Emir of Kuwait dies at age 79

Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah ruled the tiny oil-rich country for 27 years.

al sabah 88 (photo credit: )
al sabah 88
(photo credit: )
The emir of Kuwait, Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah, who allowed the United States to use his tiny oil-rich country as a launch pad for the invasion that toppled Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, died Sunday, state television announced. He was 79. The Kuwaiti leader, who had been ailing since suffering a brain hemorrhage five years ago, is expected to be succeeded by Crown Prince Sheik Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah, a distant cousin who is in his mid-70s and has serious health problems of his own. That fact led to serious succession worries in Kuwait late last year and it was not clear what the ruling family would decide in the longer term. The government announced a 40-day period of mourning and said offices would be closed for three days. Sheik Jaber will be buried this afternoon at the Sulaibikhat cemetery. There had been speculation among Kuwaitis that the crown prince, named heir apparent in 1978, might give up his position because of colon problems, but Prime Minister Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah announced in November that would not happen. The post of the emir automatically goes to the crown prince, according to the country's 1964 succession law, but it was not immediately clear what the ruling family would decide in the longer term. Abdul-Rhida Asiri, head of Political Science Department at Kuwait University, said there will be a "smooth transition" to Sheik Saad, and the prime minister will be chosen crown prince and most probably keep his present job. "The de facto ruler will be Sheik Sabah," he told The Associated Press, and the family could make further leadership decisions after the mourning period. Sheik Jaber survived an assassination attempt in the 1980s and a decade later escaped invading Iraqi troops in 1990. He was a close friend of America even before US forces led the fight to liberate his country in 1991. He proved that friendship by supporting the American-led invasion of Iraq 12 years later. Kuwait has remained reliant on U.S. forces for defense, and the close alliance is likely to continue under Sheik Saad. "I don't believe there will be any change at all," said political analyst Ayed al-Mannah. "Kuwait needs the United States and the United States needs Kuwait, it is a strategic relationship." Washington named Kuwait a major non-NATO ally last year. The Al Sabah family has ruled this small state that has the world's tenth largest oil reserves - some 95 billion barrels- for more than 250 years. Kuwait is a major member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. After a Shiite Muslim extremist tried to assassinate Sheik Jaber in a suicide car bombing in May 1985, the emir abruptly changed his habits. He stopped driving his own car to bustling bazaars and cut down on public appearances. He didn't like traveling abroad, though he went for medical treatment. He suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2001 and was treated in London. On the rare occasions since then when he appeared in public, he had difficulty delivering speeches. In August 2004, he underwent what were described then as "routine" medical tests. In May, he underwent surgery in the United States for a dilated blood vessel in his left leg. Sheik Jaber, born in 1926 before Kuwait became rich exporting oil and educated by private tutors in his father's palace, was considered a father figure to many Kuwaitis who generally viewed him with fondness and respect. He was designated crown prince and prime minister in 1965, and succeeded his uncle, Sheik Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah, as emir on Dec. 31, 1977. The year before taking over, he set up the Fund for Future Generations - a financial safety net for Kuwaitis when the oil eventually runs out. To this day, he has ensured 10 percent of oil revenues go into the fund, which has an estimated balance of more than US$60 billion. Before the 1990-91 crisis over the Iraqi invasion, Sheik Jaber and his family presided over an affluent but tightly controlled society. Sheik Jaber dissolved parliament in 1986 for severely criticizing the government. He did not restore it until 1992, a year after Iraqi troops were driven out. The United States, trying to sell allies on joining the international coalition that ultimately forced Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait, pressed the ruling family to institute or return some democratic institutions to Kuwait. Sheik Jaber's reinstatement of parliament followed a promise to his people from exile that he would call for new elections after liberation. The emir dissolved parliament again in 1999 saying lawmakers misused their constitutional rights. A new public vote was held just two months later. Sheik Jaber won the praise and gratitude of human rights activists when he decreed in 1999 that women should have the vote and be eligible to run for office. However, conservatives and fundamentalist Muslims formed a parliamentary alliance that repeatedly kept his decree from being put into practice. He could have disbanded parliament to press his view, but did not. In May, after six years, parliament finally approved the legislation supported by the emir. During Saddam's rule, the Iraqi dictator delivered harsh attacks on Sheik Jaber in an attempt to discredit the ruling family of Kuwait, which Iraq had claimed since the territory's independence from Britain in 1961. Saddam described the emirate as a lazy nation languishing in comfort attended by foreign servants. Except when foreign workers fled during the invasion crisis, foreigners in modern Kuwait have outnumbered native. Today, there are about 960,000 Kuwaitis and 1.64 million foreign residents.