Al Sabah Family

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The ruling family of Kuwait.

"If the Al Sabah had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent them." This saying, reported by historian Alan Rush, reflects how deeply embedded the family is in the history of Kuwait. This clan has provided all the rulers of the small community since tribes from the Najd district of the Arabian Peninsula collected on the shores of the bay at the far northwest of the Persian Gulf early in the eighteenth century. The family also provided a rallying point for the community some 240 years later, after it was invaded and annexed by Iraq.

Within decades of the original settlement of what is now Kuwait, the Al Sabah were chosen as leaders by community consensus. The ruler was the local administrator of the community and the liaison between it and the shaykh of the Bani Kalid tribe on which Kuwaitis depended for protection. He is chosen by consensus among senior family members rather than acceding through an automatic mechanism like primogeniture.

The first Kuwaiti ruler, Sabah, served from about 1752 to about 1756 and was succeeded by his youngest son, Abdullah, who ruled until 1814. Abdullah was reared to rule in consultation with his relatives and the leaders of the merchant clans who were the main beneficiaries of orderly governance. The primary crises of his reign were the migration of the Al Khalifa, the richest family of Kuwait, to Bahrain, where they became rulers in their own right, and the beginning of what would become a series of wars against the Wahhabi Ikhwan (followers of the family of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the "alShaykh," who ruled in tandem with the al-Saʿud).

Abdullah's son Jabir became amir following Abdullah's death in 1814. He was noted for his charity to the poor and for his political craft. He kept Kuwait on good terms but not aligned with the many rivals whose conflicts beset the region: Britain, the Ottomans, Egypt, and the Al Saʿud. His reign lasted until 1859 and is noted for the prosperity Kuwaitis enjoyed during that time.

Sabah II took power while in his seventies, having served for many years at his father's right hand and accepting most of the community's administrative responsibilities for some five years before his accession. Sabah maintained Kuwait's neutrality during tribal wars between the Al Saʿud and the Ajman and managed to keep the peace with Kuwaiti merchants who threatened to abandon Kuwait if his tax collector was not removed. Like his father, he was known for his charity.

Abdullah II, who ruled until 1892, was forced by Midhat Paşa to relinquish Kuwait's neutrality and become an ally of the Ottomans, thereby averting a war with Turkey and gaining an ally for himself and the merchants. He later accepted the title of quaʾimmaqam and a subvention from the Turkish government. Abdullah was assassinated in 1896, probably by a son of his successor, Mubarak.

Mubarak was the only Kuwaiti ruler to take power through a coup, having masterminded the assassination of two of his brothers, Abdullah II and his close adviser Jarrah. Mubarak's political base lay with the Bedouin tribesmen rather than the merchants, who disliked him for his high-handedness as much as for his high taxes. During Mubarak's rule, a group of merchants left Kuwait for Bahrain and, despite Mubarak's assurances, not all of them returned. Mubarak was a skilled diplomat, taking subventions from the Ottomans and also from the British, whom he persuaded to sign a series of secret agreements guaranteeing protection to Kuwait in exchange for surrender of its foreign policy autonomy and sovereignty over whatever oil reserves it might possess. Mubarak also got the British to agree that only his descendants would be allowed to rule Kuwait in the future, thereby denying the corporate rights of the sons of his brothers and impairing family solidarity.

Mubarak was succeeded by two of his sons, Jabir II (19151917) and Salim (19171921). Jabir was hearty and outgoing and presided over a short, war-fueled economic boom. His untimely death brought his brother Salim, a devout Muslim, to power. Salim wanted the boundaries of Kuwait to be set according to the terms of the unratified AngloTurkish convention, signed in 1913 when his father's authority over neighboring tribes was at its height. The Al Saʿud objected and relations with them deteriorated. Kuwait was attacked by a Wahhabi army under Faysal al-Darwish in 1920. Defeated in the south, the Kuwaitis constructed a wall around Kuwait and Salim led an army to Jahra, successfully heading off the Wahhabi assault.

Jabir's son Ahmad became ruler upon Salim's death in 1921. He agreed to govern with the assistance of a council of notables but once installed never called it into being. Ahmad was ruler when the 1922 Treaty of Uqayr set the boundaries of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. The only ruler who did not have a representative at the conference, he ended with a far smaller Kuwait than his grandfather had envisioned. Ahmad resisted merchant demands to share authority and also refused to provide even minimally for the welfare of the population, moving the merchants to establish newspapers, schools, and, after oil was discovered, a parliament elected from among themselves to write a constitution and pass laws that would force Ahmad to share the income. Ahmad closed the 1938 parliament and its 1939 successor, the latter in a showdown in which one Kuwaiti was killed and after which many went into exile.

