.
He attended school in Kuwait and later worked several government posts. After Kuwait gained independence in 1961, he began a four-decade stint as foreign minister that covered the latter half of the emirate’s so-called “golden era”.
Kuwait began developing its oil wealth earlier than some of its neighbours and was known for fast-rising living standards, good universities, fun theatres, a relatively free press, and one of the region’s liveliest parliaments.
According to Clemens Chay, a scholar of Kuwaiti and Gulf politics at the National University of Singapore, Sheikh Sabah was “one of the architects” of the fledgeling Kuwaiti foreign policy and steered a course of “positive neutrality”.
Sheikh Sabah “preferred not to take sides in a world that was under the shadow of the Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union, Chay told Al Jazeera.
“Instead, he used Kuwait’s economic leverage and resource wealth to make friends and win the country recognition on the world stage.”
In the early 1970s, regional power Iran revived its territorial claims on Bahrain, which was readying for independence from Britain. Sheikh Sabah helped establish a UN survey that smoothed the island’s path to self-rule, said Chay.
During the tanker war of the 1980s – a spillover of the Iran-Iraq conflict that saw merchant ships attacked – Sheikh Sabah managed to cut deals with the Americans and the Soviets to secure protection for vulnerable vessels in the Gulf, added Chay.
Against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war, Sheikh Sabah was instrumental in the formation in 1981 of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – a bloc of six, booming hydrocarbon-rich Arab states that was designed to boost members’ clout.
After Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Sheikh Sabah played a key role in Kuwait’s government-in-exile in Saudi Arabia, using contacts at the UN and overseas to “rally support for Kuwait’s cause”, said Chay.
Sheikh Sabah spoke of what he called the “excruciating experience” of his homeland being occupied by Iraqi forces. He spent the following years calling for compensation and the return of detainees, hostages and the remains of dead Kuwaitis.
Sheikh Sabah became emir in January 2006 following a power struggle within Kuwait’s ruling family. During his tenure, Kuwait was dogged by royal in-fighting and gridlock and crises in an unruly political system.
He frequently stepped in to dissolve Parliament and reshuffle cabinets. The country of three million people faced unprecedented public dissent in 2011 amid the Arab Spring protests when young Kuwaiti activists and others railed against corruption.
There were gains too. In May 2009, four women won seats in Kuwait’s parliamentary elections for the first time.
Sheikh Sabah won the UN’s “exemplary humanitarian leadership” prize in 2014 for his aid work and for hosting big donor meets. Then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised his “outstanding generosity towards Syrians and Iraqis in need”.
He returned to the diplomatic breach in 2017 amid the near-breakup of the GCC, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and others cut ties with Doha and imposed a blockade on Qatar, accusing it of supporting “terrorism” and of being too friendly with Iran.
Sheikh Sabah repeatedly tried to broker an end to the crisis, shuttling across the region and visiting US President Donald Trump at the White House – but a resolution proved elusive. For many, Sheikh Sabah’s generation had been replaced by younger, bolder and riskier rulers.
In public appearances, Sheikh Sabah stuck to his script, with a diplomat’s poker face under his trademark moustache and spectacles. The widowed father-of-four was known to enjoy fishing in southern Oman and shopping in New York City.
He had a pacemaker fitted in 2000 and in later years suffered a series of health setbacks. In July 2020, he was admitted to hospital and some of his duties were assigned to his half-brother and designated successor, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah.
Kristin Smith Diwan, an expert on Kuwait at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, a think-tank, said Sheikh Sabah was “diplomatic, pragmatic and solution-oriented” in the face of turbulence at home and abroad.
“His rule was characterised by a tactical balancing of competing forces, both within the ruling family and within society. He was rather successful at maintaining this balance, but perhaps at the expense of big ambitions for the country,” Diwan told Al Jazeera.
“His ability to usher Kuwait through turbulent regional divisions, most especially sectarian conflict and the fierce rivalry between Gulf neighbours, won him respect at home.”