The Emir Of Kuwait

Kuwait's third ruler since independence - forced to flee the country ingloriously after the 1990 Iraqi invasion
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The Independent Online

Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, statesman: born Kuwait City 1926; Prime Minister of Kuwait 1965-77; succeeded 1977 as Emir of Kuwait; married (c28 sons, c25 daughters); died Kuwait City 15 January 2006.

Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah became the Emir of Kuwait in 1977. Though he inherited a country smaller than Wales with a population of under one million, his control of its vast oil revenues placed him among the world's richest and most influential figures. Yet he will be remembered as an unfortunate ruler - a ruler in whose reign immense gains were offset by grave internal crises and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that triggered the Gulf war in August 1990.

Sheikh Jaber had more than 50 children and was a direct descendant of nine rulers, including Sabah I, one of Kuwait's founding fathers in the 18th century. A quiet, unpretentious man, he had no appetite for pomp or display; nor did his interests extend beyond Kuwait's narrow limits except in matters involving the oil sector and international finance. Delegating foreign affairs mainly to his half-brother Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed, he concentrated on the intricacies of local politics, mediating his authority largely through his cousin Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Salim al-Sabah, his heir apparent and prime minister and now his successor.

Despite Kuwait's liberal constitution and often rebellious parliament, this sheikhly triumvirate managed to run the country for much of the time as a family fief, relying - like other Gulf monarchies - on the power of wealth and patronage and operating silently in the recesses of their palaces.

Born in 1926, 12 years before the discovery of Kuwaiti oil deposits, Sheikh Jaber was educated by tutors at the local Mubarakiya secondary school. Far more, however, was learned from his father, Sheikh Ahmed, who ruled from 1921 till 1950. In the 1930s Kuwait was an obscure British-protected port and pearling centre that seethed with discontent: pearling was in decline and there was a world economic recession. Though only a boy, he was well aware of the dangers faced by his father at the hands of ambitious relatives and merchants; and to the end of his days he remained always on guard and reluctant to trust others.

His career began in 1949 with his appointment as Chief of Security in Ahmadi, Kuwait's main oil-producing region, named after his father. In the 1950s, when the British and French conspired with Israel in attacking Suez, it took all his ingenuity to appear to be protecting British oil installations from sabotage while at the same time preserving his Arab nationalist credentials.

Versatility and considerable ability, together with the support of his influential mother, Bibi al-Salim, secured his promotion in 1959 to the Finance Department with orders to impose budgetary restrictions on government spending. In doing so he acted boldly, thus ending the careers of his two most extravagant relatives and rivals - Sheikh Fahd al-Salim, who controlled health affairs and public works, and the ultra-flamboyant Sheikh Abdullah Mubarak, who headed Kuwait's nascent army and often served as Deputy Ruler.

After Kuwait gained formal independence from Britain in 1961, Sheikh Jaber served variously as Minister of Finance and Economy, Minister of Finance and Industry, Minister of Commerce and Deputy Prime Minister. Finally, on the accession of his maternal uncle Sheikh Sabah al-Salim, as ruler in 1965, he was appointed Prime Minister and Heir Apparent. Since Sheikh Sabah had poor health and relied heavily on his help, Sheikh Jaber emerged as the leading power in the land 12 years before he became Emir of Kuwait in 1977.

Sheikh Jaber firmly believed in his family's right to rule and often clashed indirectly with members of the National Assembly first established in 1963. The government and the al-Sabah being virtually the same, he tended to regard the deputies' criticisms as attacks on his family. Fearing that the dynasty might fall victim to the forces of liberalism, he frequently ignored Kuwait's constitution and curtailed civil liberties.

At first such measures were widely tolerated. Most citizens regarded him as "the father of the Kuwaiti family", the guarantor of their privileges and identity as true Kuwaitis amid a mass of immigrant workers. By encouraging educational and health facilities, social services and housing, Sheikh Jaber was also seen as a hard-working ruler channelling oil wealth and modernity to the people. Later, in the 1970s, he was credited with the wresting of control of Kuwait's oil resources from the foreign oil companies and widely praised for establishing the Kuwait Fund for Future Generations and the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development.

But none of this earned him deep respect or love, nor did he seem to want popularity or relationships outside his family. Framed official photographs of him hung on walls throughout the land, but he was very rarely seen in person. He was, however, intensely interested in his country and enjoyed keeping up to date with developments by driving around in an inconspicuous car with a headcloth masking his face like a Bedouin to avoid recognition.

Despite the secrecy surrounding his private life, enough was known to suggest failings inappropriate in a head of state. Though he avoided alcohol, ate a simple diet of mainly dates and yoghurt and prayed each day at the appointed prayer times, it was well known that he pursued over many years a remorseless series of brief marriages. There were also stories of corruption in business dealings involving his own vast fortune. These were supported by his evident tolerance of the malpractices that flourished in Kuwait's unofficial stock exchange, the Souk al-Manakh, before it crashed in 1982 leaving a tangled web of debts with an astounding face value of over $90bn.

This disaster projected intense anxiety into thousands of Kuwaiti homes and provoked outrage when it was revealed that Sheikh Jaber's favourite son-in-law and nephew, Sheikh Khalifa Abdullah, who was one of the leading debtors, would not be referred for bankruptcy proceedings.

Criticism also focused on Sheikh Jaber's position during Saddam Hussein's war against Iran which started in 1980. Many Kuwaitis, especially Shias, felt that the long-term Iraqi danger to Kuwait should be given as much weight as the Iranian-Islamist menace. Kuwait, they argued, should honour its avowed neutrality and try to serve both sides as an arbitrator. Instead, Sheikh Jaber's regime extended increasing covert assistance to Iraq. This helped to provoke Iranian attacks on Kuwaiti shipping and the hijacking of Kuwaiti airliners.

