Death Of Sheik Salem, Beginning Of End Of Era
Reprinted From ‘Arab Times’ (12th October, 2007)
By Amer Al-Hilal
Sheik Salem Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah’s death represents the beginning of an end of an era for Kuwait and its people. Indeed, what moved me about Sheik Salem was his compassion, one of many astonishing qualities that made him an immense leader, but most of all, a genuine human being.
In my humble opinion, when Sheik Salem assumed the hefty mantle of the Chairman of the National Committee for the POWs and Missing Affairs, he truly began to achieve greatness and thereby entered Kuwaiti legend.
In 1993, a colleague from KUNA and I volunteered to join the media team of the National Committee for POW and Missing Affairs. When Sheik Salem heard of our joining the team he personally asked to meet with us, we were led into his office where he warmly welcomed us, spending at least 45 minutes talking about the importance of volunteerism, our roles in the organization, and the POW issue. Here we were, two young volunteers amiably received and treated like professionals; indeed, we left the meeting, pleasantly astounded that Sheik Salem had taken the time out to meet with us. I could not help but be impressed by Sheik Salem’s revealing, warm and candid approach, he had the aura of a father figure; I admit I liked him right away. From behind the scenes, he monitored our work, encouraged our efforts, always generous with praise and acknowledgment.
It was an invaluable period for us, under Sheik Salem’s tutelage we travelled to European destinations highlighting the POW issue, we helped organize the famed yellow-colored media campaigns (“Help Free Our POWS”) we visited homes of the missing, the latter aspect the most emotionally excruciating part of our work, alas this was done on a limited basis. However, Sheik Salem did not have that luxury; on a daily basis he dealt with the emotional rollercoaster of the hurting POW families, as well as juggling POW-related political efforts related to the Red Cross, Arab League and Geneva’s UN Tripartite Commission, not to mention innumerable other governmental tasks. He carried an aching burden on his shoulders; he couldn’t just ‘switch off,’ discarding his duties at work.
At his physical peak, Sheik Salem was a vigorous, handsome gentleman, who could disarm the most cynical of pundits. I saw him weave some of his magic first-hand during a press conference; he called journalists by their first names, briefly joking with them, patiently and assiduously answering questions, they were in the palm of his hand. On a personal level, Sheik Salem possessed a splendid combination of charm, modesty and authority (few Kuwaiti leaders encompass all those qualities). But most of all, we felt like he cared about us, about the POWS, about Kuwaitis, he had an emotional stake in our lives, and we cherished him for it.
I remember his resolute spirit in the face of health issues, specifically his visit to the Embassy of Kuwait in Washington DC during the late 90s (we were serving as diplomats under his brother, Ambassador Sheik Dr. Mohamed Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah -the current Minister of Foreign Affairs). Sheik Salem, accompanied by his private physician, sat with us in the Ambassador’s ‘diwaniya’, recounting the latest developments concerning UN Security Council 686-formed Tripartite Commission – under the auspices of the ICRC (its mandate involved the search for Kuwait POWs) – and Iraq’s continued refusal to cooperate with it. Sheik Salem seemed frustrated, distraught yet hopeful that our POWs would return. During the conversation he stated a line I have never been able to forget to this day: “I would crawl on my knees to Baghdad if I knew it would guarantee the freedom of the POWs.” Remember, we were at the height of animosity between Kuwait and the Iraqi regime; Sheik Salem’s unconventional statement was bitterly honest, straight from the heart and devoid of the usual political rhetoric, and I admired his candor, it renewed my affection and reverence for this gentleman, who defiantly kept clinging on to his responsibilities towards the POWs and their families, even though his health was diminishing by the year.
I believe Sheik Salem’s legacy will be a humanitarian one, on a personal level, his death unnerved me for a variety of reasons, notably he symbolized a fragment of my youth, a period during the early 1990s when young Kuwaitis such as myself – fresh from serving with the American forces in the Gulf War and eager to rebuild Kuwait – worked for men of his caliber, who embraced us in the pursuit of noble, humanitarian ideals; additionally, he represented a special era for Kuwaitis, when the bonds of affection between Ruling Family members and “the people” were at their most potent.
I was distressed by Sheik Salem’s death but also consoled by the fact that he was longer at the mercy of a decade-old health tribulation. Most of all, however, I was soothed by the fact that he passed away on the 27th of Ramadan, surely this was a blessed and holy omen, a testament to an outstanding human being.