Al Sabah, Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir (1929–)

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Al Sabah, Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir

Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al Sabah is the emir of Kuwait. A senior and long the most powerful member of the ruling family, Shaykh Sabah served as foreign minister (1963–2003) and prime minister (2003–2006) before acceding to the throne as Sabah IV in 2006.


Shaykh Sabah was born in Kuwait on 6 June 1929, the fourth son of the late ruler Ahmad al-Jabir (r.1921–1950), and a brother of Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir (r.1977–2006). Sabah received tutored education at al-Mubarakiyya School during the 1930s. He married Shaykha Fatuwa bint Salman Al Sabah (d.1990), with whom he had three sons and a daughter.

Over the years, Shaykh Sabah served in various government posts, before becoming foreign minister in 1963. He retained this portfolio until 29 January 2006—one of the long service foreign ministers in the world—when he succeeded Shaykh Sa'd al-Abdullah Al Sabah as emir. In addition to his diplomatic mandate, Sabah was named deputy prime minister in 1978, first deputy prime minister in 1992, a member of the Supreme Council of Planning in 1996, and prime minister between 2003 and 2006. His controversial ascendance ended a serious constitutional crisis in January 2006, which was only resolved following intense family negotiations, but with full parliamentary support. Since his accession, significant laws have been adopted, including a law on women's suffrage, a repeal of the law against public gatherings, and a new license law that encourages privately held newspapers and television stations.


Shaykh Sabah's career is intimately tied up with the history of the Al Sabah family in Kuwait. Since 1756, when a Sabah was selected as Utub tribal leader near the northern trading port of Kuwait, all of the emirate's rulers have been members of that family, chosen, with one exception, by family council. The exception was Mubarak al-Kabir (Mubarak the Great), who ruled between 1896 and 1915. His accession was neither by family council nor peaceful. Mubarak gained power by killing his half-brother, then the legitimate ruler. Mubarak opted to rely on Britain—in contrast to his brother's Ottoman preferences—with which he signed the 1899 agreement that made Kuwait a British "protectorate." London retained control over Kuwait's foreign and defense affairs until independence in 1961.


Name: Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al Sabah

Birth: 1929, Kuwait City, Kuwait

Family: Wife, Fatuwa bint Salman Al Sabah (d. 1990); three sons, Nasir (minister of Emiri Diwan [Royal Court], owner of Al Sabah collection of Islamic art), Hamad (head of largest Kuwaiti business conglomerate [Wataniyya Telecom, Burgan Bank, Gulf Insurance, inter alia]), Ahmad (d. 1969); one daughter, Salwa (d. 2002)

Nationality: Kuwaiti

Education: Court and religious education


  • 1954–1955: Member, Central Committee, Municipality Council
  • 1955: Chairman, Social Affairs and Labor Authority
  • 1956: Member, Higher Council of Country Affairs
  • 1956–1962: Chairman, Printing and Publishing Authority
  • 1962: Minister of Information
  • 1963–2003: Foreign minister
  • 1978: Deputy prime minister
  • 1992: First deputy prime minister
  • 1996: Member, Supreme Council of Planning
  • 2003–2006: Prime minister
  • 2006–present: Emir

After Mubarak's reign, the Al Sabah family switched from a lateral succession—one brother replacing another—to a more peaceful system, although not quite a primoge-niture structure. His two eldest sons, Jabir (r.1915–1917) and Salim (r.1917–1921) succeeded him. Salim's successor was Jabir's son, Ahmad (r.1921–1950). In turn, authority reverted to Salim's son, Abdullah (r.1950–65), when Ahmad died. Abdullah bin Salim is widely accepted as the true father of modern Kuwait, for his astute maneuvers to empower Kuwait's leading Al Sabah tribal chieftains, while achieving relative prosperity and political privileges for many. Since 1915, the rotation has functioned well with a single exception in 1965 when Abdullah bin Salim was succeeded by his brother, Sabah al-Salim (r. 1965–1977).

