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Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah addresses a joint news conference with U.S. President Donald Trump, in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, on Sept. 7, 2017.

KEVIN LAMARQUE/Reuters

Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the emir of Kuwait who steered the tiny oil-rich country on an independent path through the Middle East’s rivalries and feuds for four decades as the country’s foreign minister and then ruler, died on Tuesday. He was 91.

An official statement read on state television announced his death. The emir had undergone surgery and was then flown to the United States for medical treatment in July, according to Kuwait’s state-run news agency, KUNA.

His death is expected to elevate his 82-year-old half-brother, Crown Prince Sheik Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, to Kuwait’s leadership. While the coming emir’s policies were not yet apparent, analysts have predicted that Kuwait would continue to act as a mediator in its turbulent neighbourhood, deftly navigating between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on one side and those Arab states' enemies, Iran and Qatar, on the other.

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A Persian Gulf country of 4.2 million people burrowed between Saudi Arabia to the south and Iraq to the north, Kuwait has the world’s sixth-largest known oil reserves, giving it immense wealth that has granted it a degree of independence from its more powerful neighbours.

Mr. al-Sabah was the architect and often the embodiment of that independent, non-aligned foreign policy.

Kuwait served as a regional go-between in 2014, when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain feuded with Qatar over accusations that Qatar had undermined the other countries' rulers by financing terrorism, meddling in their domestic affairs, funding the Al-Jazeera satellite network and cozying up to Iran.

Despite periods of upheaval, Kuwait has remained politically stable. With an elected parliament, blocs resembling political parties and sometimes vigorous public debate, Kuwaitis can participate in their government to a greater extent than their Gulf Arab neighbours, who are ruled by absolute monarchies.

Mr. al-Sabah was born in Kuwait on June 6, 1929, the fourth son of the emir at the time. His family had ruled Kuwait continuously since the mid-18th century.

Appointed to a government committee at the age of 25, he remained in various government posts until his death. His most significant role before he became emir was as foreign minister, a title he held from 1963 until 2003, when he was named prime minister.

By Kuwaiti tradition, which dictates that the post of emir should alternate between the ruling family’s two branches, Mr. al-Sabah was not supposed to rule. But he was propelled to power in 2006 after a health crisis sidelined his predecessor, Sheik Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, nine days into Saad’s reign. Saad died in 2008 at the age of 78.

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