Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah: Emir of Kuwait for nine days

Thursday 15 May 2008 00:00

Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah served as Emir of Kuwait for less than 10 days in 2006 until his rule was cut short by ill-health. But for years he was a prominent figure in the ruling Sabah family, a man who witnessed the full course of his country's modern history. He was one of the kindest and gentlest of senior Kuwaitis, admired and respected by his people.

Sheikh Saad, the son of the former emir Sheikh Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah, was born in 1930. After receiving a traditional education in Kuwait, he attended a military college in Britain and began a career in Kuwait's police force. He later served as interior minister, before being given the defence portfolio. In 1978 he was named Crown Prince and Prime Minister.

When news broke at the beginning of August 1990 that Saddam Hussain's army had begun an invasion of Kuwait, Sheikh Saad went to the palace of the Emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, and persuaded him to flee the country. Shortly after that the palace was attacked by Iraqi forces. Sheikh Saad and Sheikh Jaber remained in neighbouring Saudi Arabia during the Iraqi occupation and the subsequent Gulf war.

When Kuwait was liberated in February 1991, the two men returned to a country that had, to a great extent, been destroyed by the occupying Iraqi force. At the same time, tension surfaced between those Kuwaitis who had remained during the occupation, and those who had fled. For three months after the liberation, Sheikh Saad served as martial law governor. But the ruling family came under pressure to honour their commitment to allow the return of democracy.

Sheikh Saad formed a new government, but the relationship with parliament was difficult from the first day, and the continuing tussle between the government and ruling family on the one side, and parliament on the other, has caused numerous political crises in Kuwait ever since. The development of these crises coincided with a sharp deterioration in Sheikh Saad's health, forcing him to spend long periods having treatment abroad. He made few public appearances thereafter.

In 2006, Kuwait suffered its most serious political crisis. The death of Sheikh Jaber prompted lengthy and heated discussions within the ruling family about the succession. Many senior family members felt Sheikh Saad was too ill to rule. But his close family and other members of his branch of the Sabah clan insisted that the constitution should be honoured.

As a result, Kuwaitis had to endure the painful and undignified sight of Sheikh Saad taking office while confined to a wheelchair, hardly able to speak or shake hands. Nine days later a special sitting of parliament heard a report on his health. After that, all 49 MPs and 16 cabinet ministers present agreed that he was unfit to rule.

While holding the title of Crown Prince for many years, Sheikh Saad never showed a driving ambition to be head of state, with all the surrounding pomp. He was born in an era when Kuwait was a poor backwater in the Gulf, and Kuwaitis led simple lives. A tall and dignified man, he was happier with the lifestyle of the pre-oil wealth Kuwait than with that of the brash modern world. He craved no riches, and he was as embarrassed as many Kuwaitis were by the way in which some of his closest family members exploited his name to amass fortunes.

Above all, he was kind and generous. "His door was always open," one Kuwaiti close to the ruling family said. "He was always prepared to listen and do what he could to help." Little wonder, then, that Sheikh Saad, dubbed by the media "Father Emir", did not find the sleazy and greedy world of contemporary Kuwaiti politics to his liking.

Gerald Butt

Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, statesman: born 1930; Deputy Chief of Police 1959-61, Chief 1961; Minister of the Interior 1962-78, and of Defence 1964-78; Prime Minister 1978-2003; Crown Prince 1978-2006; Military Governor 1991-92; Emir of Kuwait 2006; married (three daughters, one son, and two daughters deceased); died Kuwait City 13 May 2008.

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