By Sylvia Westall
KUWAIT (Reuters) - He may be 83 years old, but Kuwait's ruling emir remains a well-traveled diplomatic veteran robust enough to have propped up frail foreign leaders at a recent summit and to take center stage in the country's latest political row.
Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah has faced opposition lawmakers keen to question a cabinet dominated by members of his family in a standoff that has blocked economic projects in the major Gulf Arab oil producer.
Kuwaitis vote on December 1 to select a new parliament, the fifth election since Sheikh Sabah came to power but the target of an opposition boycott over changes to voting rules ordered by the emir that were deemed to favor pro-government candidates.
Illness at the top of the ruling family left Sheikh Sabah as the de facto policymaker for years before he became emir, chosen as an experienced pair of hands to run the Gulf Arab country.
"It was very clear at the time that Sheikh Sabah came with a unique sense of legitimacy. That gives him concrete political capital," said Ayham Kamel, Middle East analyst at Eurasia Group.
This was because parliament, not just the ruling family, had a direct role in helping bring Sheikh Sabah to power, Kamel said.
Sheikh Sabah was nominated as ruler in the 250-year-old dynasty after Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah died and his successor Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah was appointed only to be unanimously voted out of office by parliament due to illness.
The gravelly-voiced Sheikh Sabah had a pacemaker installed in 1999 but travels a lot, appears in good health and is said to enjoy fishing. At a recent summit he was filmed holding the arms of senior counterparts as they walked through a palace.
He has been dubbed the "dean of Arab diplomacy" for his work as foreign minister to restore relations with Arab states which backed Baghdad during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, when Kuwait was occupied by Iraqi forces.
Sheikh Sabah has maintained strong ties with the United States, which used Kuwait as the main launchpad for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq which toppled Saddam Hussein.
Since then he has also taken steps to rebuild ties with neighboring Iraq, visiting it in early 2012.
At home, tensions between his government and elected opposition parliamentarians and groups have deepened, however, even if the wealthy country has managed to avoid the kind of mass popular uprising seen elsewhere in the Arab region.
In a speech televised on November 6 after unlicensed protests dispersed with tear gas rocked the country, Sheikh Sabah made clear he was willing to take a firm line to stop rallies spreading into unrest.
"Today we are required to choose between the rule of law and the constitution and stick to it, to the road of safety, or to pursue chaos and infringe on the powers of the responsible constitutional authorities," he said.
Diplomats describe a ruler who sticks resolutely to his decisions in the face of pressure, such as his emergency decree in October to change the voting system.
But at the same time he will adopt a softer approach by meeting with opposition figures to try to ease tensions.
"He is a diplomat to his core," a Kuwait-based diplomat said. "He prefers to avoid confrontation if possible."
One of Sheikh Sabah's biggest challenges came in 2011 during mass protests against his prime minister and nephew, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah.
Sheikh Sabah was keen to keep Sheikh Nasser in power but is believed to have changed his mind when he saw the size of the protesting crowds which had swelled to tens of thousands, diplomats said.
"He makes carefully thought-out decisions and he shows firmness, even with members of his own family," another Kuwait-based diplomat said. "He also knows how to deal with the opposition, biding his time and waiting for their momentum to lose steam."
He has taken an active role in policymaking, rather than delegating and distancing himself from daily politics like some of his predecessors. Analysts say his engagement may have arisen from his previous experience in policymaking roles.
"He doesn't relax, he is very active. He is receiving ministers and undersecretaries every day," said a Kuwaiti political commentator who declined to be named.
Sheikh Sabah has used his executive powers to try to unblock a policymaking deadlock in parliament, dissolving the chamber five times since becoming emir.
He has also shown some liberal tendencies, such as pushing for legislation that gave Kuwaiti women full political rights in 2005, including the right to vote and run for office.
In 2012 he has rejected some proposals originating with mainly Islamist lawmakers, including introducing the death penalty for blasphemy and a plan to amend the constitution to make all legislation comply with Islamic law.
(Editing by Sami Aboudi and Mark Heinrich)