KUWAIT CITY (AP) – Kuwait’s former emir Sheik Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah, who ruled this small oil-rich ally of Washington for nine days before being removed for ill health, died Tuesday. He was 78.
As crown prince, Sheik Saad automatically became ruler when his distant cousin and then emir, Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah, died Jan. 15, 2006 after 27 years in power. But it became increasingly clear that his poor health would not allow him to carry out his new responsibilities, and he faced immediate calls to step down.
Sheik Saad’s health started deteriorating after he suffered colon bleeding in 1997. When he appeared on television after the death of Sheik Jaber, he was in a wheelchair and could barely shake hands with visitors. He initially resisted calls for his abdication, making it known he wanted to be sworn in as emir. His stance caused a split within the ruling family, prompting behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Finally, Sheik Saad relented, and in a historic vote on Jan. 23, 2006, parliament voted unanimously to remove him from power after hearing medical testimony that he was unable to carry out his duties. Lawmakers then confirmed Jaber’s half-brother, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, as ruler.
It was the first such leadership tussle in Kuwait’s modern history, and citizens accustomed to a smooth transfer of power within the Sabah family expressed relief that the differences had been bridged.
Kuwait’s information minister, Sheik Sabah Al Khaled Al Sabah, read a Cabinet statement on state television late Tuesday saying Sheik Saad “spent his life in the service of Kuwait.” He was “a strong defender of its rights,” Sheik Sabah said.
Government offices will be closed for three days of mourning, starting Wednesday when the former ruler is scheduled to be buried.
Following his removal from office, state media gave Sheik Saad the title “the father emir,” in a sign of respect and recognition. Except for coverage of occasional visits to his palace by the emir, Sheik Saad dropped out of public view following the succession crisis.
Born in 1930, Sheik Saad was the eldest son of Kuwait’s most popular emir, Sheik Abdullah Al Salem Al Sabah, who ruled from 1950 to 1965 and is known as the founder of modern Kuwait. He started his career in the police force after studying at a military college in England. He then served as minister of interior in Kuwait’s first Cabinet, and defense minister until he was chosen to be crown prince and appointed premier in 1978.
When Iraqi tanks rolled across Kuwait’s border and to the capital on Aug. 2, 1990, Sheik Saad realized they intended to occupy the entire country rather than a disputed border area. He drove to the palace of the emir, Sheik Jaber, to ask him to leave Kuwait. He felt the invaders were going to target the seat of leadership.
The emir wanted to stay, but Sheik Saad managed to convince him to flee and they were driven to a police station near the border with Saudi Arabia, then to another on the Saudi side of the desert frontier. “My contacting his highness at those fateful moments and the agreement to leave Dasman Palace were the best and most dangerous decisions of my life,” Sheik Saad was quoted afterward as saying. He told the country’s official news agency that Iraqis attacked the palace about half an hour after the emir left.
When a U.S.-led coalition liberated Kuwait in February 1991, the emir appointed Sheik Saad as martial law governor for three months to control the security situation. But health problems plagued the crown prince and diminished his role in later years. In 1997, he spent seven months abroad for treatment and recuperation from colon bleeding. Six years later, Sheik Jaber replaced him as prime minister, in a break from the tradition that the crown prince heads the government.
While Sheik Saad was prime minister, Westernized liberals criticized him for allying the government with Muslim fundamentalists who seek to fully implement Islamic law. He was also seen as less tolerant of opposition figures than other members of the ruling family. Sheik Saad once stormed out of a parliament session after a lawmaker criticized the government for buying weapons from Russia, which the lawmaker accused of killing Muslims in Chechnya. But Sheik Saad was also seen as sympathetic to the Kuwaiti people. He opposed moves to decrease state benefits citizens have come to expect from their oil-rich government. He also routinely dedicated time to meet with citizens at his home and office to listen to their complaints.