Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah Death; Kuwait’s Ruling Emir Passed Away At 86

Dubai, UAE— Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah, 86, Kuwait’s ruling emir, died Saturday after a three-year, low-key reign focused on resolving the tiny, oil-rich nation’s internal political conflicts.

Kuwait state television began airing Quranic verses before a solemn official announced.

“With great sadness and sorrow, we — the Kuwaiti people, the Arab and Islamic nations, and the friendly peoples of the world — mourn the late His Highness the emir, Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, who passed away to his Lord today,” read the brief statement by his minister, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah Al Sabah.

Authorities gave no death cause.

Kuwait’s deputy ruler and half-brother, Sheikh Meshal Al Ahmad Al Jaber, 83, may be the world’s oldest crown prince. He is one of the Gulf Arab countries’ last octogenarian presidents and could control Kuwait.

Sheikh Nawaf was hospitalized in late November for an unknown ailment. Kuwait has been awaiting his health update. State-run news said that he visited the US for various medical examinations in March 2021.

In Kuwait, which borders Iraq and Saudi Arabia and has had power fights behind palace doors, presidents’ health is a sensitive issue.

Sheikh Nawaf’s generation, born before oil converted Kuwait from a trading hub into a petrostate, is vanishing. The Al Sabah is under pressure to pass control on to the next generation as other Gulf Arab governments install younger, more assertive rulers.

King Salman, 87, of Saudi Arabia is said to have delegated daily power to his 38-year-old son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Sheikh Nawaf became emir in 2020 amid the coronavirus epidemic after his predecessor, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, died. Sheikh Sabah, a diplomat and peacemaker, was mourned across the region.

Sheikh Nawaf was Kuwait’s interior and defense minister. His political future was uncertain despite being part of the powerful Al Sabah family. As defense minister, Sheikh Nawaf watched his forces disintegrate quickly during Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion. His wartime decisions were widely criticized.

In a letter to the country’s ruler, Sheikh Nawaf allegedly instructed tank men not to fire on Iraqi soldiers approaching. A motive for the alleged order is unknown. After fighting Iran for years, Iraq’s battle-hardened army easily defeated the country.

In Operation Desert Storm, the U.S.-led multinational force evicted Iraq from Kuwait. Al Sabah never released its invasion-related government policy investigations.

Liberation is our goal. We’ll fix our house when we return, Sheikh Nawaf remarked in 1991. “You must reform yourself and correct previous mistakes.”

After his demotion, he served as National Guard deputy chief for a decade without a Cabinet position. Even after his return, observers saw him as inactive in government, but some Kuwaitis liked his low-key manner and moved on from his wartime performance.

Sheikh Nawaf was an uncontroversial emir, but his age suggested a limited term. He had the third-shortest run as emir since the Al Sabah ruled Kuwait in 1752.

As Kuwait suffered through political problems, he focused on domestic issues including overhauling its welfare system to avoid debt. Despite its vast oil riches, it has little money to pay inflated public sector salaries.

In 2021, Sheikh Nawaf released a long-awaited amnesty proclamation, pardoning and modifying the sentences of roughly three dozen Kuwaiti dissidents to defuse a government stalemate. He issued another immediately before his illness to end the political standoff that led to three legislative elections in Kuwait.

“He earned his title — they call him ‘the emir of pardons,’” said Kuwait University history assistant professor Bader al-Saif. No one in contemporary Kuwaiti history has so openly reached out to the opposite side.”

Kuwait has the Gulf’s most dissenting parliament.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, resumed ties with Doha after years of boycott, reducing regional tensions and allowing Sheikh Nawaf to focus on domestic matters.

British PM Rishi Sunak offered sympathy.

“His Highness was a great friend of the U.K. and we will remember fondly all he did for our bilateral relationship and his work to promote stability in the Middle East,” Sunak said in an office statement.

Kuwait, with 4.2 million people, has the sixth-largest oil reserves in the world.

The 1991 Gulf War made it a loyal U.S. ally. Kuwait is home to 13,500 American troops and the U.S. Army’s Middle East forward headquarters.