Kuwait – Will the Kuwaiti Emir’s Death Bring More Turbulent Relations to the Middle East?

Kuwait – Will the Kuwaiti Emir’s Death Bring More Turbulent Relations to the Middle East?

Kuwait’s Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah’s death on the 29th of October 2020 raises questions about the future of diplomatic talks within the region. Celebrated as the “Wise Man of the Region”, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah was pivotal in mediating amid countries in the Middle East. One week before his death, US President Donald Trump gave Sheik Sabah a prestigious award honoring his “tireless mediation of disputes” which re-emphasized the important role Sheik Sabah plays in mediation efforts within the Middle Eastern region. 

Born in 1929, Sheik Sabah is considered the father of modern-day Kuwait’s foreign policy. 

Before his rise to the throne in 2006, Sheik Sabah served as a foreign minister for about forty years. He was the fifteenth commander of Kuwait and a member of the family that has commanded the oil-rich country for over 250 years.  His wisdom helped make Kuwait, a small country with a population of less than five million, an instrumental player in the region. 


Sheik Sabah is widely commemorated as an Arab head of state who navigated his country in a moderate direction in regional and global affairs, advocating for diplomatic, peaceful settlements to disagreements. 

Sheik Sabah was also pivotal in mediating issues within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Notably, his attentive vigilance improved relations with Iraq after the First Gulf War. Sheik Sabah stressed the importance of reconciliation with Iraq and brought about the Kuwaiti verdict to adjourn Iraqi reparations payments in 2014.

Sheik Sabah’s influential character and aspirations also aided his GCC neighbors to approach internal and external problems constructively. He was charged by the GCC leadership to take on Iran and to evaluate the likelihood of minimizing tensions throughout Gulf states.  Sheik Sabah frequently mediated issues among GCC member states and was crucial in bringing Qatar back to the GCC in 2014. Still, disputes between GCC member states persisted and climaxed in 2017, when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates boycotted Qatar both politically and economically. The need to mediate and settle this ongoing dispute, which Sheik Sabah did not manage to do, will therefore be passed on to his successor, Sheik Nawaf.

Will Kuwait persevere in its role as a mediator?

Sheik Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Kuwait’s crown prince, has assumed the role of the succeeding emir. His coming to power sparks concerns over the future of Kuwait’s role as a mediator. Already, the transition of leadership amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, in which Kuwait recorded over  100,000 cases of Coronavirus, will be challenging, but what remains the center of attention is exactly how Sheik Sabah’s death will impact the region’s ability to settle future disputes – given that Sheik Sabah had played such a prominent role in mitigation. 

Experts believe that Nawaf falls short of experience and “positive neutrality” – factors essential to sustain Kuwait’s ability to successfully mediate current disputes and those in the future.  Sheik Nawaf will have to address Kuwait’s longstanding unrest with Iraq along with its proximity to Iran. Elana Delozier, a Gulf specialist at the Washington based Institute for Near East Policy, affirmed that Kuwait’s role as a mediator in the future, under new leadership, is uncertain. Sheik Sabah, along with Sultan Qaboos of Oman, was part of the ‘Old Guard’, a generation that managed foreign policy issues differently than today.  This raises the question of whether the celebrated reputation of mediation is tied to Kuwait as a whole or, more specifically, the late Sheik Sabah. 

The passing of Sheik Sabah also poses worries for Kuwait’s close allies, specifically the United States of America. Kuwait has long been a close ally of the US, even in instances where foreign policy objectives did not coincide. The US has historically relied on Kuwait’s neutrality within GCC disputes and most importantly, Sheik Sabah’s skill in addressing them. Analysts believe that the proximity between both countries will persist, despite the Sheik Sabah’s passing. However, this does not mean that the succeeding Emir will have the same role and influence of the late Emir.

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