KUWAIT – Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah died on Tuesday aged 91, plunging his country into mourning for a leader regarded by many Gulf Arabs as a savvy diplomatic operator and a humanitarian champion.
The cabinet announced his brother and designated successor Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah as the new ruler, in a statement read on state television. The parliamentary speaker tweeted that Sheikh Nawaf, 83, would be sworn in on Wednesday.
Sheikh Sabah had ruled the wealthy oil producer and U.S. ally since 2006, and steered its foreign policy for more than 50 years.
“With hearts filled with pain and sadness for the Kuwaiti people, the Islamic and Arab world and nations of the world, and with faith in the will of God, the cabinet mourns … Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah who died in the United States on Tuesday at 4 p.m. Kuwait time,” the statement said.
“In line with the constitution … the cabinet names Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah emir of Kuwait,” it said.
The emir had been in hospital in the United States since July following surgery for an unspecified condition in Kuwait that month.
Flags were flying at half-mast in Kuwait, which announced 40 days of mourning. Condolences poured in from the Arab world for “the emir of humanity”, and several countries in the Gulf and wider region announced mourning periods.
Sheikh Sabah sought to balance relations with Kuwait’s bigger neighbours – forging close ties with Saudi Arabia, rebuilding links with former occupier Iraq and keeping open dialogue with Iran.
He tried to mediate in a Gulf dispute that saw Riyadh and its allies impose a boycott on Qatar, and made fundraising for humanitarian aid in Syria one of Kuwait’s priorities.
“Today we lost a big brother and a wise and loving leader … who spared no effort for Arab unity,” Jordan’s King Abdullah said on Twitter.
Sabah kept strong ties with the United States, which led a coalition that ended Iraq’s 1990-91 occupation of Kuwait and used the Gulf state as a launch pad for the 2003 Iraq invasion.
President Donald Trump earlier this month awarded the U.S. Legion of Merit, Degree Chief Commander, to Sheikh Sabah in what the White House said was the first time the honour has been given since 1991. The emir’s eldest son, Sheikh Nasser, accepted the award.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres praised the emir as “an extraordinary symbol of wisdom and generosity, a messenger of peace, a bridge builder”.
The Kuwaiti dinar fell against the U.S. dollar in the forward market on Tuesday and Kuwaiti stocks plunged, ahead of the official announcement of the emir’s death.
Under Kuwait’s constitution the crown prince automatically becomes emir but assumes power only after taking an oath in parliament, for which elections are due this year.
“I don’t see a major change in foreign policy under the new emir, largely because Kuwaiti foreign policy is pretty popular domestically and regionally and is seen as effective,” Courtney Freer, Research Fellow at LSE Middle East Centre, told Reuters.
The succession is not expected to affect oil policy or foreign investment strategy through the Kuwait Investment Authority, one of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds. Oil policy is set by the Supreme Petroleum Council, appointed by the emir.
The new emir’s choice of crown prince and prime minister – who would be tasked with managing the government’s often difficult relationship with parliament – will be watched closely, at a time when Kuwait’s finances have been strained by low oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic.
Although most political power in Kuwait is in the hands of the emir, its parliament is one of the most influential elected bodies among Gulf monarchies.