In 1989, shortly before the collapse of the Communist bloc, 310,000 Bulgarian Turks fled their country and entered Turkey. The exodus was considered one of the largest population movements in Europe since World War II. The departure of such a massive number of Bulgarian Turks, almost 20 per cent of the total Bulgarians of Turkish origin, was a result of an aggressive four-year campaign by the Communist regime in Sophia to “culturally assimilate” this minority — they had been forced to take Slavic names, prohibited from speaking Turkish in public and, in some cases, forbidden to practise their religion.
That led to a diplomatic crisis between the two countries which could have resulted in serious consequences, especially after Turkey, a member of the Western alliance of Nato, closed its borders with Bulgaria, a member of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.
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At the height of the crisis, the name of a foreign minister of a small Arab country emerged in the news: Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, the foreign minister Kuwait, who used his diplomatic and negotiation skills to mediate between the two countries.
His efforts led to face-to-face meetings between the foreign ministers of the two sides in Kuwait City. The two countries agreed to de-escalate tension and work toward resolving the issue amicably. This crisis was just one of dozens in the region in which Sheikh Sabah, who died on Tuesday at the age of 91, played the role of the tireless firefighter.
Ever since he assumed the position of foreign minister in 1963, Sheikh Sabah, who later became the emir of Kuwait in 2006, was known as a man of peace, the leader who most Arabs looked to when they needed an advice or an out of the box solution to a regional problem. A veteran diplomat who never shied away from employing his skills and stature to mediate, Sheikh Sabah had this gift which only few leaders possess in today’s world.
Of course, Kuwait’s long-standing policy of ‘positive neutrality’ helped Sheikh Sabah to be looked upon as an honest broker. That policy has been the guiding principle of Kuwaiti foreign policy since the country’s joining the Non-Aligned Movement shortly after the group was established in 1961 by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nasser, Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, Indonesian President Sukarno, and Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito.
Sheikh Sabah, the honest broker, and the respected diplomat, led in February 1974 a ministerial mission to mediate between Pakistan and Bangladesh in the tension that followed Dhaka’s application to become a member of the United Nations. He managed to fly the foreign ministers of the two countries to Kuwait where they met and agreed to establish formal relations. Few months later Bangladesh officially joined the UN.
Four years earlier, he successfully mediated between Jordan and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) following weeks of fierce fighting, which is best known in Arab history as Black September. But his most memorable mediation efforts were in Lebanon during the 1975-1990 civil war. He worked vigorously for years to bring about an end to the shameful chapter of modern history of the Arab world. He also led Kuwait’s key role in Lebanon’s reconstruction after the end of the war.
Architect of Yemen unification
Three months before Iraq invaded Kuwait, Kuwait City was the place from which the long-sought Yemen unification was announced following months of marathon negotiations. Sheikh Sabah was the architect of the agreement, in which the leaders of South Yemen and North Yemen agreed to form a united Yemen Republic on May 22, 1990.
On August 2, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The entire Arab political order was thrown out of gear. Sheikh Sabah meanwhile used all what he had learnt as a diplomat to shore up international support and was key in assembling a global coalition that liberated Kuwait seven months later. Years later, as he became the emir, he oversaw Kuwait’s efforts to reinstate ties with Iraq following the fall of the Saddam Hussain’s regime, although such an initiative was not so popular among Kuwaitis who felt the invasion wounds were still fresh. But Sheikh Sabah recognised the strategic importance of such a move for the long-term stability of the region, particularly the Gulf. He was key in bringing Iraq back from the cold into the Arab fold.
Balanced foreign policy
He believed in a balanced foreign policy. Despite years of Western pressure on his country, during the 1970s and 80s, to sever its ties with the Soviet Union, he refused, preferring a non-aligned policy. Kuwait was then the only Gulf state to have formal relations with Moscow. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that other Gulf countries established diplomatic relations with Russia.
In the past six decades, the Arab world suffered uninterrupted conflicts. Sheikh Sabah was in the midst of these successive crises as the lead negotiator, always the firefighter. He was guided by his faith in the Arabs as one nation. He was a true Arab nationalist who never wavered in his belief that these conflicts were — he was once quoted as saying — merely “quarrels” that happened within every family.
He continued to play the same role until his last working day a few months ago, before he was admitted to hospital. He was preoccupied with the Qatar crisis, leading the efforts to bring about a satisfactory solution to the three-year-old problem, despite his age and illness. With his departure, the Arabs and the world have lost a rare diplomat who gave hope, and brought calm even during the roughest storms that seem to continuously hit our region.