Complex Made Simple

The late Kuwaiti Emir leaves a legendary legacy as moderator, statesman, and humanitarian

Kuwait Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah died at the age of 91. What legacy did he leave behind?

The late Emir was regarded as the architect of modern Kuwait’s foreign policy He was dubbed the "dean of Arab diplomacy" after four decades as Kuwait's foreign minister Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once called the late Kuwaiti Emir “a great humanitarian leader"

Kuwait Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah died at the age of 91.  

The news was received with great sadness locally, regionally, and globally, in recognition of a leader with vision and fortitude to create change and put it into action. 

A leader in Kuwait and the Arab world

The late Kuwaiti Emir was born in 1929 and had served the country’s 4.2 million people for 14 years when he took power in 2006. In 1962, he became minister of guidance and information, a year before being appointed foreign minister, a post he held until he became prime minister in 2003.  

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.


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 terrorism which Doha has denied. 

Throughout the crisis, the statesman Kuwaiti leader acted as a critical mediator, calling for a peaceful resolution of the three-year blockade.

Following his return to Kuwait after medical treatment in the US in 2019, Sheikh Sabah said: “It is no longer acceptable to have an ongoing dispute among our brotherly GCC states. It has weakened our capabilities and undermined our gains.”

Kuwait has maintained relations with both sides of the dispute.

Known for his ability to initiate dialogue and multilateral cooperation, he was dubbed the “dean of Arab diplomacy” after four decades as Kuwait’s foreign minister.

He visited Iraq to start rebuilding ties with Baghdad following the US-led coalition campaign against Saddam’s Iraq.

A September 2018 visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman saw Kuwait and Saudi Arabia finally agree on shared oilfields, last December, ending a five-year dispute over ownership.

Economic and Business leader  

A lingering oil price crisis since March 2020 and the devastating effect of the COVID-19 pandemic have not been kind to Kuwait’s current economic situation.

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% this year.

Kuwait is home to about 8.5% of global oil reserves, according to OPEC. Oil and gas account for about 40% of Kuwait’s economic output and more than 90% of export revenues. 

During his tenure, successive governments fought to support Kuwaitis with generous subsidies and refrained from introducing taxes, but calls for reforms were heard as the tax authorities in Kuwait recently announced that they will finally introduce Value Added Tax (VAT) at 5% from April 1st, 2021.    

Kuwait began developing its oil wealth earlier than some of its neighbors and was known for fast-rising living standards, good universities, fun theaters, a relatively free press, and one of the region’s liveliest parliaments.

The late Emir Sheikh Sabah was “one of the architects” of the Kuwaiti foreign policy and steered a course of “positive neutrality”.

He frequently stepped in to dissolve Parliament and reshuffle cabinets. In May 2009, four women won seats in Kuwait’s parliamentary elections for the first time.

A great humanitarian

The late Emir Sheikh Sabah made fundraising for humanitarian aid in Syria one of Kuwait’s priorities.

In 2013, Kuwait donated over $100 million to support Syrian refugees around the Middle East.

He hosted donor conferences for Iraq, Syria, and other war-torn countries.

Popularly called the “father of humaneness,” he has often been lauded for his humanitarian efforts around the world.

In 2014, then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the late Kuwaiti Emir “a great humanitarian leader.”

Former US President Jimmy Carter also described him as a “global humanitarian leader,” and said that “other world leaders can learn from the wise example set by my friends, His Highness the (Kuwaiti) Emir.”

During his reign, Kuwait became internationally renowned for its charitable efforts and global health initiatives with the World Health Organization (WHO).

In February 2020, Palestinian officials in Gaza named a road after the Kuwaiti Emir for his continuous efforts to support the Palestinian people. 

And just a day after the deadly Beirut port explosion on August 4, Kuwait sent 36 tons of medicine, wheelchairs, baby milk, and blood collection bags to the Lebanese capital.

Succession plans

Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, 83, a half-brother who has served as interior minister and deputy chief of the national guard, has taken over as new Emir of Kuwait. Sheikh Nawaf had been acting emir since Sheikh Sabah left Kuwait for medical treatment in the U.S. where he died Tuesday.