In accordance with the tradition established after the death of Mubarak the Great, and to avoid the Al Sabah family's succumbing to the kind of tribal disputes that often result in death and mayhem after a leadership change, it was decided in 1915 that the throne would continue to alternate between the two branches of the family, although internal disputes continued.

For Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir, the new ruler in 1978, the dilemma was twofold. First, how to contain the ambitions of Jabir Ali al-Salim without infuriating the al-Salims and, second, how to prevent that group from rallying around Jabir Ali precisely to weaken the new ruler. Jabir al-Ahmad passed over Jabir Ali for the critical post of heir apparent, but restored the balance between the two branches of the family when he designated Sa'd al-Abdullah al-Salim Al Sabah for that position, neutralizing the flamboyant Jabir Ali. Henceforth, differences moved to the parliament, the National Assembly, almost always a center of friction in the emirate.

Kuwaiti nationalists made a noticeable comeback between the 1981 and 1985 elections in the context of intensifying regional turmoil. The Al Sabah family made a significant effort to maneuver public opinion toward concern with law-and-order issues, exploiting the series of bombings that rocked the city in 1983 as well as a 1985 assassination attempt on Shaykh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al Sabah, both committed by pro-Iranian Shi'ite groups. At a time when the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–1988 entered a decisive stage, internal security questions remained unanswered, with Iranian-sponsored opposition groups threatening to escalate the level of anti-Kuwaiti violence. These threats culminated in a series of hijackings and other subversive acts that proved to anxious Kuwaiti rulers that anti-Kuwaiti violence existed. The country drifted, and after the government resigned on 1 July 1986, the ruler suspended the National Assembly on 3 July.

Although a crisis in the unofficial stock market, the Suq al-Manakh, and the spillover effects of the Iran-Iraq War prompted the ruler to suspend parliament for the second time in 1986, internal Al Sabah family maneuvers played equally important roles in the suspension. Vociferous debates filled the broadcast and print media as well as most public debates held in Kuwait's famed Diwaniyyas (the emir's informal meetings with members of the public). Almost always opposed to the policies of heir apparent Sa'd al-Abdullah, who represented the al-Salim branch of the family, the al-Jabirs unhesitatingly called for his replacement with the emir's brother and foreign minister, Sabah al-Ahmad. A favorite tactic employed by al-Jabir cronies was to launch accusations of wrongdoing and corruption on Sa'd's allies. In response, the heir apparent traveled for extended periods of time, or simply refused to appear in parliament to defend the government when he was physically in the country.

The 2006 Succession Crisis

Protocol required that once Sa'd was ruler, Shaykh Sabah should be next in line. Yet, this was not certain, for several reasons, including the fact that Shaykh Sabah was not particularly well liked within the family. Many objected to his extensive business interests. Others deplored his lack of political and diplomatic skills, to which they attributed the 1990 Iraqi invasion and subsequent virtual turning over of the country to Western powers. Throughout the 1990s, a growing schism between, on the one hand, a frail ruler, who suffered a stroke in September 2001, and an equally debilitated heir apparent, who most believe suffered from Alzheimer's (although it is impossible to confirm), and on the other hand, a foreign minister allegedly involved in interminable feuds, preoccupied the Kuwaiti intelligentsia. Observers of the boiling Kuwaiti political scene concluded that the triumvirate was weak, with some calling for the selection of someone from the new, though largely inexperienced, generation to take over Kuwait's helm. Most anticipated that the next succession would quickly degenerate into a dangerous crisis that, left unattended, would create considerable difficulties for the Al Sabah family as it maneuvered to preserve its long-term interests.

