The ruler of U.S. ally Kuwait, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, died yesterday at the age of 78 after a long illness, and the country's ailing crown prince is set to take over as emir of this major Gulf oil producer.
Crown Prince Sheikh Saad al-Abdulla al-Sabah, 76, is likely to be a figurehead while Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah runs the country - a role he has played over the past four years, analysts said.
Sheikh Jaber, who had ruled since 1977, presided over the rebuilding of this tiny Gulf Arab state after neighbouring Iraq invaded in 1990 and occupied the country for seven months.
He suffered a brain haemorrhage in 2001, limiting his duties in the country which controls about 10 percent of known global oil reserves.
U.S.-led forces drove Iraqi occupation troops from Kuwait in 1991 and used the country as its main staging ground for the 2003 invasion that toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
The ill health of Sheikh Jaber and Sheikh Saad has caused concern at home and abroad over the future leadership of OPEC's fourth biggest producer.
Calls by parliamentarians and members of the opposition for the Kuwaiti government to replace the crown prince and to share power have also clouded the succession process.
Analysts expect the new emir to keep Kuwait's oil policies and pro-Western outlook. There has been no official word on who will take over, but under the constitution it will be Sheikh Saad, who is largely incapacitated by illness.
Kuwaiti oil officials said yesterday the country would stick to its policy of keeping global markets well supplied.
"Kuwait's (oil) policy will not change," an official, who declined to be named, told Reuters by telephone. "The oil sector is running as normal, both production and exports."
Kuwait pumps at around 2.68 million barrels per day.
A royal court statement carried by the state news agency KUNA said: "With the utmost of sorrow and sadness, the (royal court) announces ... the death of His Highness Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah."