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Crown prince takes the Kuwaiti throne

Country mourns emir, supporter of Iraq invasion

KUWAIT CITY -- Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah, the emir of Kuwait and one of Washington's closest Mideast allies, was buried in an unmarked grave yesterday in a ceremony attended by thousands of weeping citizens.

The crown prince, Sheik Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah -- in his mid-70s and ailing -- 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.

Jaber, who was restored to power by US forces after Saddam Hussein invaded the small, oil-rich country in 1990, was 79 when he died yesterday after 27 years in power. He was one of the few Arab rulers who supported the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 to topple Hussein. Jaber allowed Kuwait to be used as a launching pad for the American drive to Baghdad.

The new emir, who has a colon condition and travels 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 Kuwaiti citizens. Sabah is the former emir's half brother.

Abdul-Rhida Asiri, 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 United States is not likely to change under Saad. Washington named Kuwait a major non-NATO ally in 2004.

Kuwait signed a defense pact with Washington after a US-led coalition fought the 1991 Gulf War that liberated Kuwait from a seven-month occupation under Hussein. The state's strategic significance lies mainly with its oil, the world's 10th-largest reserves.

The Sabah family has ruled Kuwait for more than 250 years, and has the respect and approval of Kuwaitis.

Among the heads of state who arrived to pay their respects were King Abdullah II of Jordan, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, President Jalal Talabani of Iraq, and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said 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 Shi'ite Muslim extremist tried to kill Jaber in a suicide car bombing in May 1985, the emir abruptly changed his habits. He cut down on public appearances.

He had a brain hemorrhage in 2001 and was treated in London. In rare public appearances since then, he had difficulty delivering speeches. The new emir also has not spoken in public in recent years.

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 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 persuade allies to join the international coalition that ultimately forced Hussein's troops out of Kuwait, pressed the ruling family to return some democratic institutions to Kuwait.

Jaber dissolved the legislature again in 1999, saying its members misused their constitutional rights. A new vote was held two months later.

He won praise from human rights activists when he decreed in 1999 that women should have the right to vote and run for office. But conservatives and fundamentalist Muslims kept his decree from being put into action until last May, when the 50-seat house finally approved the legislation.

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