Jasim al-Sagar

'Opposition' politician in Kuwait
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Jasim Hamad al-Sagar, politician and businessman: born Kuwait City 3 January 1918; married 1945 Fadhila Sayyid Abdul Rahman al-Naqib (four sons, one daughter); died Kuwait City 17 September 2006.

Jasim al-Sagar was one of Kuwait's most respected politicians. A member of an old- established Kuwaiti family, he was an Arab nationalist who devoted his life to advancing political freedom and human rights - a cause involving a tense lifelong relationship with its ruling al-Sabah dynasty. In doing so, he trod the same path as his elder brothers, Abdullah and Abdul-Aziz, and of his father, Hamad, who presided over Kuwait's first Consultative Assembly in 1921.

Born in Kuwait in 1918, al-Sagar attended a local Koranic school before moving to the government's new Ahmadia secondary school in 1929. After his father's death a year later he was educated in Basra in southern Iraq, where his family dominated the date trade as owners of large plantations on the Shatt al-Arab. Each year wooden dhows would sail with cargoes of dates bound for Zanzibar, Aden and British India. In 1943 Jasim graduated from the Law College in Baghdad, becoming the first Kuwaiti to have a university degree.

Jasim al-Sagar's experiences in Iraq marked his whole life. Kuwait's past lay in Arabia, but its future seemed to lie in Iraq, which had been hugely modernised since the establishment there of a British-sponsored kingdom in 1921. After Kuwait, al-Sagar found Iraq's rich cultural and intellectual life highly exciting. The young king, Ghazi I, had been a hero for all young Arabs - a fast-living, avant-garde nationalist who loved baiting the British ambassador and championing the Arab cause and Palestinian rights through personal broadcasts from his private radio station. But in April 1939 he was killed in a suspicious car crash.

Two years later came a further nationalist setback with the failure of an attempt to exploit the Second World War and end British dominance with German help. Notwithstanding, the nationalist spirit remained fervent and throughout his life al-Sagar remained wholly committed to involving his country in a prouder, more united Arab world.

Two specific issues obsessed him. One was the struggle to prevent the take-over of Palestine by Jewish immigrants. Al-Sagar once told me that his earliest thrill was handling the boxes of arms and ammunition that were smuggled to the freedom fighters in Palestine, often under cover of his family's regular business enterprises in Basra.

The other issue lay in Kuwait itself. In the 19th century, the al-Sabahs relied on voluntary payments from the leading traders and pearl merchants, who thus enjoyed great influence. Later, the balance of power shifted as the al-Sabahs cleverly exploited their connections with the Ottomans and then with the British with whom they negotiated important "agreements" between 1899 and 1913 that converted Kuwait into a virtual British protectorate. The striking of oil in 1938 completed the process, since the ruler, Sheikh Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, persuaded the oil companies to direct their payments into his personal accounts. Here then was a situation which leading families, including the al-Sagars, felt bound to challenge.

The confrontation began in 1938 when Jasim al-Sagar's eldest brother, Abdullah, and other leading Kuwaitis demanded that Sheikh Ahmed rule in consultation with the people. The challenge having failed, Jasim, as a leading member of Kuwait's dissident al- Shabiba youth movement, was relieved not to be among those who were cast into a dungeon by the ruler's henchmen. Though Abdullah al-Sagar now left Kuwait for ever, Jasim and his other eminent brother, Abdul-Aziz, accepted the al-Sabah leadership, working within the system as members of a "loyal opposition".

Jasim al-Sagar's later life focused on Kuwait's emergence as an internationally important trading and financial centre. After Kuwait attained full independence from Britain in the reign of Sheikh Ahmed's enlightened successor, Sheikh Abdullah al-Salim al-Sabah, in 1961, he worked with the Planning Council and the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development. He sat on the board of the Kuwait Petroleum Company and the National Bank of Kuwait, and was part-owner of Kuwait's leading newspaper, Al-Qabas. He was also chairman of Kuwait's Foreign Relations Committee and its Legislative Committee.

In the 1970s he returned to the political arena as a deputy in the National Assembly after elections in 1975, 1981 and 1992. Highly principled and self-confident, he supported women's rights and dared stand alone in opposing an Islamist law banning Kuwaiti citizenship to non-Muslims.

After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, he supported his brother Abdul-Aziz in a role resembling that of their father, Hamad, in 1921 when he and other leading Kuwaitis dictated the terms on which they would recognise the accession of Sheikh Ahmed al-Jabir al-Sabah. Seventy years later, having been driven into exile in Saudi Arabia, the ruler, Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmed, was similarly obliged to make promises to secure the continuation of the al-Sabah leadership. It was before that historic conference in Jedda in October that al-Sagar was appointed chairman of its drafting committee.

To the end Jasim al-Sagar supported the Palestinian battle for survival, opposing the normalisation of relations with Israel and demanding the boycotting of Israeli goods. "I've been struggling for Palestine for 60 years and still am," he declared. He left his life-work to his son and successor, Muhammad Jasim al-Sagar, chairman of the Arab Parliament.

Alan Rush