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  • Arthur Kleinman

The death of Kuwait's Sheikh Sabah marks the end of an era


For the Middle East, the current moment is a foreboding one. With a number Arab states riven by conflict – in most cases with sectarian overtones - tensions between the major regional powers are running at historic highs. As a result, the widespread, near-unanimous grievance elicited by the death of Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah last September constituted a rare moment of unity, with leaders from Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and even both sides of Yemen's protracted civil conflict publicly expressing sorrow and lauding the late monarch's achievements. Nevertheless, despite the effusive praise, it would be naive to expect more than a perfunctory effort on the part of regional power brokers to act in the spirit of his legacy and pursue the dialogue and conciliation he championed throughout nearly six decades of public service. 

How was this formidable legacy instituted? Sheikh Sabah was primarily known by international observers for his moderation and diplomatic acumen, having adeptly managed his country’s affairs as a small, affluent petrostate surrounded by larger, more assertive and less wealthy nations. Before ascending to the throne in 2006, Sheikh Sabah spent forty years as the country's foreign minister, and garnered a reputation for deft diplomacy. Most notably, he spearheaded the Gulf states’ rapprochement with Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussein, despite the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces just over a decade earlier. Furthermore, Sheikh Sabah was inter alia renowned for maintaining cordial - if not warm - ties with various mutually hostile regional actors (such as the US and Iran), his proactive efforts in mediating various conflicts (such as the recent Yemeni civil war), and stalwart support for Palestinian statehood.

Despite these myriad achievements, Sheikh Sabah leaves his country in a less than ideal position. Kuwait hasn't been ravaged by COVID-19 to the same extent as some other countries in the region (such as Israel), but the pandemic has nevertheless posed an existential economic challenge for the country's leadership; not only have the effects of restrictions and a generalised slowdown in the global economy taken their toll, but Kuwait is particularly exposed due to its heavy reliance on revenues from oil, the price of which has dropped significantly over the course of the year owing to a pandemic-induced slump in demand. This has left the wealthy petrostate with the largest deficit in its (admittedly brief) history.

The economic setbacks imposed by the pandemic are not to be understated. However, insofar as they pertain to Kuwaiti political decision making specifically, these are for all intents and purposes matter of contingency (though of an uncomfortably existential flavour). On the contrary, recent shifts in Gulf politics are more salient vis-à-vis the actions and legacy of the late Emir. In particular, while the most consequential developments had already been set in motion over the preceding years, Sheikh Sabah's death undeniably marks the formal end of an era marked by consensual diplomacy and relative stability. A cursory look at the current political predicament of the Gulf is sufficient to illustrate this.

Most notably, there is the revisionist poise of Saudi Arabia, which under the tutelage of Mohammed bin Salman - the young, all-powerful Crown Prince characterised by a penchant for the brazen - has aggressively marginalised its ultraconservative clerical establishment and pursued a more active, belligerent foreign policy. The most visceral display of this undoubtedly came in the brutal but slapdash assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country's Istanbul consulate; although taken as an aggregate, the ill-conceived, ill-executed military intervention in Yemen has yielded much greater humanitarian devastation. Furthermore, Riyadh spearheads the regional boycott of Qatar initiated in 2017, which Sheikh Sabah had taken the lead in criticising.

There is also the case of the United Arab Emirates, which in recent years especially has taken bold steps to establish itself as a major regional player, despite having a relatively small geographical footprint and population (only a fraction of which is actually Emirati, the vast majority being constituted by expatriates), a fact which famously led ex-US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis to call the country a "little Sparta". Its unprecedented decision to normalise relations with Israel serves as a case in point, indicating that decades of foreign policy convention are no longer sufficient to deter Abu Dhabi from pursuing its self-determined strategic interests. Not only has Gulf unity been shown to be dispensable for the Emiratis (as evidenced by their backing of the Qatar boycott), but more shockingly, even the traditionally strict alignment on foreign policy with their more powerful Saudi neighbours, as seen in their support earlier this year for Yemen's Southern Transitional Council, a breakaway entity from the Saudi-backed regime under President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. 

How about Qatar, the subject of the boycott? Now an effective persona non grata among the main Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) power brokers (including Riyadh and Abu Dhabi), Doha has increasingly developed a foreign policy of its own, in particular forging closer ties with Turkey to offset its ostracisation by the other Gulf states. This, in turn, has coincided with stauncher support for the Muslim Brotherhood (an organisation spurned by the Saudi and Emirati regimes) and alignment with Ankara against the GCC mainstream on key foreign policy issues, such as the Libyan Civil War. Sheikh Sabah was evidently perturbed by this emergent schism - hence his repeated, impassioned interventions on the matter. 

The main takeaway from these various cases is that the nations of the Gulf are to an unprecedented extent independently determining and pursuing their geopolitical interests, rather than adhering to the traditional model of regional consensus dominated by Saudi Arabia. Kuwait's late Emir was evidently aware of - and dismayed by - these developments. Nevertheless, his efforts were in vain. The political shifts in question exhibit an almost inexorable momentum, and reflect a global trend away from consensual multilateralism. The question facing Kuwait's new leadership going forward is whether they abandon their characteristic restraint, and embrace the new anarchic, belligerent regional order, or carve out a niche for themselves as a conciliatory, conservative actor that remains a flagbearer of geopolitical antiquity? All signs at present point to the latter; Sheikh Sabah's successor as Emir, Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah, has indicated that he intends to maintain continuity in domestic and foreign policy. However, we inhabit a volatile, transitional moment. As such, not even the most apparent political axioms should be taken for granted.

Image - Flickr (Tribes of the World)



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