DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Kuwait’s 91-year-old ruling emir landed on Thursday in the United States after being flown across the world in a U.S. Air Force C-17 flying hospital, and just days after undergoing an unspecified surgery at home. The dramatic airlift reflected the close ties between the two nations but also raised concerns over the ruler’s medical condition.
Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah survived the 16-hour trip under the watch of U.S. medical professionals and Kuwaitis, with Kuwait’s state-run news agency KUNA saying Kuwait’s ambassador to the U.S. was at the airport for the plane’s arrival.
Kuwait has not released any information on what medical ailment Sheikh Sabah faces, other than to say he was hospitalized on Saturday and underwent a surgery on Sunday.
His condition has renewed concerns over a possible power struggle within the ruling family of Kuwait, a small Mideast nation home to some of the world’s largest oil reserves. Quranic prayer recitations filled state television and social media, all hoping for his recovery.
KUNA did not say where Sheikh Sabah went in the U.S., though flight-tracking data showed the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III that took off from Kuwait International Airport landed in Rochester, Minnesota, after a brief stopover at Germany’s Ramstein Air Base.
Rochester is home to the flagship campus of the Mayo Clinic, one of America’s best hospitals, and has treated Sheikh Sabah in the past. The Mayo Clinic declined to comment.
The U.S. military uses some C-17s as airborne hospitals for medical evacuations, able to triage critically wounded soldiers while rapidly flying them onto major bases. The aircraft include onboard oxygen and the same lifesaving equipment as found in hospital emergency rooms. The flights often include critical care air transport teams, comprised of a specialized doctor, a nurse and a respiratory therapist.
Asked about the C-17 flight, U.S. Air Force Central Command based in Qatar referred questions to the U.S. military’s Transportation Command, which declined to comment. A U.S. State Department official said America “provided assistance to help with the emir’s treatment,” without elaborating. The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity as the information had not been made public.
A short time after the C-17 landed at Rochester, KUNA announced Sheikh Sabah’s arrival to the U.S.
A Kuwaiti government Airbus A340 that left Kuwait City also landed earlier Thursday in Rochester. That same Airbus had flown to Rochester and New York City before returning to Kuwait just days before Sheikh Sabah’s surgery.
KUNA news agency also earlier quoted a statement from the country’s royal court saying Sheikh Sabah left for America “based on advice from the medical team treating His Highness to complete his treatment after a successful surgical procedure.”
“We ask the Almighty to aid his recovery and sustain His Highness, who is healthy and well taken care of, and to protect him from all harm,” the statement said.
Kuwait earlier said that 83-year-old Crown Prince Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah had assumed some of Sheikh Sabah’s powers temporarily, without explaining why that was necessary.
A copy of the ministerial decree posted by Kuwait’s official gazette, Kuwait Al-Youm, and seen by the AP on Sunday, said the crown prince would be empowered for “the duration of a surgical procedure until the health event is over.”
The decree did not elaborate. Kuwait’s Information Ministry has not responded to requests for comment.
Sheikh Sabah, a widely beloved ruler in this OPEC-member nation, took power in 2006 just nine days into the rule of the ailing Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah. Concerns mounted during Sheikh Saad’s brief reign as he was seen in public only in a wheelchair and did not speak.
However, Sheikh Sabah’s ascension upset an informal power-sharing arrangement between branches of Kuwait’s ruling family. While Kuwait has since remained politically stable with the most empowered parliament of any Gulf Arab nation, there have been internal power struggles behind the scenes of his rule.
Kuwait, a nation home to 4.1 million people that’s slightly smaller than the U.S. state of New Jersey, has the world’s sixth-largest known oil reserves.
It has been a staunch U.S. ally since the 1991 Gulf War expelled the occupying Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein. Today, Kuwait hosts some 13,500 American troops, many at Camp Arifjan south of Kuwait City, which is also home to the forward command of U.S. Army Central. Americans remain beloved by Kuwaitis, a rarity in a Mideast still dealing with the fallout of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sheikh Sabah, a longtime foreign minister for Kuwait, has drawn praise during his rule for hosting donation drives for both war-torn Iraq and Syria. He also has been the lead negotiator in trying to resolve a yearslong boycott of Qatar by four Arab nations over a political dispute.
He previously cancelled a White House visit last November while in the U.S. and visited a hospital there for medical checks.
Associated Press writer Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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