When Jabir al-Ahmad died on 15 January 2006, the Al Sabah family was mired in confusion. Within a matter of hours, it was announced that the heir apparent had succeeded in a smooth transfer of power. Yet, because the constitution mandates that the emir be sworn in before Parliament, and because the oath of office is a somewhat complex text, it was revealed that the new monarch might not be able to fulfill his constitutional duty in full. An ailing Sa'd al-Abdullah ruled for a mere nine days. Because of his illness, Sa'd could speak, at least for any length of time, only with great difficulty, so it was nearly impossible for him to read the oath of office. Whether some Al Sabah family members goaded leading parliamentarians to dangle the constitution in front of Sa'd so as to corner him into an impossibly embarrassing situation, or whether members of the National Assembly identified Sa'd's debilitated condition as a unique opportunity to assert a parliamentary role in determining the succession, the crisis of January 2006 turned into a rare political spectacle. In the event, the National Assembly embarked on a course intended to depose a monarch, and succeeded.

In fact, the oath issue was a smokescreen because the real disagreement was over the succession, and no clear candidate emerged to be the next in line. It was then that a major coup occurred, as Shaykh Sabah took matters into his own hands. Following intensive negotiations with the al-Salims, who determinedly resisted Sa'd's abdication, the prime minister dangled the National Assembly threat in front of the family council. The Al Sabah family council would either accept the Assembly move to depose the emir, on the grounds that he could not carry out his constitutional duties, or make a decision about the succession. The powerful prime minister underlined the urgency of the matter on 24 January as Assembly members debated the emir's fate. When word reached the palace that the Assembly had scheduled a vote on forcing abdication proceedings, al-Salim holdouts relented. The message reached the National Assembly just as the clerk started his roll call.

On 24 January 2006, Shaykh Sabah acceded to the Kuwaiti throne, swore allegiance to the constitution, and appointed his brother Nawwaf al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al Sabah, minister of interior in the previous government, as heir apparent. The emir also appointed his nephew Nasir Muhammad al-Ahmad Al Sabah, minister of the Emiri Diwan (Royal Court), as prime minister. Simultaneously, he entrusted the critical position of minister of the Emiri Diwan—gatekeeper to the ruler—to his son, nasir al-sabah al-ahmad al sabah.

Nasir al-Sabah, although not chosen as heir in 2006, may well be a potential aspirant to the throne because of his demonstrated interests, his appointment as prime minister and, equally important, significant marital ties: Nasir is married to Hussa bin Sabah, the daughter of Sabah al-Salim, emir between 1965 and 1977. It remains to be determined whether Nasir will eventually want to do the necessary work to succeed—with or without his wife's assistance—or whether he would rather spend his time collecting art (he is the owner of the famed Al Sabah collection of Islamic art) and engaging in philanthropic activities.

On 24 January 2006, the al-Jabir branch held all three senior positions in Kuwait's government: emir, heir apparent, and prime minister. The most prominent al-Salim figure, Shaykh Dr. Muhammad al-Sabah al-Salim Al Sabah, was reconfirmed as foreign minister and made a deputy prime minister, even if under long-standing protocol he should have been elevated to either heirship or premiership.


The ailing Sa'd al-Abdullah Al Sabah ruled for a mere nine days as the emirate averted a major dynastic crisis in 2006. Sa'd was born in 1930 as the eldest son of Abdullah al-Salim Al Sabah (r.1950–1964). After primary and religious education in Kuwait, Sa'd attended Hendon Police Academy in Britain, returning in 1954 to work for his uncle Sabah al-Salim, the head of the nascent Constabulary Force under formation in Kuwait. He assumed the critical deputy commander role under Abdullah bin Mubarak Al Sabah in 1959 and, at independence in 1961, became Chief of Police, then Chief of Public Security in 1962. As Minister of the Interior, his responsibilities expanded considerably only to double in 1964 when he assumed a second portfolio as Minister of Defense. This was a significant concentration of power that was unique in Kuwaiti annals. When Jabir al-Ahmad became emir in 1978, he appointed Sa'd as his heir apparent and as prime minister. Over the years, Sa'd voiced his suspicion of parliamentary life that, in one of the most open Gulf societies, did not endear him to the emirate's articulate population. As age and illnesses took their toll, Sa'd lost some of his penchant for confrontation, preferring long overseas visits to prying in Kuwaiti internal affairs. Because of serious medical problems, however, Shaykh Sa'd's short rule was destined to fail. Although it is impossible to know for sure, Sa'd probably suffered from Alzheimer's or a similarly debilitating disease, which essentially meant that he could only speak, with great difficulty.


