Tributes flow for Kuwait's ‘Emir of Humanity’

Sheikh Sabah leaves legacy of leadership, diplomacy and compassion for others

The death of Kuwait’s Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, marks the passing of one of the Arab world’s most influential diplomats and a humanitarian champion.

Sheikh Sabah, 91, who had ruled Kuwait since 2006 and steered its foreign policy for more than 50 years, was a voice for compassion, tolerance and peace in a region often beset by conflict and tensions.

Widely known as the ‘dean of Arab diplomacy’ he played a central and conciliatory role in many disputes, leading by example with his efforts to pursue stability and peace between states.

“Sheikh Sabah epitomised wisdom, tolerance, and peace and he was a great pioneer of Gulf cooperation,” said Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. “He served Kuwait with honour and grace, and his work will never be forgotten.”

As a diplomat, Sheikh Sabah used his status to help mediate on disputes including the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the Lebanese war; the conflict in Syria, the war in Yemen, and the schism between Qatar and other GCC states.

He was also worked tirelessly to build bridges with Iraq and its people, despite his own nation’s troubled history with the country. The emir was a leading voice in calling for international support for the rebuilding of Iraq after the ISIS insurgency and in 2018, he chaired an international donor conference that raised investment and credit pledges exceeding $30bn.

Speaking after his passing, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lauded the emir as “a revered leader and a friend to all nations”. “The United States deeply valued the emir’s strong partnership in promoting regional stability and security,” he said.

Sheikh Sabah’s greatest legacy, however, will arguably be that of his philanthropy. Throughout his life, the emir was an advocate for dignity, peace and prosperity, extending his hand to some of the world’s most vulnerable and needy communities.

Under his leadership, Kuwait became a leading humanitarian actor, galvanising huge financial assistance from around the globe to support relief efforts for Syrian refugees, following the outbreak of civil war in 2011.

At the start of the conflict, Sheikh Sabah took to the international stage, working hard to draw attention to the human cost of the developing conflict. “Extending the term of the crisis increases only its complexity, and doubles human and material losses, wherein the Syrian brothers are the first loser,” he said in a prescient warning to Arab leaders at a 2012 summit in Baghdad. 

One of the first countries in the region to send aid to Syria, Kuwait went on to host three donor conferences - and co-organise a fourth in London – securing billions of dollars of commitments from governments around the world.

To date, Kuwait as a country has provided more $1.3bn to the Syrian response, including major donations to several UN agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

In Jordan, which is hosting more than 650,000 Syrian refugees, Kuwait is the leading funder of UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and remains one of the its largest supporters globally.

Sheikh Sabah at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016.  (Photo by Mehmet Murat Onel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Sheikh Sabah’s generous support for the UN response in Syria and elsewhere blazed a new trail in a region, where governments had traditionally preferred to give bilaterally or fund their own aid efforts, and it paved the way for more co-operative relationships within emergency response.

Ertharin Cousin, the former executive director of the WFP, said Kuwait was a model for the region with its “outstanding support for the people of Syria and more than a million refugees who [had] fled to neighbouring countries.”

Under Sheikh Sabah’s steer, the Kuwait Red Crescent Society (KRCS) also became a major global aid force, responding to emergencies in Iraq, Yemen, Japan, Turkey, the Philippines, and Somalia.

In Palestine, the Gulf state has provided generously to support families both in and outside the occupied country. Between 2013 and 2019, Kuwaiti organisations gave more than $65m to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, enabling the delivery of essential services to some 5.4m Palestine refugees across the Middle East.

In recognition of his humanitarian work, in 2014, the emir was named by the UN as a Global Humanitarian Leader, and Kuwait was designated an International Humanitarian Centre.

“Kuwait has shown exemplary humanitarian leadership in supporting these operations under the compassionate and passionate leadership of His Highness, the Emir,” noted the then-UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon at the time. “Kuwait may be a small country in size, but she has a big and broad and compassionate heart,” he added.

In 2016, aged 87, Sheikh Sabah joined more than 50 heads of state at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, where he spoke passionately to delegates urging them to “define goals, unite efforts and coordinate donations… as challenges are huge and problems facing mankind and the world are serious.”

The emir’s work in the humanitarian space has not only changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world, but also earned him the respect of global statesmen, past and present.

Commenting in 2017, former US President Jimmy Carter described Sheikh Sabah as “a global humanitarian leader” and said: “His support of disaster relief, peace efforts and advancing public health are an inspiration. Other world leaders can learn from the wise example set by my friend.”

On Tuesday, as flags flew at half-mast in Kuwait, media reported the sight of banners reading: ‘Goodbye, Emir of Humanity’ along the capital’s streets.

Born in 1929, Sheikh Sabah was the great-grandson of the founder of modern Kuwait, Mubarak al-Sabah. He died on Tuesday at the Mayo clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he had been undergoing medical treatment. He will be succeeded by his half-brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed.