Sheikh Sabah made Kuwait an oasis for reconciliation
On Tuesday, I saw some breaking news on my phone: The TV broadcast in Kuwait had been disrupted to air verses from the Holy Qur’an. News started spreading that the emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, had passed away. This was confirmed later on by Kuwait’s official source, the Emiri Diwan.
The 91-year-old monarch left a rich legacy. He witnessed the independence of his country in 1961, the birth of the Gulf Cooperation Council 20 years later, and the invasion of his country and its liberation, among many other turbulences and events that rocked the region during the course of his long life. He was hailed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “a distinguished statesman and an outstanding humanitarian.” He was the last of the Gulf state builders’ generation to leave us — a titan who will be remembered every time Kuwait or the Arab Gulf is mentioned.
The most important achievement that will mark his legacy is the moderating role Kuwait played during his rule. A patriot with a strong attachment to the Arab nation, he did everything he could to benefit the Arab world. While adopting a policy of neutrality, the attitude of his country never meant isolation or disengagement and never meant pursuing the interests of Kuwait in a selfish manner or from a narrow nationalist perspective. On the contrary, all his policies had the interests of the Gulf and the Arab nation at their heart, starting with his position on the Palestine issue. Senior officials in August declared that Kuwait would be the last country to normalize relations with Israel, reaffirming the emir’s support for the Palestinians.
Two weeks before his departure from this world, while he was in the US receiving treatment, President Donald Trump bestowed a top honor on him for the central role he played in trying to bring Gulf countries together. A seasoned diplomat with 40 years’ experience as a foreign affairs secretary for Kuwait, he was a master of mediation. In fact, standing at an equal distance from all the different parties, his neutrality gave him credibility as an honest broker. Under his leadership, Kuwait became an oasis where warring parties could lay down their arms and enter into constructive discussions under his wise patronage.
Those who criticize Kuwait’s neutrality fail to see the benefits it brings to the Gulf and to the Arab nation, as well as its commitment to Arab solidarity. Despite its neutrality, Kuwait still sent its military to fight the Houthis. Though its force was small in size, the emir did not hesitate to send 15 of his jets to fight as part of the coalition that aims to fend off the threat to the southern borders of Saudi Arabia. Its contribution to the coalition against the Houthis shows how much Kuwait was committed to its Arab neighbors’ security under the leadership of the late emir.
While Arab Gulf countries were alarmed by the warming of relations between Turkey and Kuwait, leading to the signing of a military cooperation agreement in 2019, observers should analyze this rapprochement in the context of the current regional dynamics. The Kuwaiti-Turkish relations never meant Kuwait was siding with Ankara against its fellow Arabs; on the contrary, it meant creating the ground for de-escalation. No one wants a full-blown war, as the various parties know that direct confrontation would be devastating to everyone and there would be little likelihood of any axis prevailing. Hence, the existence of a neutral friend like Kuwait is more important than ever.
The diplomatic windows the late emir opened are much needed in these tense times that the region is witnessing.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Similarly, the cordial relations Kuwait has kept with Iran allowed it to host negotiations with the Houthis, who are sponsored by Iran. Though the negotiations that were initiated in 2016 did not bring an end to the conflict, they created some common ground that can be nurtured and may ultimately lead to a settlement between the warring parties.
The diplomatic windows the late emir opened are much needed in these tense times that the region is witnessing. Sheikh Sabah had credibility and the different parties trusted his wisdom, as well the purity of his intentions. Honoring our beloved titan, those who come after him should preserve his legacy by keeping Kuwait as an active mediator and an honest broker. In his memory, Kuwait should remain an oasis for reconciliation, constructive discussions and conflict resolution. The same way Sheikh Sabah stood tall and firm, held his ground and did not succumb to pressure, his successors should do the same. They must keep Kuwait’s positive neutrality while preserving its commitment to Arab principles.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is the co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building (RCCP), a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.