Main Image Credit President Donald J. Trump welcomes the Amir of the State of Kuwait to the White House. Courtesy of the public domain.
The death of Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah after a 14-year reign might have passed under the radar of the casual Middle East observer, but it marks an important milestone in the history of Arab and Gulf affairs.
Sabah represented something of a rarity in today’s highly fractured Middle East. He was universally respected by all he met, and his skilful handling of foreign affairs, being a friend to all but a servant of none, meant that his country was never the target of regional ire. Given the polarised nature of Gulf politics (particularly after the Arab Spring of 2011), this is an impressive achievement, especially given that Kuwait is the most politically liberal and culturally diverse of the Gulf states.
There are many things to admire about his rule. After all, Sabah had to contend with drastic social and political change in his country, and it is often easy to forget that (unlike his fellow Gulf rulers) Sabah did not have the luxury of ignoring domestic politics. Kuwait’s rambunctious and dysfunctional parliament and relatively free press meant that the Emir’s decisions were always in the spotlight, and often subject to fierce criticism. But despite the political turbulence that produced five parliaments in as many years, Sabah remained above the turmoil, maintaining a dignity and respect that others in the royal family were not afforded.
The Leap of Generations
His death leaves a conundrum for the royal family, who have opted to play it safe and forgo the generational shift in leadership in contrast to the states around them. The current Emir, Nawaf al-Ahmad, Sabah’s half-brother, is a sprightly 83, and his Crown Prince Mishaal al-Ahmad is only three years younger. Perhaps the Kuwaitis are stalling for time, wanting to keep politics as stable as possible in an uncertain world that is experiencing rapid changes globally and within the region. This is understandable given the importance of world events, and the severity of the financial problems that Kuwait is currently facing. The need for leadership which at least tacks closely to the institutional line inside the Amiri Diwan serves as a reassurance for the country in uncertain times.
But there are two problems with this understandably cautious line. First, the Kuwaitis are setting themselves up for a power transition that has echoes of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. A rapid fire change of elderly leaderships over the next few years will ultimately destabilise the country, and not provide the sort of consistent leadership that is required to steer Kuwait through a difficult political and economic period in its history. In Saudi Arabia, and Qatar especially (but also in Bahrain and the UAE), the Gulf has shifted to a generation of younger leaders, some of whom are young enough to be the grandchildren of Kuwait’s new Emir. Although Kuwait has never sought to be a regional powerhouse, or been expeditionary in its foreign policy, it is in danger of appearing a regional irrelevance by not taking the risks of its GCC brothers.
Second is the issue of legacy. Sabah had an intangible quality to his leadership that cannot be replaced and he leaves enormous shoes to fill. For all their abilities, neither Nawaf nor Mishaal can match Sabah’s prowess and his presence, and most importantly his drive and determination to ensure the GCC remains a functioning entity. It is a sad fact that Sabah’s life ended with the GCC in deep fracture.
He was deeply pained by the split between Qatar and its neighbours, and since the initial divide opened in 2014 he expended a huge amount of energy mediating between the disputing parties, where he proved successful. In 2017, with the advent of the second, more serious split, Sabah (his health now declining) once again tirelessly pursued a path of mediation, leading from the front when others his age would be seeking a quieter life.
Although the Kuwaiti track has proved to be unsuccessful this time, Sabah’s demise is bad news for GCC relations. The Kuwaiti track was the only game in town, and both the Qataris and the Saudis respected Sabah enough to welcome his ideas and engage with his overtures in a manner that demonstrated their deep respect for the man. Without him, there is no Kuwaiti track, and the possibilities for healing the GCC rift become even more remote. It is a double blow for the Qataris that Sabah’s death occurred so soon after that of Sultan Qaboos of Oman, thereby marking the death of the second GCC leader in less than a year who was at least tolerant of Qatar’s viewpoint, and who sought to strenuously avoid taking sides in the dispute.
It is difficult to know where Gulf politics will head from this point; both Qaboos and Sabah were intimately involved in the creation of the GCC in 1981 and believed to their core in its continued survival. While the Saudis, Emiratis and Qataris may also believe in the GCC, their deep antagonism toward each other after three years of division leaves little hope that the institution can return to being an effective body in the future. The Gulf’s younger rulers, perhaps lacking the oversight of older and wiser heads, appear fixated on narrow state-centric policies that are pursued with little thought as to the impact they might have on their neighbours.
Enoch Powell’s famous adage that ‘all political careers end in failure’ is a sad but probably apt way to describe Sabah’s reign. For all the difficulties he faced at home and which he successfully overcame, it will be his foreign policy legacy that most outside of Kuwait will remember. Sabah’s affable manner and personality-based politics were ultimately not enough to smooth over the deep and irreconcilable divisions that have opened up in the Gulf since the Arab Spring.
Indeed, the more he tried to solve the problem, the weaker his own position became. For all his efforts, it was ultimately under his watch that Kuwait ceased to be an effective mediator, and it is difficult to foresee Kuwait ever regaining its position as a mediator now that he is gone.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.