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Kuwait's ruler Sheikh Sabah has died at 91

Kuwait's emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, has died, Kuwait's Emiri Court announced on Tuesday. Sheikh Sabah, who had ruled since 2006, was 91.

Before announcing the emir's death, Kuwaiti television cut to Koranic verses, which often signifies the passing of a senior member of the ruling family. 

In recent years, the ailing emir suffered frequent rounds of ill health. Two months ago, President Trump sent a U.S. Air Force C-17 to transport the emir to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where he passed away on Tuesday.

The emir's half-brother and crown prince, 83-year-old Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, is said to be confirmed as the new emir. Sheikh Nawaf has to appoint a successor within a year. 

"The Embassy community wishes to express its deepest condolences to HH the Amir's family and the people of #Kuwait at this difficult time," the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait said in a tweet. "We mourn with you and celebrate the extraordinary life & accomplishments of HH the Amir, who devoted his life to peace & regional stability." 

Saudi Gulf Summit
Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah attends the 40th Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December 2019. Amr Nabil/AP

Prior to becoming the ruler of the small, oil-rich Gulf state, Sheikh Sabah spent decades as a foreign minister and has been credited with shaping Kuwait's foreign policy. 

"What the emir has been trying to do is basically try to undertake a degree of balancing," Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told CBS News. "[Kuwait] can't afford to alienate any of their more powerful neighbors, whether it be Iran or Saudi Arabia or for that matter, Iraq." 

Slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey, Kuwait is strategically nestled on the northern tip of the Persian Gulf amidst three imposing neighbors: Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. According to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the country sits on top of the world's sixth-largest proven oil reserves. In 1991, an international coalition led by the United States launched a war to liberate the country after the seven-month occupation by Iraqi troops of ex-Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein. 

The country's economy is now being challenged by falling oil prices, COVID-19 and rising demand for jobs among locals. A recent World Bank report said "continued drawdowns from the General Reserve Fund for deficit financing have reduced its liquid balances." State coffers are rapidly depleting and can no longer support the generous cradle-to-grave welfare system the 1.3 million Kuwaitis got accustomed to, as well as cushy government jobs for most nationals. 

More immediately, the new emir has an "element to balancing that's very distinctive to Kuwait, which has very active Islamists on both the Shia and some Sunni side liberals, all of them very willing to state their views in the parliament," said Diwan.   

Kuwait's parliament is the only democratic institution among the mostly autocratic Gulf states. The biggest decision the new emir has to make is to appoint a new successor, which will be another delicate act to perform while keeping peace between the two feuding branches of the ruling family. 

Diwan said "in this era now, when there's a lot of value placed on strong leadership and really quick decision-making, that's not really possible in Kuwait." 

The decision, however, will signal the future course of the country.

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