Emir of Kuwait Dies at 79

Sheik Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah, the emir of Kuwait who survived an assassination attempt in the 1980s and a decade later escaped Iraqi troops invading his oil-rich Persian Gulf state, died Sunday, state television announced. The sheik, who had been ailing since suffering a brain hemorrhage five years ago, was 79.

Crown Prince Sheik Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah, a distant cousin chosen by the emir as his heir apparent in 1978, takes over as ruler of the tiny oil-rich country -- a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. He is 75 and has colon problems.

The government announced a 40-day period of mourning and said government offices would be closed for three days beginning Sunday.

There had been speculation among Kuwaitis that the crown prince might give up his position because of poor health, but Prime Minister Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah announced in November that would not happen.

The post of the emir automatically goes to the crown prince, according to the country's 1964 succession law, but it was not clear what the ruling family would decide in the longer term.

Sheik Jaber was a close friend of the United States even before U.S. forces led the fight to liberate his country in 1991. Kuwait served as the major launching point for the U.S.-led invasion 12 years later when American troops drove to Baghdad and toppled Saddam Hussein.

Kuwait has remained reliant on U.S. forces for defense, and the close alliance is likely to continue under Sheik Saad. The Al Sabah family has ruled Kuwait for more than 250 years.

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 did not like traveling abroad, though he went for medical treatment.

He suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2001 and was treated in London. On the rare occasions since then when he appeared in public, he had difficulty delivering speeches.

Sheik Jaber, born in 1926 before Kuwait became rich exporting oil and educated by private tutors in his father's palace, was considered a father figure to many Kuwaitis who generally were fond and respectful of the emir.

Despite the wealth and well-consolidated family rule, Sheik Jaber was considered 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, and bread and yogurt often satisfied him at mealtime.

While in exile in the Saudi resort hotel of Taif, the emir said little and prayed a lot, Ahmed al-Jarrallah, editor of the newspaper Al-Siyassah, wrote. He said the emir was always saying: "I just want a small tent in my country. I don't want palaces or luxury."

Designated crown prince and prime minister in 1965, Sheik Jaber succeeded his uncle, Sheik Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah, as emir on Dec. 31, 1977.

The year before taking over, he set up the Fund for Future Generations -- a financial safety net for Kuwaitis when the oil eventually runs out. To this day, he has ensured 10 percent of oil revenues go into the fund, which has an estimated balance of more than $60 billion.

Before the 1990-91 crisis over the Iraqi invasion, Sheik Jaber and his family presided over an affluent but tightly controlled society. Sheik Jaber 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 Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait, pressed the ruling family to institute or return some democratic institutions to Kuwait.

The emir dissolved parliament again in 1999 saying lawmakers misused their constitutional rights. A new public vote was held just two months later.

Sheik Jaber won the praise and gratitude of human rights activists when he decreed in 1999 that women should have the vote and be eligible to run for office. However, conservatives and fundamentalist Muslims formed a parliamentary alliance that repeatedly kept his decree from being put into practice.

He could have disbanded parliament to press his view, but did not. Six years later, in May 2005, parliament finally approved the legislation supported by the emir.

During Saddam's rule, the Iraqi dictator delivered harsh attacks on Sheik Jaber in an attempt to discredit the ruling family of Kuwait, which Iraq had claimed since the territory's independence from Britain in 1961. He called the emir a "womanizer" who married 40 times.

Saddam described the emirate as a lazy nation languishing in comfort attended by foreign servants. Except when foreign workers fled during the invasion crisis, foreigners in modern Kuwait have outnumbered native. Today, there are about 960,000 Kuwaitis and 1.64 million foreign residents.

Sheik Jaber fled Kuwait when Saddam's armored columns invaded on Aug. 2, 1990, with orders to capture or kill him. He drove to Saudi Arabia, accompanied by most of his estimated 70 children and dozens of senior members of the royal family.

He set up a government-in-exile in Taif and went on Saudi television to urge his people to resist.

Close aides say he denounced Saddam as a criminal and wondered out loud: "Why does this Saddam hate me so much?"

Like other Arab leaders in the Persian Gulf, Sheik Jaber had backed Iraq during its 1980-88 war with Iran.