Sheikh Sabah was born in June 1929 in Kuwait, then a British protectorate, the son of the Emir Sheikh Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah.
He attended school in Kuwait and later worked several government posts. After Kuwait gained independence in 1961, he began a four-decade stint as foreign minister that covered the latter half of the emirate’s so-called “golden era”.
Kuwait began developing its oil wealth earlier than some of its neighbours and was known for fast-rising living standards, good universities, fun theatres, a relatively free press, and one of the region’s liveliest parliaments.
According to Clemens Chay, a scholar of Kuwaiti and Gulf politics at the National University of Singapore, Sheikh Sabah was “one of the architects” of the fledgeling Kuwaiti foreign policy and steered a course of “positive neutrality”.
Sheikh Sabah “preferred not to take sides in a world that was under the shadow of the Cold War” between the United States and the Soviet Union, Chay told Al Jazeera.
“Instead, he used Kuwait’s economic leverage and resource wealth to make friends and win the country recognition on the world stage.”
In the early 1970s, regional power Iran revived its territorial claims on Bahrain, which was readying for independence from Britain. Sheikh Sabah helped establish a UN survey that smoothed the island’s path to self-rule, said Chay.
During the tanker war of the 1980s – a spillover of the Iran-Iraq conflict that saw merchant ships attacked – Sheikh Sabah managed to cut deals with the Americans and the Soviets to secure protection for vulnerable vessels in the Gulf, added Chay.
Against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war, Sheikh Sabah was instrumental in the formation in 1981 of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – a bloc of six, booming hydrocarbon-rich Arab states that was designed to boost members’ clout.
After Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Sheikh Sabah played a key role in Kuwait’s government-in-exile in Saudi Arabia, using contacts at the UN and overseas to “rally support for Kuwait’s cause”, said Chay.
Sheikh Sabah spoke of what he called the “excruciating experience” of his homeland being occupied by Iraqi forces. He spent the following years calling for compensation and the return of detainees, hostages and the remains of dead Kuwaitis.
Sheikh Sabah became emir in January 2006 following a power struggle within Kuwait’s ruling family. During his tenure, Kuwait was dogged by royal in-fighting and gridlock and crises in an unruly political system.
He frequently stepped in to dissolve Parliament and reshuffle cabinets. The country of three million people faced unprecedented public dissent in 2011 amid the Arab Spring protests when young Kuwaiti activists and others railed against corruption.
There were gains too. In May 2009, four women won seats in Kuwait’s parliamentary elections for the first time.
Sheikh Sabah won the UN’s “exemplary humanitarian leadership” prize in 2014 for his aid work and for hosting big donor meets. Then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised his “outstanding generosity towards Syrians and Iraqis in need”.
Kuwait’s late ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, an acclaimed diplomat and mediator, was laid to rest on Wednesday, shortly after his half-brother was sworn in as the new emir.