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Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah: The Wise Man of Middle East

Because of his deft diplomacy Sheikh Sabah created a unique individual image among leaders of the Middle East

Tuesday October 6, 2020 7:33 PM, Manzar Imam, ummid.com

Sheikh Sabah of Kuwait

A leader cannot succeed in his mission until he has support of the people. I would like to enter into a future in which we can extend our hand to help each other embark on a new era for a great cause. These views were expressed by His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah during his maiden speech after assuming the post of Amir of the State of Kuwait in 2006. Having served his country for fourteen years as its emir, Sheikh Sabah passed away on Tuesday, 29 September, 2020 in Minnesota, the United States of America, reportedly following a cardiac arrest. He was 91 and survives two sons.

The views of the 15th Amir of Kuwait, the Arab Gulf state with the highest currency rate in the world, showed both his political acumen and firm determination to take his nation to the path of progress keeping in mind the larger interest of his people whose help he sought to achieve the ambitious goal. It would require a thorough study, analysis and review of the work done by him during his tenure as head of the state.

The image of Kuwait with skyscrapers and solid infrastructure gives one not only a peep into the panoramic view of the oil-rich Gulf nation but also provides a glimpse of the vision and relentless efforts of Sheikh Sabah which he put in throughout his life. A comparative analysis of his period and the period before him would illustrate this better.

However, the time and other constraints do not allow me at the moment to journey through that. But what must be noted here is that Kuwait had undergone a very difficult phase when Iraqi president Saddam Hussein bombarded it in order to occupy its rich resources. A flashback of those scenes brings before eyes mind-shattering images and evokes heart-shaking memories.

"Dean of Arab Diplomacy"

During Saddam’s invasion and seven-month occupation, the Kuwaitis were subjected to excruciating pain and humiliation, and many of them even had to flee their country. Sheikh Sabah himself had then collapsed during a meeting. However, after great struggle and intervention Kuwait again belonged to its people. Since then it has scaled new heights of success among the Gulf states. Part of its success goes to the vision and wisdom of Sheikh Sabah who, according to Saudi Gazette was dubbed as “dean of Arab diplomacy.”

Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the fourth child of Sheikh Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, was born on 16 July, 1929 and obtained primary education at Al-Mubarakiya School. He studied under a number of special tutors. His knowledge and insights were further enhanced through training in foreign academic campuses. He also got mastery over English language.


[Kuwait Airport, rebuilt after Saddam Hussein's destruction during the Gulf War. (Photo: Manzar Imam)]

Sheikh Sabah began his political life in 1954. Then he was appointed honorary president of the Academic Council of Kuwait. In 1954-55 he was appointed member of the Central Committee of the City Municipal Council after which he served as chairman of the Department of Social Affairs and Labour and looked after organizations of the city-dwellers as well as foreigners. He was given high responsibility to look after the country’s internal affairs. From 1956 to 1962 Sheikh Sabah served as head of the Publication branch. On 7 July 1961, he was appointed director of Departmental affairs of the press and social affairs. For a brief stint he served as a minister in 1962.

In 1963 he remained head of the Council of Gulf Arab countries. On 28 January 1963 during the regime of late Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, the first Amir of the State of Kuwait, an official order was issued through which the 33-year-old Sheikh Sabah took oath as the foreign minister from where his political life took a new turn. As foreign minister he served as special representative of Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah. During 1965-68 he was given extra charge of the Ministry of Oil and Finance and, during 1971-75 he was also acting president of the Publication Department.

From February 16, 1978 to March 10, 1978, Sheikh Sabah was made deputy prime minister and was given other charges besides ministry of foreign affairs, while in 1981-82 he served as minister of information besides being deputy prime minister and foreign minister. In 1996 he was appointed member of the highest planning body of the country, then under the patronage of Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah. In July 2003 Sheikh Sabah became the country’s de facto prime minister. Apart from the various ministerial positions, he was given other different responsibilities which showed his great administrative capabilities.

"Architect of Modern Kuwait’s Foreign Policy"

Because of his deft diplomacy Sheikh Sabah created a unique individual image among leaders of the Middle East. The Al Jazeera rightly termed Sheikh Sabah as “the architect of modern Kuwait’s foreign policy.” He served as foreign minister for about four decades between 1963 to 2003, during which he addressed the United Nations General Assembly. His UNGA speeches helped strengthen Kuwait’s relations with the UN and its member states. He used his diplomatic prowess to solve regional issues which was in full display in reconciling with Iraq. The UN recognized him as a “humanitarian leader.”

Hearing the news of his demise, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres remembered him “a messenger of peace, a bridge builder.” He gave the Kuwaiti foreign policy a new image which highlighted Kuwait as a peace-loving country. However, his dealing of the issue of Qatar is seen with a mixed response.

During Iraq attacks, Sheikh Sabah made all efforts for peace and played key role in liberating Kuwait from Iraq in 1991. The credit for rebuilding the country after the devastating Gulf war, among others like Abdullah Ali Al-Mutawwa (d. 3 Sept. 2006), largely goes to him.

While the 2000 conference of OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) was held, Sheikh Sabah appealed for murder trial of Saddam Hussein. However, he ensured that Iraq remained protected as a country, apt to his widely acknowledged honorific as the “Wise Man of the Region.”

Kuwait Airport

[Kuwait Airport, rebuilt after Saddam Hussein's destruction during the Gulf War. (Photo: Manzar Imam)]

Thus he kept up the Al-Sabah dynasty’s traditional hold on political and judicial system among the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. In 2003 he focused his attention to political and economic development. His visits of South Asian countries in 2004 were aimed at strengthening Kuwait’s bilateral ties. He maintained a balance in Kuwait’s relationship with the US and China.

In 2005 he passed a bill for giving women electoral rights. Kuwait then became the first Gulf Muslim country where a woman (Dr Masuma Saleh Al-Mubarak) was made a minister. The bill set a benchmark for future women leaders like Hind Al-Sabeeh. The present Kuwait cabinet has two female ministers Mrs Mariam Aqeel Al-Said Hashim Al-Aqeel and Mrs Dr Rana Abd Allah Abd Al-Rahman Al-Faris. Under his rule Kuwait became the rare Gulf state to allow protests.

Sheikh Al-Sabah put tireless efforts to ensure the Arab states maintained unity. His overwhelming presence could be felt in almost all regional meetings and collaborations and international fora concerned with either an Arab country or the larger Muslim world. Be it GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), OIC, or the Arab League Council he would be present in person or send some senior leaders to participate in them.

His Highness Sheikh Al-Sabah was flown to US in July 2020 for treatment after undergoing a medical surgery in Kuwait which was done after an unspecific “health setback” which probably happened after the demise of his daughter Salwa Al-Sabah, who had died of cancer in 2002. Following Sheikh Sabah’s demise, his half brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah has been announced the Amir of Kuwait.

While the publication department made great contributions under leadership of Sheikh Sabah, his relations with poor Muslim countries remained quite generous. In his demise therefore, both Kuwait and the larger Muslim world lost a great leader who stood for humanitarian causes for the world in general and for the poor Muslim countries in particular.

(Manzar Imam is a Ph.D. Scholar at MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be reached at manzarkhalil@gmail.com)


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