Kuwait residents reacted with sadness after the death of Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah at age 91. Earlier this year, the leading figure of the oil-rich Gulf nation flew to the United States to seek medical care following several health tests and treatments in recent years.
“This morning one of my friends told me ‘they took off his ventilator, so it is imminent, pray for him’,” Kuwaiti financial practitioner Issam Altawari told Al Jazeera. “There is a feeling of sorrow,” he said following the announcement of Sabah’s death on Tuesday.
Born in 1929, the late ruler who served as Kuwait’s foreign minister for nearly 40 years took power in 2006. He was regarded as the architect of modern Kuwait’s foreign policy and a respected voice in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region and the broader Middle East.
“Sheikh Sabah was a man of peace known to be a mediator in any conflict in the GCC. It is a big loss to the citizens and expatriates here in Kuwait. He will be missed,” Michelle Fe Santiago, a Filipino journalist based in Kuwait since 1999, told Al Jazeera.
Defender of a united GCC
In June 2017, a coalition of Arab countries led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia imposed a sea, land and air blockade on Qatar, accusing the emirate of backing “terrorists” and forging close ties with Iran. Doha has denied all accusations.
The blockading countries announced a list of 13 demands to end the regional crisis, including shutting down Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera Media Network, cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, closing a Turkish army base in Qatar, and severing all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah.
“We know that not all of these 13 demands are acceptable,” Sheikh Sabah said about requests that would affect Qatar’s sovereignty. Throughout the crisis, the statesman acted as a critical mediator, calling for a peaceful resolution of the three-year blockade.
“He earned Kuwait a reputation as a centrist state in Arab politics,” Clemens Chay, a research fellow at National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera.
Following his return to Kuwait after medical treatment in the US in 2019, Sheikh Sabah said: “It is no longer acceptable nor tolerable to have an ongoing dispute among our brotherly GCC states. It has weakened our capabilities and undermined our gains.”
A French diplomat familiar with Kuwait told Al Jazeera: “Since 2017 Kuwait has engaged in unceasing diplomatic, political, economic and technical efforts to keep alive the multilateral regional framework that was the GCC, despite all the attacks from other regional actors.”
The Qatar-GCC diplomatic crisis still rages on, but the top US diplomat for the Middle East, David Schenker, recently expressed cautious optimism the siege of Qatar by neighbouring Arab states may soon end.
According to the French diplomat, the concept of multilateralism has been engraved in the Kuwaiti identity ever since the 1990-1991 Gulf War and the late Kuwaiti ruler was “one of the last proponents of multilateralism in the Gulf region and across the Middle East”.
New generation of Gulf rulers
On January 10, the GCC’s second defender of regional unity and peaceful dialogue, Oman’s Qaboos bin Said Al Said, passed away at the age of 79.
The loss of the late Omani ruler and Sheikh Sabah, known as the “Wise Man of the Region”, is giving room to a new and more assertive generation of Gulf rulers incarnated by Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
“We see a new era of regional politics for the Gulf,” Chay said.
At a time when the GCC experiences its worst political crisis in decades, the region is left without a regionally respected figure to promote dialogue and multilateral cooperation.
“The GCC has always been at the heart of Kuwait’s policy. I am sure the new emir will follow suit,” Altawari said. He noted the country firmly believes in the GCC as “a concept, as a way forward for Kuwait and the rest of the region”.
The country’s 83-year-old Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah was named the new emir by the country’s cabinet to succeed his half-brother.
“There is no indication a future leadership would want to change Kuwait’s posture,” Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC, who studies Kuwait, told Al Jazeera.
‘People start to get prepare mentally’
The death of Sheikh Sabah comes as Kuwait and the GCC region continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 103,981 people in the country of 4.1 million. The double blow of the health crisis and low oil prices led to an economic downturn.
Earlier this month, Kuwait cut about $3bn from its 2020-2021 budget as the nearly $140bn economy is now facing a $46bn deficit. Deutsche Bank estimates Kuwait’s economy will contract by 7.8 percent this year.
The late emir was cited by the state news agency KUNA as saying: “Kuwait is facing the big and unprecedented challenge of shielding our economy from the external shocks caused by this virus, specifically the decline in oil prices and the value of investments and assets.”
Oil-rich GCC nations have long relied on hydrocarbon revenues to sustain generous social welfare systems and employ a large part of their citizens. Last year oil revenues made up 89 percent of Kuwait’s revenues. As experts forecast a global slow down in oil demand in the coming decades, Gulf nations face the daunting challenge to reinvent their economies.
“People are starting to get prepared mentally, some kind of sacrifices will be needed,” Altawari said.