Ahmad's successor was Abdullah al-Salim, his cousin, who had been his emissary in negotiations with the 1938 and 1939 parliaments. Abdullah alSalim inaugurated many programs to distribute oil income, not only to his family and their merchant allies but also to the common people. He established hospitals, schools, and housing programs and placed a large, interest-free deposit in the nascent merchant-owned National Bank of Kuwait. Beset throughout his rule by economic corruption within his family, he was forced to borrow money from the merchants to cover state obligations, in return agreeing to keep his family members from competing against them. The most notable accomplishments of Abdullah alSalim's rule were the writing and adoption of a modern constitution and the election of a parliament under its aegis.

Sabah al-Salim III succeeded his brother in 1965 and in 1976 suspended the constitution and the civil liberties it enshrined in an attempt to quash a growing merchant-led opposition from within the parliament to Al Sabah autocracy. Yet most Kuwaitis were satisfied with their social benefits and high living standard. During Sabah's rule, the Reserve Fund for Future Generations was launched. It receives 10 percent of the state's income for investment in blue-chip securities to provide for a post-oil future.

Upon Sabah's greatly mourned death in 1977, his nephew, Jabir al-Ahmad, became ruler of a country undergoing a crisis of legitimacy because of the constitution's suspension. Agreeing to hold elections, he attempted first to amend the constitution and then, when popular opinion turned against this plan, naturalized thousands of Bedouin tribesmen and redistricted the country to make it unlikely that a merchant-led opposition could dominate a reinstated parliament. A growing Islamist movement, encouraged by the ruling family, and candidates who were members of dominant clans and tribes, were heavily represented in the parliament elected in 1981, but its 1985 successor, in which these groups also were heavily represented, proved to be contentious. The amir dismissed the parliament and suspended civil liberties again in 1986, after a crash in oil prices and amid grave doubts that the government could continue to deliver social benefits at established levels. A broad-based movement demanding the restoration of constitutional government swept the country in 1989 and 1990. Jabir al-Ahmad responded by calling for the election of an interim national council that would recommend reforms. Two months after the election, on 2 August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait.

The senior Al Sabah fled into exile but others fought the invaders and served in the resistance. The amir became the focal point of efforts to reclaim the country and was reconciled with the leaders of the opposition, promising a new election for the constitutional National Assembly, not his extra-constitutional substitute, after liberation. That election took place in October 1992, returning a parliament ridden by dissension. Its successor proved even less able to legislate on pressing national issues. In 1999, Jabir alAhmad suspended the 1996 parliament but not the constitution, calling for new elections within the sixty days, as prescribed. Meanwhile, he issued more than sixty decrees, including one that would have enfranchised Kuwaiti women. The parliament elected in July 1999 voted down all but the budgetary decrees, leaving the country bemused by the spectacle of a liberal amir and a conservative parliament.

In 2003, Jabir al-Ahmad was frail and ill and his nominated successor, Crown Prince Abdullah al-Salim, was even less well. Despite his occasional ventures into querulous national politics, the amir is mostly a shadow of the vigorous man he was before an assassination attempt in 1985 initiated his gradual withdrawal from active public life. Still, following the 2003 elections, he initiated the separation of the post of crown prince and prime minister, offering at least the eventual possibility of empowering a parliamentary majority to bring down a government. Meanwhile, within the Al Sabah, barely veiled struggles over the succession were spilling over into national and international politics.

see also al khalifa family; al sabah, mubarak; kuwait; midhat paŞa; muwahhidun.


Anscombe, Frederick F. The Ottoman Gulf: The Creation of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Crystal, Jill. Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Herb, Michael. All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Kostiner, Joseph, ed. Middle East Monarchies: The Challenge of Modernity. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000.

Rush, Alan. Al-Sabah: Genealogy and History of Kuwait's Ruling Family, 17521986. Atlantic Highlands, NJ, and London: Ithaca Press, 1987.

Tétreault, Mary Ann. Stories of Democracy: Politics and Society in Contemporary Kuwait. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Mary Ann TÉtreault