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A “Giant of Arab Diplomacy” , a “man of peace and dialogue” , a “savvy player” and the “architect of Kuwait’s modern foreign policy”. These were just some reactions to the demise of sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah, Kuwait’s emir between 2006 and 2020. The common denominator is clear: he was a respected diplomat who spent his career bridging gaps, healing rifts and reducing divides.
Born in Jahra in 1929, Sabah al-Ahmad attended the Mubarakiya school in Kuwait City, Kuwait’s first modern school that opened in 1911 (it was the second modern school in the Gulf region, after Bahrain). He completed his education with private tutors. Sabah al-Ahmad married his cousin Fatuwah bint Salman Al Sabah, who died in 1990. They had three sons (Ahmad, Hamed and Nasser) and a daughter (Salwa). His son Ahmad died in 1969 in a car accident, his daughter Salwa from breast cancer in 2002; shortly after he named his residential sea palace after her. Sabah al-Ahmad himself died at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota on the 29th of September 2020. His son Nasser passed away soon after, in December 2020.
Diplomatic and humanitarian efforts
Sabah al-Ahmad was a seasoned diplomat, he served as minister of foreign affairs for almost 40 years between 1963 and 2003, when he became prime-minister. Sabah al-Ahmad largely shaped Kuwait’s modern foreign policy of peace and mediation – and it came as no surprise that, once he became emir, he continued his strategy of diplomacy on the international level.
His key component of “Brand Kuwait”, as some call it, was “a persistent search for peace and stability that took into account the interests of all parties. Looking for a balance of power, mediating differences, and de-escalating conflicts have long characterised Kuwaiti diplomacy.” Sabah al-Ahmad maintained good relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia at the same time, tried to broker peace in Yemen during several conflicts and tried tirelessly to resolve the Saudi and Emirati led boycott of Qatar. Being a main force behind the establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981, he saw this rift as a disaster, and a major threat to the GCC, a union he strongly believed in.
Kuwait’s ministry of foreign affairs was formed by him and maintains extensive foreign missions abroad for such a small country. It also subsidises foreign countries to keep embassies in Kuwait. He understood Kuwait’s limitations as a small state and pursued an agenda of diplomatic multilateralism to compensate for those limitations. He complemented Kuwaiti diplomacy with an extensive portfolio in humanitarian work, supporting initiatives in war-torn or otherwise troubled countries like Libya, Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Chad, Ethiopia, Sudan or Myanmar.
He organized donor-conferences in Kuwait, for Syria and Iraq, where those events for Iraqi citizens were not always appreciated by the Kuwaiti people. Some still see Iraq as the arch-enemy that invaded their country in 1990, making their country and citizens undeserving of Kuwaiti money. Money they say, that could better be spent on internal issues such as helping people who cannot pay their debts.
Occasional internal criticism aside, in 2014 United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon recognized Sabah al-Ahmad as a humanitarian leader. There is no doubt that these diplomatic and humanitarian efforts earned him unequivocal respect both inside and outside Kuwait. It begs the question though, was his antenna for solutions of internal conflicts equally fine tuned?
When Sabah al-Ahmad became emir in 2006 it was anything but a diplomatic or reconciliatory affair. When it comes to the assumption of power, the Kuwaiti royal family is divided in two main branches, the Jaber and the Salem branch. Traditionally, the post of emir alternates between the two branches. So, in 2006 the then-emir Jaber al-Ahmad (Sabah al-Ahmad’s half-brother) passed away, it was the turn for a key member of the Salem branch: Saad al-Abdullah al-Salem Al Sabah. However, senior members of the royal family as well as members of parliament considered the ailing Sheikh Saad, who had a form of dementia, unfit for the job. Together, they negotiated a transfer of power to the prime minister, sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad, who already had been the de facto ruler in the preceding years, standing in for then-emir Jaber al-Ahmad who had been in bad health for quite some time.
Thus, Sabah al-Ahmad assuming power was a move that broke with the Jaber/Salem-rule as now there were two senior members of the Jaber branch in a row. Not only that, Sabah al-Ahmad appointed his half-brother Nawaf al-Ahmad as crown prince and his nephew Nasser al-Mohammed as prime-minister, all of them from his own branch. He effectively marginalized the Salem branch, a development that continues, with Nawaf al-Ahmad appointing sheikh Mishal al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah as his crown prince, who is – again – from the Jaber branch.
Apart from family feuds (there are plenty of rifts inside the branches as well), Sabah al-Ahmad faced more pressing national problems. In the years after the invasion, with Sabah as foreign minister, Kuwait managed to rebuild the country, but had failed to regain the trust of the people in the government (which is for the most crucial part formed by members of the royal family). Kuwaiti citizens wanted more political participation, less corruption, and a solution to long-term problems such as diversification of the economy, an end to the housing crisis, and a solution for the stateless bidoon.
In post-invasion Kuwait, none of this was delivered and Sabah al-Ahmad’s rule made little to no difference.
However, this cannot be solely attributed just to him – or any emir for that matter – as Kuwait’s semi-democratic system allows for often paralysing bartering and haggling in the parliament, government and royal family itself. It more often than not results in decisions not being taken, being taken but not executed or executed but stopped half-way. This was no different under Sabah al-Ahmad.
