A good Kuwaiti friend notified me today that the former Ambassador to the USA and Kuwaiti royal Saud Nasser al-Sabah died over the weekend. He passed away after a valiant battle against cancer. I haven’t seen the former Ambassador in years, but I always thought highly of him, and feel very sad that he has died. My heart goes out to his family. I’d like to share a few of my memories of someone I found to be a true gentleman, and a very kindly human being.
(Above photo: Here I am with the Ambassador and the Crown Prince after arriving in Kuwait City on the FREEDOM FLIGHT)
Like most Americans, the first time I heard of Saud Nasser al-Sabah, Kuwaiti Ambassador in Washington, was in August 1990, a few days after the Iraqi Army invaded Kuwait. Although I had lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for many years, I was in the USA when Iraq invaded their neighbor, and watched the drama unfold with the rest of the world. The youthful looking Ambassador with the very serious persona was being interviewed by nearly every important media outlet in the country.
Since a young age, I was always a news junkie, as well as someone who suffers along with others who are suffering. It was emotional to watch all the human turmoil as terrified people ran away from the a huge military machine wracking havoc on a small and peaceful country. I felt compelled to check out for myself what was happening. After I decided to travel back to the area to interview refugees escaping Kuwait, I thought about how I might win the trust of Kuwaitis and others who had fled the small oil kingdom. After living in the Middle East for nearly twelve years, I knew that few Kuwaitis would feel at ease speaking with a stranger about that day, and how their lives were affected. That’s when I made a quick decision to approach the Kuwaiti Ambassador and ask for a simple piece of paper: a letter from the Kuwaiti government advising citizens that the government had no problem if Kuwaitis told this writer about their personal experiences on the day of the invasion.
And so I called the Kuwaiti Embassy and arranged a meeting with the Ambassador. I was in Washington a few days later. When I told him my plans, that on the way back to Riyadh that I was going to visit London and Cairo for the purpose of interviewing Kuwaiti refugees, the Ambassador didn’t think but a moment before agreeing to prepare a letter for if they wanted to talk, that the Government of Kuwait would like for them to tell Jean Sasson of their experiences on the day of the invasion. There were no guidelines anyone had to follow, but I knew that letter would make any and all Kuwaitis feel more comfortable.
As I observed Saud Nasser al-Sabah, I could easily tell that he was a man who was carrying a terrible weight on his shoulders. As the most senior representative of his government in America, it was up to him to convince the world’s super power that the Iraqi invasion would not be tolerated. Before I left, he surprised me when he told me that he had personal worries. His wife and children had returned to Kuwait the previous week. If memory serves me correctly, I believe that he said one of their children were getting married in Kuwait City and that his wife and daughter had returned to Kuwait, and that he had been set to join them within a few days. Of course, the Iraqi invasion changed the plans of every person living in Kuwait.
And so I left the United States and flew to London, where I went to the Kuwaiti Embassy and started arranging interviews with Kuwaitis who were going in and out of the embassy to sort out documents and papers. While in London I was introduced to Souad al-Sabah, the famous Kuwaiti poet and writer, and the wife of Mubarak the Great’s only surviving son. (Mubarak the Great was the former Emir of Kuwait, and the man who had helped Abdul Aziz al-Sa’ud return to Riyadh and fight to form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. So there is a lot of history between the two countries.) Souad introduced me to other Kuwaiti royals who were in London when the invasion occurred, or who had fled to London after the invasion. It was a most interesting time.
After London, I flew to Cairo where there were a large number of Kuwaiti refugees and all wanted to tell me their spine-tingling stories of escape and rescue. After Cairo, it was back to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where there was great excitement in the air. Kuwaitis and others were fleeing to safety into the desert kingdom. Many of the refugees were women and children who poured across the desert roads. Many vehicles were driven by Kuwaiti women, a situation which created as much of an uproar as the actual Iraqi invasion. I hung around with Kuwaiti women for nearly a week and got to know so many of their personal stories.
I learned from Kuwaitis that the Kuwaiti Emir, Crown Prince, and other Kuwaiti government officials had set up their government in Taif. The Kuwaiti Ambassador to Saudi Arabia gave me the telephone number and told me to call them.
I was staying with my ex-husband Peter and his wife, Julie, in Riyadh, so I used their phone to call the Kuwaiti government offices in Taif. I was caught off-guard when the Minister of Information personally answered the phone number I had been given. After I got over the shock that the Minister was answering phones, I told him that I wanted to interview the Emir and the Crown Prince, he surprised me even more when he said, “Yes. Of course. We will send a plane to get you!”
I told the Minister that I didn’t need a private plane ride, but instead I would book a commercial flight from Riyadh to Taif. I arrived the following morning to be met by a young and handsome Kuwaiti man who said he was my driver to take me to the government offices for my interviews. That young man had personality plus. Along the way he kept repeating that he wanted to be in my book and told me that he would tell me his story if I wanted it. With my mind on the Emir and Crown Prince, I smiled and said, “Maybe.” Years later when I went to visit the new Kuwaiti Ambassador in Washington, I got the shock of my life when the Ambassador asked me, “Do you remember me?” I had to confess that I did not. He replied, “I was your driver when you arrived in Taif to interview the Emir and Crown Prince. I asked you to tell my story and you didn’t.” He laughed, and I laughed, although I admit that I regretted not paying more attention to my “member of the royal family” driver!
After interviewing the Emir and the Crown Prince, I interviewed a few other officials, but left for Riyadh the following day.
