Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah, the emir of Kuwait and one of the United States’ closest Mideast allies, was buried in an unmarked grave Sunday in a ceremony attended by thousands of weeping citizens who mourned the death of an admired ruler.
The crown prince, Sheik Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah — in his mid-70s and ailing himself — assumed the throne. But he was expected to leave control of day-to-day government affairs to the veteran prime minister, and no major policy shifts were expected.
Sheik Jaber, who was restored to power by American forces after Saddam Hussein invaded the tiny, oil-rich country in 1990, was 79 when he died after 27 years in power. He was one of the few Arab rulers who supported the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam. He allowed his country to be used as a launching pad for the American drive to Baghdad.
The new emir, who suffers from a colon condition and must travel abroad periodically for medical treatment, watched from a wheelchair as the body of his distant cousin, wrapped in a Kuwaiti flag, was carried shoulder-high through a crowd of 10,000 mourners and lowered into the grave after a brief Muslim prayer.
Members of the ruling family, including Prime Minister Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, stood for hours at the Sulaibikat public cemetery to accept condolences from dignitaries and ordinary Kuwaitis. Sheik Sabah is the former emir’s half brother.
Prime minister is ‘de facto ruler’
Abdul-Rhida Asiri, head of the political science department at Kuwait University, said the prime minister will become the “de facto ruler” for now, and the ruling family could make further leadership decisions after the mourning period.
The close alliance with the U.S. is not likely to change under Sheik Saad. Washington named Kuwait a major non-NATO ally in 2004.
Kuwait signed a defense pact with Washington after a U.S.-led coalition fought the 1991 Gulf War that liberated Kuwait from a seven-month Iraqi occupation under Saddam Hussein. The small state’s strategic significance lays mainly with its oil reserves, with some estimates ranking it 5th overall.
The Al Sabah family has ruled Kuwait for more than 250 years, and enjoys the respect and approval of Kuwaitis.
Among the heads of state who arrived to pay their respects were King Abdullah II of Jordan, King Abudullah of Saudi Arabia, Iraqi President Jalal Talbani, and Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Sheik Jaber was a “wise leader.”
Banks, schools, government offices and most businesses were closing for three days. A 40-day period of mourning was announced.
After a Shiite Muslim extremist tried to assassinate Sheik Jaber in a suicide car bombing in May 1985, the emir abruptly changed his habits. He stopped driving his own car to bustling bazaars and cut down on public appearances.
He suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2001 and was treated in London. In rare public appearances since then, he had difficulty delivering speeches. The new emir has not spoken in public in recent years either.
Sheik Jaber, who succeeded his uncle, Sheik Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah, on Dec. 31, 1977, was considered a father figure and a quiet listener who avoided ostentation. His palace in Kuwait City’s Dasman neighborhood near the sea was described as a spacious but ordinary house. He often made a meal of bread and yogurt.
Kuwaitis credit Sheik Jaber with setting up the Fund for Future Generations, a financial safety net drawn from oil revenues for Kuwaitis against the day when the resource is gone. The government spent from it during the Iraqi occupation, but it still is estimated at more than $60 billion.
The late emir dissolved parliament in 1986 for severely criticizing the government. He did not restore it until 1992, a year after Iraqi troops were driven out.
The United States, trying to sell allies on joining the international coalition that ultimately forced Saddam’s troops out of Kuwait, pressed the ruling family to return some democratic institutions to Kuwait.
Sheik Jaber dissolved the legislature again in 1999 saying its members misused their constitutional rights. A new vote was held just two months later.
He won the praise and gratitude of human rights activists when he decreed in 1999 that women should have the right to vote and run for office. However, conservatives and fundamentalist Muslims repeatedly kept his decree from being put into action until last May, when the 50-seat house finally approved the legislation.
The late emir fled Kuwait for Saudi Arabia when Saddam’s armored columns invaded on Aug. 2, 1990, with orders to capture or kill him. He set up a government-in-exile in the Saudi city of Taif and went on Saudi television to urge his people to resist.
According to the constitution, the new emir has up to a year to name a crown prince.