Kuwaiti ruler Emir Sheik Sabah dead at 91

Kuwait's ruling Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah has died, his office said in a statement read out on state television Tuesday.

Sabah, who spent 4 decades as country's foreign minister, will be succeeded by his half-brother

Kuwait's ruling emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, attends the opening of the 30th Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia, on March 31, 2019. Sabah has died at age 91, his office said Tuesday. (Fethi Belaid/The Associated Press)

Kuwait's ruling Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah has died, his office said in a statement read out on state television Tuesday.

Sheik Sabah, 91, had ruled the Gulf Arab oil producer and U.S. ally since 2006 and steered its foreign policy for more than 50 years.

"With the utmost sadness and grief for the Kuwaiti people, the Islamic and Arab world and people of friendly nations, the Emiri Diwan mourns the death of Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, the emir of Kuwait," his office said.

Flags were flying at half-mast in Kuwait. He had been in hospital in the United States since July following surgery for an unspecified condition in Kuwait that same month.

Sabah's 83-year-old half-brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, was named emir by the country's cabinet in an announcement read out on state television.

Under the Gulf Arab state's constitution the crown prince automatically becomes emir and assumes power after taking oath in parliament, which is scheduled for Wednesday.

A 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 country's Supreme Petroleum Council, which is appointed by the emir.

Sabah helped lead his country out of the ruin of Iraq's 1990 invasion to renewed riches and a Gulf mediator role, first as its top diplomat and later as ruler.

Sheik Sabah sought to balance relations with Kuwait's bigger neighbours — forging the closest ties with Saudi Arabia, rebuilding links with former occupier Iraq and keeping an open dialogue with Iran. He tried to mediate in a Gulf dispute that saw Riyadh and its allies impose a boycott on Qatar.

"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.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres praised the emir as "an extraordinary symbol of wisdom and generosity, a messenger of peace, a bridge builder."

'Dean of Arab diplomacy'

Keenly aware of Kuwait's small size and huge oil wealth, Sabah saw astute diplomacy as crucial to its recovery from Iraq's seven-month occupation, navigating frequent tensions between much larger neighbours Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran.

But he saw his dream of Gulf unity implode after a new generation of hawkish leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates led a boycott of Qatar in mid-2017, shattering the 39-year-old Gulf Co-operation Council bloc he helped build and defend from external threats.

Dubbed the "dean of Arab diplomacy" after four decades as Kuwait's foreign minister, the emir tried up until his death to resolve the row over Qatar that he said left him "bitter."

Sabah let slip in remarks shortly after the embargo that he helped ward off a military attack on Qatar, prompting an angry denial by boycotting states in a rare personal rebuke of him.

Sabah meets at the White House in Washington, D.C., with U.S. President Donald Trump on Sept. 5, 2018. (Alex Edelman/Getty Images)

Sabah kept strong ties with the United States, which led a coalition that ended Iraq's 1990-91 occupation and used Kuwait as a launchpad for the 2003 Iraq invasion. Despite some public unease about rapprochement, in 2012 he visited Iraq to start rebuilding ties with Baghdad.

President Donald Trump earlier this month awarded the U.S. Legion of Merit, Degree Chief Commander, to Sheikh Sabah. The White House said it was the first time the honour has been given since 1991.

Not afraid to criticize Saudis

Sabah pushed back when close ally Riyadh sought greater control over shared oilfields during a September 2018 visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sources familiar with the talks have said. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia finally agreed last December on the shared oilfields, ending a five-year dispute.

A diplomat described Kuwait's ties with Saudi Arabia, which sheltered the al-Sabah family during the Iraqi occupation, as its closest but most complicated foreign relationship.

"Kuwait does not want to back down on issues of sovereignty," a second source close to the family said.

Sabah is shown hosting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Kuwait on Sept. 30, 2018. (Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Court/Reuters)

He was critical of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen and took a strong stand for Palestinian rights as other Gulf states welcomed Israeli overtures, and, in the case of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, sealed diplomatic accords.

Sabah also diverged from other Gulf leaders in refusing to back Syria's rebel fighters with arms as he believed that would only fuel the conflict there. Instead, he made fundraising for humanitarian aid in Syria one of Kuwait's priorities.

A small figure with a beaming smile and husky voice, his negotiating skills at home were repeatedly put to the test as escalating tensions between his hand-picked government and the elected parliament held up investment and economic reforms.

In a rare interview in 2010, Sheikh Sabah traced Kuwait's political problems back to the constitution, which describes a system that is both presidential and parliamentary.

Illness at the top of the ruling family left Sabah as the de facto policymaker for years before he became emir, chosen as an experienced pair of hands to run the country.

Analysts say parliament's backing for his leadership in 2006 gave him a strong political base. He was active in policymaking and regularly used his executive powers to dissolve parliament, which plays a key role in the succession and has in the past pushed an ailing emir out of office.

Sheik Sabah also broke the hold of opposition groups, both Islamists and liberals, on parliament by using executive powers to amend the voting system in 2012. Kuwaitis angered by the move staged some of the largest marches in the country's history.

Meanwhile, Sabah acted firmly against sectarianism. After an Islamist militant blew himself up in a Shia Muslim mosque in 2015, the emir comforted families, calling the victims "my children."