Kuwaiti emir who fled Iraqi invasion rules through long-dominant family

September 27, 1990|By New York Times News Service

One of the first tasks assigned to Iraqi troops when they invaded Kuwait Aug. 2 was to capture or kill the emir of Kuwait. But, alerted about the invasion, he fled by car to Saudi Arabia minutes before the first Iraqi soldiers entered the grounds of Dasman Palace.

The Iraqis wanted to consolidate their seizure of Kuwait by capturing and probably killing the estimated 1,200 Sabahs who form the vast clan whose name has been associated with the existence of a Kuwaiti entity since the 18th century.

But many members of the family were vacationing abroad, and most of the senior Sabahs in Kuwait, including the crown prince, Sheik Saad Abdallah Salem Sabah, slipped away to Saudi Arabia, where they now live in the resort town of Taif.

As emir since 1978, Sheik Jaber Ahmed Sabah -- who is to meet with President Bush Saturday -- has reigned at the head of this powerful clan. His relatives control all major aspects of government, including security, oil, the economy, information and defense.

The emir had steered his country through difficult years that included the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988 and the spectacular rise and fall of oil revenues in that period.

He refused to yield to Iranian threats, backed by hijackings of Kuwaiti planes and an attempt on his life by pro-Iranian militants, and maintained his financial and moral support of Iraq in its war against Iran.

Playing the United States against the Soviet Union, Kuwait put its oil tankers under the flag of the two superpowers to discourage Iranian attacks.

Once the war was over, however, the emir shut the money tap to Iraq. He gambled, wrongly as it turned out, that Kuwait's skillful diplomacy of playing enemies against each other would save his country from Iraqi demands for money and access to the Persian Gulf through Kuwait.

Although most Kuwaitis do not regard their emir as a brilliant or even exceptional ruler, they do not hold him responsible for any major errors in judgment, and few think he could have done things differently to prevent the invasion by Iraq.

Asked what they thought of him as a person or what they knew about his life, many Kuwaitis seemed to have little to say beyond the fact that he had grown quite aloof since he became emir.

The 64-year-old emir received little formal education. His father pulled him out of school when he was in fifth grade to be trained in governing. He continued his education with private tutors and is not known to have received any university degree.

By all accounts, he is a quiet man who says little in private meetings, even those with heads of state.

Associates say he is a practicing Moslem and a hard worker, who rose with the sun to be driven to his seaside office complex by 8:30 every morning.

He stuck firmly by the Koranic law allowing Moslem men to have as many as four wives but has pushed the edict to its most liberal interpretation, marrying scores of women -- perhaps as many as 40 -- while divorcing others to keep the number of wives always at four. He is said to have fathered more than 70 children.

His personal wealth, managed by Khalid Abu al-Saud, a Palestinian investment banker, ranks him as one of the world's billionaires, bankers say.

Many older Kuwaitis give their emir high marks for his early performance as finance minister in 1963 and as prime minister from 1965. He became crown prince the following year.

He takes credit for adopting, when he was finance minister, a Fund for Future Generations, setting aside part of the country's oil earnings every year for investments abroad. The fund has grown into a huge portfolio of foreign investments estimated today to be worth well over $100 billion, virtually all of it outside Kuwait and away from Iraqi control.

This money, an enormous amount for a country with a native population of no more than 600,000, now constitutes the war chest that largely sustains the Kuwaiti government-in-exile.

Leading Kuwaiti political figures and business people say that while they continue to revere their emir as the only possible ruler of a liberated Kuwait, he must move quickly after the liberation to reduce the influence of the Sabahs in government, which many felt gained alarmingly in the past decade.

In defending the emir, supporters say it was impossible for a tiny country like Kuwait, wedged between huge autocratic nations like Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to carry on with a democratic experience that might provoke those neighbors.

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