As a leading member of the ruling family and the government for more than forty years, Shaykh Sabah was involved in many issues, particularly those involving relations with Iraq, Iran, and the United States, that forged Kuwaiti foreign policy. He was perceived as an ally by many, especially Arab monarchs. Moreover, and because Jabir al-Ahmad was somewhat shy, his brother, Shaykh Sabah, was often the more visible representative of the clan. A staunch supporter of the national assembly, the new ruler conducted Kuwaiti foreign policy for the better part of four decades, certainly in his capacity as Foreign Minister since 1963, but also as official negotiator. In fact, if Abdullah bin Salim is considered the true father of contemporary Kuwait, and his son Sa'd al-Abdullah the liberator after the 1990 Iraqi invasion, then Shaykh Sabah must be deemed the visionary who untangled the emirate's alliances within the Gulf region as well as with Kuwait's powerful foreign patrons, especially the United States. Shaykh Sabah worked on developing the strategic cooperation between the United States and Kuwait in 1987, when a maritime protection regime was implemented to ensure freedom of navigation through the Gulf for eleven Kuwaiti tankers that were reflagged with U.S. markings. He focused on ties with the United States after the 2 August 1990 Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait. Since liberation on 26 February 1991, Kuwait has secured new allies through the world, particularly United Nations (UN) Security Council members, by signing various defense agreements with the United Kingdom, Russia, and France. Ties with key Arab states, including Egypt and Syria, have also been sustained. In exchanged for massive Western assistance, Kuwait authorized the use of its territory before, during, and after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, although the emirate did not forgive previous Iraqi debt. While ties with Baghdad remained difficult, they no longer included the name-calling that was frequent when the Ba'th ruled Baghdad. Likewise, Shaykh Sabah sought to improve ties with Iran, a neighboring power with long-term influence on the emirate even if the latter has remained wary of Iran's hegemonic designs for the entire region.

Domestically, Shaykh Sabah is supportive of women's rights in Kuwait, and was a key player in the 2005 decision to grant women the right to vote. He also is a proponent of economic liberalization and increased foreign investment in the Kuwaiti oil sector.


The dissolution of the Kuwaiti parliament in 2000 and the call for new elections on 3 July 2003 enlivened Kuwaiti politics, although the campaign that followed was dominated by a single item: the ruler's decision to give voting and other political rights to Kuwaiti women. This move was criticized in Islamist circles, leading to countercriticisms from liberal voices, diverting attention from what ailed Kuwaiti politics—the domination of the government by the ruling family. Although the National Assembly had been dissolved over a peripheral issue (a controversy over misprints in the Qur'an), Kuwait's quarrels between cabinets and parliaments have historically focused on the right of elected representatives to question, investigate, and reprimand officials—including those who happen to be members of the ruling Al Sabah family. Since these officials almost invariably include the ministers of foreign affairs, defense, interior, finance, and oil, parliamentary investigation of almost any major issue entails questioning an Al Sabah.

Kuwaitis expected key changes when Shaykh Sabah became heir apparent to the ailing 74-year-old Emir Sa'd Abdullah al-Salim. In the event, no changes were announced. Within a year, however, Kuwait experienced significant changes, with a full-fledged succession crisis in January 2006. Still, the direction Kuwait may go in and who will take it there are difficult to identify. Kuwaiti politics will clearly remain problematic for at least a generation.


For the sake of Kuwait and the future of its people, I urge you to discard your differences and stop accusing anyone without evidence because … this may result in grave consequences…. We must beware of the events going on around us and learn lessons from the country [Iraq] that is hit by conflicts and torn by differences, which have damaged its unity, impoverished its people and threatened its future.



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                                         Joseph Kechichian