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Last Updated: Sunday, 15 January 2006, 03:57 GMT
Obituary: Sheikh Jaber, Emir of Kuwait

Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah
Sheikh Jaber was a decisive ruler

Like many other Middle East leaders, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah of Kuwait was buffeted by a succession of regional and domestic crises and challenges.

But he survived an assassination attempt and the invasion of his country by Saddam Hussein's army.

Regarded as the quintessential Kuwaiti and a shrewd and astute politician, he was 50 years old and had acquired considerable political experience by the time he became the 13th ruler of Kuwait's Sabah dynasty in 1977.

In effect, Sheikh Jaber had been the real power in Kuwait for several years prior to that because of the poor health of his predecessor, his cousin, Sheikh Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah.

Country transformed

When Kuwait ceased to be a British protectorate and gained full independence in 1961, Sheikh Jaber became the first finance minister of a country whose oil revenues had transformed it from a largely tribal society to a modern, urbanised state with one of the world's largest per capita incomes.

Kuwaiti oilfield
Kuwaiti is rich in oil
In 1965, he was appointed prime minister and, a year later, designated crown prince and heir apparent.

But as emir, Sheikh Jaber led a country that was once described as "too rich for its own good".

With a population of only two million, more than half of them foreigners, it was said to be too weak to defend its frontiers and too self-possessed to tie its future to the policies of other nations.

Assassination attempt

Kuwait did acknowledge responsibilities as a wealthy member of the Arab League - contributing substantial aid to countries in conflict with Israel, partly to placate the large number of Palestinians within its borders.

But Kuwait encountered recurring crises in its relationship with Iran and Iraq and the menace of terrorism.

Kuwait's support of Iraq in its war with Iran in the 1980s subjected it to increasing attacks from pro-Iranian terrorist groups and resulted in the deportation of large numbers of Iranians from Kuwait

The emir himself narrowly escaped death in May 1985, when an Islamic militant drove a car bomb into a royal procession.

Kuwaiti celebrating the tenth anniversary of the liberation
For 10 years Kuwait lived under the shadow of the Iraqi invasion
In 1988, Shia Muslim terrorists hijacked a Kuwait Airways airliner with three members of the royal family among the passengers.

But although two passengers were killed, the Kuwaitis won international praise for refusing the hijackers' demands.

In 1982, however, allegations of corruption involving members of the royal family led to a financial crisis and recession.

Under the 1962 constitution, the emir exercises power through a prime minister and council of ministers he appoints, with legislative power vested in a 50-strong assembly, elected by literate native-born adult males.

Sheikh Jaber proved a decisive leader.

While he was described as "cautious" and "consensus-building", he dissolved the National Assembly in 1986, amid disagreements over its right to question the ability of ministers.

The emir said that state security had been exposed "to a fierce foreign conspiracy, which threatened lives and almost destroyed the wealth of the homeland".

Iraqi invasion

The fear of external intervention became a reality in August 1990, with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Emir Jaber returns to Kuwait
Emir Jaber's emotional return to Kuwait after the Gulf War
Sheikh Jaber fled to Saudi Arabia where, in exile, he gained the support of Kuwait's opposition leaders in return for his agreement to restore the National Assembly.

He kept his part of the bargain when he returned home after Iraq was driven out of Kuwait.

Much of Kuwait's wealth is still concentrated in the hands of the Sabah family and the media is subject to stringent controls.

In 1999, Sheikh Jaber attempted to extend suffrage to Kuwaiti women, but his decree was rejected by the National Assembly.

The emir's death comes at a time when Islam has become the focus of unprecedented world attention, and of tensions within the faith between moderates and extremists.

Sheikh Jaber's successor faces the challenge of continuing Kuwait's difficult balancing act.

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