Later, some members of Kuwait's Shia community supported the Dawa party and other pro-Iranian elements when civilian targets were blown up inside Kuwait. In May 1985 Sheikh Jaber came one inch from death when a suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into his motorcade - an appalling incident from which he never wholly recovered.

Dissatisfaction with Sheikh Jaber's leadership fuelled demands for the enforcement of the constraints on his powers as stipulated in Kuwait's constitution. In 1988, Sheikh Jaber caused an uproar by rejecting a petition with over 25,000 signatures for the restoration of the National Assembly that he had dissolved two years earlier.

Extraordinary scenes occurred in December 1989 when elegantly dressed, wealthy Kuwaitis amazed even themselves by taking to the streets and bravely demonstrating in the face of riot police armed with tear-gas. Sheikh Jaber and the Heir Apparent and Prime Minister, Sheikh Saad, attempted to head off pressure by announcing as a compromise the formation of a National Council. Though devoid of legislative power and only partly elected, it would, they said, "undertake an evaluation of our parliamentary experience and propose steps for the future march of democracy". Dismissing this as inadequate, almost everyone boycotted the subsequent elections.

Nowhere was Sheikh Jaber's stance more dangerous than in the context of relations with Iraq. After the war with Iran, the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein considered himself the saviour of the whole Arab nation who should be rewarded and helped in reconstructing his war-ravaged country and healing its crippled economy.

Instead of playing for time and treading softly, Sheikh Jaber endorsed Sheikh Saad's policy of refusing to submit to Saddam's increasingly urgent, and later bullying, demands and threats. Probably hoping to benefit from Iraq's post-war exhaustion, they made the cancellation of Iraq's huge war debts conditional upon a prior settlement regarding the ownership of Warbah and Bubiyan islands and of the rich Rumailah oilfield located in the disputed northern territory between the two states.

At the same time Kuwait's decision to increase Kuwaiti oil production beyond its Opec quota provoked Saddam by driving down oil prices just when he desperately needed cash. In short, it should perhaps have come as no surprise that, in August 1990, Saddam finally decided to use his unemployed army to realise a long-standing dream of pouncing on his tiny neighbour and grabbing its fabulous wealth.

When Iraqi tanks streamed across the desert to Kuwait City soon after midnight on 2 August, the Kuwaitis were completely unprepared. Sheikh Jaber had to be plucked out of his Dasman palace. Bundled into an armour-plated Mercedes, he was quickly transported to the safety of Saudi Arabia, where he was soon joined by other Sabah sheikhs and government ministers.

Though the fiasco had damaged Sheikh Jaber's already strained relations with the Saudi monarch, King Fahd, he was allowed to reside comfortably with his entourage in Jeddah and in the summer resort of Taif throughout the crisis. Meanwhile back in Kuwait the citizens, now leaderless, were left to fend for themselves and resist the Iraqi occupation.

With Sheikh Saad presiding over the government-in-exile, Sheikh Jaber became a somewhat pathetic figure - a void at the centre of the whirl of events that were deciding his future. In March, after the liberation of Kuwait by the armies of some 30 countries, he finally returned and ordered a state of emergency with Sheikh Saad as military governor - an alarming decision for the people's delegates, who were eagerly awaiting political reforms promised at a stormy meeting of an interim National Council held in Jeddah the previous October.

Though dissatisfaction and pressure for reform remained strong, there was almost no republican element within the opposition; nor had there been many defections to the Iraqi side during the occupation. Indeed Sheikh Jaber's return was generally, though mutely, welcomed. More conscious than ever before of Kuwait's fragility, even his severest critics acknowledged, albeit reluctantly, that 250 years of continuous leadership had rendered the ruler a vital symbol of their country's sovereignty.

Thus, paradoxically, the al-Sabah emerged from the crisis in a sense stronger than they had been. The right to reign, however, was still not equated with the right to rule; and it was evident to all that, in practical matters, heredity counts as nothing compared to competence.

The final phase of Sheikh Jaber's life began in 1992 when, behind the scenes, the United States government forced the holding of unrigged elections for a fully fledged National Assembly that would ensure the participation of Kuwait's citizens in running the country. From now on Sheikh Jaber's regime found itself on trial as one parliamentary inquiry after another vigorously investigated charges of misjudgement, negligence and embezzlement. One commission established that, during the occupation, at least $500m of public assets had vanished from the Fund for Future Generations. Later, a fact-finding committee confirmed that, even after Iraqi army vehicles had crossed the border, Kuwaiti soldiers remained under orders not to open fire.

Sheikh Jaber now became so rarely seen, so walled about with security, that he was dubbed "the Gulf's answer to Howard Hughes". Apart from ceremonial duties and obligatory visits abroad, he spent his last years at home, watching television, pottering in his rose gardens and dissociating himself from the intrigues and scandals that continued to bedevil Kuwaiti public life. By leaving the government almost entirely in the hands of his close half-brother Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed as, from 2003, Prime Minister, he neglected the problem of his ill-health and, yet more seriously, the debility of the Crown Prince, Sheikh Saad. Thus a succession crisis became his final legacy.

Kuwait now remains as fractured and dependent on external, non-Arab, non-Muslim protection as it was when Sheikh Jaber's great-grandfather Mubarak al-Sabah signed Kuwait's "Treaty of Friendship" with Britain back in 1899.

Alan Rush

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