Kuwaiti emir dies at age 79, crown prince will assume duties

Kuwaiti- US alliance expected to continue under Sheikh Jaber's successor.

kuwaiti emir 88 (photo credit: )
kuwaiti emir 88
(photo credit: )
The emir of Kuwait, Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah, who was forced into months of exile by Iraqi forces overrunning his oil-rich Gulf state in 1990 and then supported the United States in invading Iraq more than a decade later, died Sunday. He was 79. Sheik Jaber was a close friend of America even before the Gulf crisis, but the Washington-led 1991 liberation from Iraqi occupiers solidified the bond, making Kuwait the firmest US ally in the region. The emir agreed to US troops using Kuwait as a launch pad for the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein - at a time when even Saudi Arabia would only help the Americans secretly, amid widespread Arab opposition. The close alliance is likely to continue under Sheik Jaber's immediate successor, Crown Prince Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah, who also has health problems and is in his mid-70s. The Gulf crisis helped push Sheik Jaber to take limited steps toward democracy in a country where his family holds ultimate control over power. He dissolved parliament in 1986 for severely criticizing the government, but under US pressure he reconvened it a year after the Gulf War. He dissolved it again in 1999, saying lawmakers misused their constitutional rights. A new election was held just two months later. Sheik Jaber won the praise 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 in parliament repeatedly kept his decree from being put into practice. He could have disbanded parliament to press his view, but did not. Six years later, in May 2005, parliament finally approved the legislation supported by the emir and the Cabinet appointed its first ever woman member. The alliance with the US also made Kuwait a target for terrorism by Muslim radicals, mostly homegrown. Attacks on Americans since 2002 have killed a Marine and a civilian contractor, and in January 2005 police killed eight suspected terrorists allegedly planning new attacks. A member of the Sabah family that has ruled the emirate since the mid-18th century, Sheik Jaber was born June 29, 1926, before Kuwait became rich exporting oil. 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. He became a father figure for the country - said to be a quiet listener who avoided ostentation, despite his family's immense wealth. Bread and yoghurt often satisfied him at mealtime. He used to drive his own car to bustling bazaars and talk to shopkeepers, but changed his habits after a Shiite Muslim tried to assassinate him in a suicide car bombing in May 1985. 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. So far, he has ensured 10 percent of oil revenues go into the fund, now believed to be worth more than $60 billion. Health problems limited him in his later years. 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 May, Sheik Jaber underwent surgery in the United States for a dilated blood vessel in his left leg. Day-to-day running of the government has been handled by an appointed prime minister - currently the emir's younger brother, Sheik Sabah. Sheik Jaber unceremoniously fled Kuwait when Saddam's armored columns invaded on Aug. 2, 1990, with orders to capture or kill him. He drove to Saudi Arabia, accompanied by most of his children and scores of senior members of the royal family. He set up a government-in-exile in a resort hotel in Taif, going on Saudi television to call on his people to resist. Close aides say he denounced Saddam as a criminal and wondered out loud: "Why does this Saddam hate me so much?" Like other Gulf Arab leaders, Sheik Jaber backed Iraq in the 1980-88 war with Iran. During exile, he said little and prayed often, Ahmed al-Jarrallah, editor of Al-Siyassah daily, has written. "I just want a small tent in my country. I don't want palaces or luxury," he quoted the emir as saying. Saddam frequently denounced Sheik Jaber and ridiculed the emirate - where foreign workers have almost always outnumbered citizens - as a lazy nation languishing in comfort attended by foreign servants. Iraq claimed sovereignty over Kuwait after its independence from Britain in 1961. Kuwait's bitterness over the occupation led to years of emnity with Arabs seen as supporting Saddam - particularly Jordan and the Palestinians. Most of the 450,000 Palestinians who lived and worked in Kuwait left during the Iraqi occupation or were pushed out by the Kuwaitis after liberation. The long break ended when Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas visited Kuwait in December 2004 and apologized for the support of the Palestine Liberation Organization under the late Yasser Arafat for Saddam's invasion.