I was a little concerned that I would receive queries from Kuwaiti government officials as I wrote the book, but I heard nothing. No one called to asked me the slant my book was taking, or anything about the people I met. From taped interviews, I wrote the book in approximately six to eight weeks and turned it over to my publisher, who was handling all details of printing and publicity.
A week or so after the book was printed, I was listening to a journalist interviewing American and British soldiers based in Saudi Arabia, getting ready to go into Kuwait. A number of those soldiers made the comment that they had no clue what it was they were going to be fighting for.
A week later I was in Washington, DC to get ready for book tour. While there, I called the Kuwaiti Embassy and made an appointment to see the Ambassador once again. I surprised him when I presented him with a copy of my book, THE RAPE OF KUWAIT. His worried look faded and a big smile broke out on his face. He was very happy to see a book that told about the personal sufferings of Kuwaiti citizens and others who had survived the invasion. I’m sure he wanted to give a copy to everyone in Washington, and I can’t blame him. He had a big job to convince the world of the injustice occurring in Kuwait.
While there, I chatted about my trip to interview various Kuwaitis, and at the same time, I related the story of the soldiers who seemed confused as to why they were in the area, waiting to fight. I can’t recall my exact words, but I told the Ambassador, “What a pity they can’t read this book, and all the stories. Then they would know why they are there.”
Obviously my words got the Ambassador to thinking. Before my trip was over, he had asked the publisher to visit him in Washington. That’s when then Ambassador ordered copies of the book to send to Saudi Arabia to be made available to any soldier interested in reading the book.
While the Ambassador seemed relieved that soldiers were gathering in Saudi Arabia to make a military drive into his country to fight the Iraqi army, he repeated more than once his frustration that the Iraqis had been given such a long period of time to leave. I remember his words, “Jean, it is the same as if a bunch of thieves have broken into your home and the police give those thieves a few months to stay there, to decide whether or not to leave! During this time, the Iraqis are robbing Kuwait and Kuwaitis of everything. During this time the Iraqis are killing innocent Kuwaitis.”
He was a man ready for his home to be freed of thieves. I agreed with him completely, and still do.
(Above photo: The Ambassador was right. Kuwait was totally looted. This is the Ambassador in his own home. Nothing was left of the family’s valuables. Most sad of all, all greatly loved pets belonging to all Kuwaitis had been turned out to die.)
THE RAPE OF KUWAIT was a simply written book, telling many compelling human stories of fear and pain and grief. Since my book was the only book that told what happened to people on the day of the invasion, it was warmly received by readers. There were a number of critics, but the most damning critics were those who didn’t believe that America or England or any other country should help the Kuwaitis push back the Iraqis out of their country.
The book was not released until the week of the invasion, so the fact is that my book didn’t convince any government to invade and drive out the Iraqis. That decision had been made by governments in London and Washington and Riyadh long before they knew about the existence of my book.
Once the book was released, I admit that I was not prepared for the number of wild lies told about me, and my book. One columnist reported that I was a hired lobbyist for President George Bush! Another very angry journalist said that the Kuwaitis had paid me one million dollars to write the book! (The Kuwaitis didn’t pay me a single cent, they never offered any money, and I never expected any money. It was all made up angry accusations by journalists who were violently opposed to America going to war for Kuwait.) I was most surprised when I received a call from a friend who had been listening to their favorite NPR program, and I was told that NPR had some wild talking journalist on their show telling exactly how I was paid a million dollars by the Kuwaitis to write the book. Perhaps this journalist had read the false accusations of the first journalist. Of course, NPR didn’t call me so that I could appear on the show and defend myself against such a damning lie.
I was shocked, to say the least. Many media outlets became so bold that they were making up stuff and it got so bad that Ambassador al-Sabah told me that he refused all interviews unless they were broadcast live. Otherwise, reporters twisted everything he said.
Once Kuwait was finally free, I saw the Ambassador on several occasions. There was a huge celebration in New Orleans where we sat and watched a big parade. He told me that night that Americans were lucky to have such a unique country. He said that when he was younger, and before the days he became an Ambassador, that he used to rent a motorhome and he and his friends would drive across the country and park their motorhome and get to know the average and normal Americans who were touring their country. He said that those were some of the best days of his life. I was amazed, to tell you the truth, at the joy he found from such a simple pleasure.
Soon after the war was over, the Kuwaiti Embassy arranged a FREEDOM FLIGHT and invited various Washington officials and journalists to go into Kuwait to see for themselves the damage and to hear the stories of survivors. I was happy to be invited.
While on that trip I saw the Ambassador with his wife and daughter. It was clear they were relieved that the country was free once again, although terribly sad at the devastation we all saw. All of us went to the burning oil fields and had difficulty breathing. All of us viewed the vandalized shops and homes. All of us heard Kuwaitis telling about the execution and murders of their loved one.
I’m posting a few photos of that FREEDOM FLIGHT. I have many more, but wanted to post a few of the Ambassador.
These photos are in memory of a man who was once in the middle of a great firestorm that affected nearly the entire world. In my opinion, Sheik Saud Nasser al-Sabah performed his duties with dignity and integrity.
PHOTO TO THE RIGHT: All of us in the touring group were weeping after witnessing the horrific damage to the small country of Kuwait. The oil fires had to be seen, and the foul air tasted to be believed. Such wanton destruction done in the name of revenge because Saddam was not allowed to keep someone else’s country!