His time in power is defined by a recurring deadlock between the executive and legislative branches. This led to seven dissolutions of the parliament, the resignation of fourteen governments, and the appointment of three ministers. It also led to the 2011 ‘hand out’ debacle that sparked Kuwait’s own Arab Spring.
Response to protests
In January 2011 Sabah al-Ahmad gave every Kuwaiti citizen 1000 Kuwaiti dinars. Officially this was to commemorate 20 years of liberation from the Iraqi occupation. Sceptics thought the gift came at a convenient time to placate the population at a time of civil unrest in the country. Whatever the reason, most Kuwaiti citizens were happy with it. Except for the stateless bidoon, who got nothing. It sparked the first demonstrations of bidoon, demanding their right to citizenship.
Riding the wave of (national and international) unrest, the opposition called for further demonstrations against the government, demanding reforms and prime-minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed to step down. What followed were months of turmoil with protests and a storming of the parliament.
Security forces arrested the main instigators of the protests and the emir dissolved the parliament in June 2012 (as is his constitutional right) to make place for a new (effectively it was the old 2009-parliament) more government-friendly one.
In October 2012, the emir pushed for a new electoral law (allowing voters to cast ballots for just one candidate, instead of four) that was supposed to level the playing field and shatter large tribal coalitions. The result was more protests (not in the least by those large tribal coalitions). Leader of the parliamentary opposition Musallam al-Barrak held a fierce speech in front of his supporters in which he accused the royal family of being “autocratic”; Directly addressing the emir, he shouted “We will not allow you to practice autocracy!”, after which the crowd yelled “we will not allow you, we will not allow you!”.
Al-Barrak paid a price for criticising the emir (thereby crossing the red line), and was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison, which was later reduced to two years.
Moreover, the trust in the government took an even deeper nose-dive, not helped by the fact that under Sabah al-Ahmad criticism was further curtailed.
With the new electoral law in place, the opposition boycotted the December 2012 elections, after which the opposition, which had united in a loose coalition, saw its role diminished.
In the following years, the government led by Sabah al-Ahmad continued its oppression of activists, voices of dissent, and cracked down on freedom of expression, especially on social media. Authorities also detained and prosecuted civil society activists and critics of Sabah’s government through an anti-cybercrime law passed in 2016.
It is safe to say that Sabah al-Ahmad’s dealing with the opposition – which ranges from Islamist to tribal to liberal figures – was not as diplomatic and rift-healing as his modus operandi in the international arena. Until 2015, he was not the beloved emir he would later become. That seemed to change, as the country united in grief after a disaster struck the country: the suicide bombing in the shia Imam Sadiq mosque, which killed 27 worshippers on a Friday morning in June 2015. While the smoke was still in the air, glass lay scattered on the floor, disoriented and bloodied people still walked around the site of the attack, the emir arrived to show his support for the shia-community in the country. It was a smart decision, deeply appreciated both by the shia and sunni communities in Kuwait, a country that understands the potential danger sectarian divides create.
It was clear that the Imam Sadiq event brought this emir’s skills of reducing divides to the forefront once again. His popularity skyrocketed, which showed a few months later, during the opening of the Jaber-stadium, when a picture of the emir appeared on a big screen, the audience went wild. Later on the emir himself entered the stadium and circled the stadium in his car, the crowd went even wilder, shouting slogans such as “you are the father of us all”. The fact that the opening of the stadium had been postponed for five years because of construction issues caused by corruption issues did not matter that night.
After the Imam Sadiq attack, his popularity kept growing, not in the least because of his support for Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, his Qatari counterpart, during the Saudi and Emirati led boycott. Kuwaiti citizens collectively appreciated his support for what they perceived as the underdog, something they tend to value, being citizens of a small country squeezed between the powerhouses of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Shortly after the Qataris started to drive around with stickers of Tamim’s face on their cars, the Kuwaitis followed suit with their own stickers of Sabah al-Ahmad.
Be that as it may, the fractious relationship between the government and the parliament continued, as lawmakers have continued to oppose the government’s austerity measures in the context of declining oil prices.
When the figures are added up, Sabah al-Ahmad can be considered a rather popular and successful emir, despite the fact that after the 2011/2012 protests nothing much has changed in the country. Not economically (the economy is still largely oil-based), not socially (the bidoons are still fighting for citizenship) and not politically (the opposition is still largely squashed or bribed to turn pro-government). After a period of swift growth in the 1950’s to 1970’s, Kuwait’s development began to stagnate, whereas the rest of the GCC-states has picked up speed. There are regular long-term plans, usually called visions, that come with slogans such as ‘The New Kuwait’. In 2016 the latest version – Vision 2035 – was presented.
At the time, critics remarked that it will most likely just stay that, a vision. Apart from being a text on a billboard, five years later the ‘New Kuwait’ seems indeed nowhere near. As alluded to above, this cannot necessarily all be blamed on the emir; Kuwait’s political system allows for participation, which is mainly interpreted as opposition. It leads to a system where even if the palace wants something – unlike in the neighbouring countries – it might not happen.
It is therefore no surprise that Sabah al-Ahmad was mostly focusing on (and successful at) selling the ‘Kuwait Brand’ abroad: it’s an area where he met little internal opposition and had most freedom to move. He did that skillfully.