Obituary: Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah

30 September 2020
The Emir’s passing will influence the sensitive relationship Kuwait shared with both its royal palace as well as Middle East governments

Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah of Kuwait passed away on 29 September 2020.

A 40-day mourning period has been announced, and Kuwait's Cabinet later announced that Sheikh Sabah had been succeeded by his brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah.

Sheikh Sabah ruled Kuwait since 2006 and was credited with shaping the country’s foreign policies and maintaining a neutral stance on major issues confronting the region.

His death comes as Kuwait contends with unprecedented economic upheaval on the back of oil price uncertainties and the widespread impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and will notably influence the tenuous three-way relationship between the Kuwaiti government, public and royal palace.

L-R: Sheikh Nawaf with Sheikh Sabah in October 2018

In its April economic outlook, the Washington-based IMF estimated that the country is headed for a fiscal deficit of 11.3 per cent of GDP in 2020, down from a projected surplus of 3.8 per cent of GDP in the IMF’s October 2019 outlook. 

The most obvious means of financing the deficit – by raising public debt – is not the easiest, since Kuwait’s public debt law expired in 2017, and parliament has yet to sign a new bill allowing debt issuance.

Ratings agency Moody’s said earlier this week it expected Kuwait’s long-awaited public debt law to pass in November or December this year through an Amiri decree, given that parliament continued to block its passage.

The government continues to push back against public opinion in some areas, but Covid-19 has provided the impetus for salary reforms aimed at assisting private businesses that would likely have been impossible under normal circumstances.

Sheikh Sabah was viewed as the ideal candidate to lead Kuwait through more such reforms that the country has urgently needed to implement since at least the oil price crash of 2014.

Diplomatic role

Sheikh Sabah’s passing could also cast doubts on Kuwait’s status as an internationally recognised peacemaker that has driven critical regional settlements over the past four decades.

He will be a tough act to follow, particularly as geopolitical tensions run high in the Middle East amid the normalisation of ties between Israel and parts of the Arab world and concerns of renewed conflict in the East Mediterranean.

Sheikh Sabah played a key role as mediator in the ongoing diplomatic conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, travelling to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha to meet with key leaders since tensions emerged in June 2017.

Sheikh Sabah was known for his role as mediator in GCC diplomatic conflicts

His long experience at the highest levels of international diplomacy helped him gain support from global superpowers including the US, the UK, France and Germany, as well as all countries involved in the Gulf diplomatic conflict.

His involvement followed a similar mediation in 2014, when Saudi, UAE and Bahraini envoys were summoned from Doha. Sheikh Sabah helped ensure their return and restore stability to the region.

Humanitarian efforts

Kuwait’s humanitarian efforts expanded globally under Sheikh Sabah’s oversight.

The country’s charitable contributions, in particular to Syria after 2011, led the then United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to name Kuwait “an international humanitarian centre” and Sheikh Sabah a “humanitarian leader” in 2014. 

Kuwait hosted three international humanitarian and donor pledging conferences for Syria between 2013 and 2015, pledging $3.8bn during the period.

The Islamic International Charitable Organization (IICO), one of Kuwait’s oldest and best established transnational agencies, has also set up model villages for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Sheikh Sabah with former president of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, at the third African-Arab Summit

Under Sheikh Sabah, Kuwait has also provided considerable assistance to Africa, hosting the third Arab-African Summit in 2013, where $1bn was allocated from the parastatal Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development to finance development projects in Africa for a period of five years.

An equivalent amount of $1bn was pledged to be invested in Africa by the Kuwait Investment Authority, the world’s oldest sovereign wealth fund. 

Direct Aid, Kuwait’s largest non-governmental organisation (NGO) dedicated to the continent, is active in 30 African countries as well as Yemen. 

The Kuwaiti state is also said to have supported local NGOs to assist Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Nigeria with drought and famine relief.


The fourth son of Emir Ahmed I, Sheikh Sabah was born in 1929.

He was the head of the Al-Sabah family and had ruled Kuwait since January 2006, succeeding Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Salim al-Sabah, who was voted out of power by parliament on health grounds after only nine days in power.

Sheikh Sabah was proclaimed emir and unanimously elected by Kuwait’s parliament, the National Assembly. 

Previously, he had served as prime minister since 2003. 

Sheikh Sabah served in a number of ministerial positions since 1962, when he was appointed as guidance and information minister.

A year later, he was appointed foreign affairs minister, a post he held for nearly 40 years. 

In February 1978, he was also appointed deputy prime minister. Sheikh Sabah served in both positions until 2003. 

He also held the post of information minister from 1982 to 1985. 

Sheikh Sabah was educated at the Mubarakiya School in Kuwait before he joined the royal court.

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