The collecting deserves to be mentioned here: not the collection, plenty has been written about that, but the collecting. Other than his family and his ambition for a New Kuwait, this was probably where the best of Nasser was displayed.
He was passionate about the objects and about what they represented; learning from them and sharing that knowledge with anyone who would listen.
His competitive side came out when he set his sights on a specific piece – always with humour, but no less anxious to win. And when he did, the joy and energy he displayed sharing the new acquisition was infectious.
When Nasser began collecting art from the Islamic world as a serious hobby, he spent a lot of time with his neighbour and fellow collector, Jassim al-Humaidi. The pair would gleefully inspect whatever object was a recent purchase; enthusiastically discuss its history, its role in the development of Islamic art, and the stories they were sure the object could tell.
I first came to work for Sheikh Nasser in March 1972 as a temporary secretary in the London office. Two years later I was astonished to be appointed Managing Director. It was quite rare to have young women executives even in British companies, and certainly not expected in an Arab-owned company.
But that was typical of Sheikh Nasser, not recruiting in a more traditional manner when there was already someone who knew the business. I do not believe he ever regretted that decision.
Although perhaps not a natural businessman, Sheikh Nasser's intelligence, intuition, and imagination contributed enormously to the success of the company first founded by his father, the late Emir Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, in the late 1960s, and which he helped to expand from a fairly modest fishing company supplying the local market, into a substantial international enterprise operating around the Gulf, the Red Sea, West Africa and Southeast Asia.
It became the largest shrimp and lobster fishing operation in the world with a fleet of about 400 trawlers and mother ships processing, packing and freezing at sea and supplying markets from Japan to the USA.
At the same time, the company was expanding with a series of companies in Sudan manufacturing glass, pharmaceuticals, crop spraying, mining and sugar production. The most important of these were the textile mills operating hundreds of spinning and weaving machines. Together these operations were the largest employers in Sudan after the Sudanese government.
African contacts led Sheikh Nasser to take an interest in Lonrho, a British based public company specialising in industry and mining in a number of African countries, and in which he eventually became a major shareholder.
The company was also expanding in Kuwait and other Gulf countries, and diversifying into hotel construction, banking and insurance.
In spite of all these activities, Sheikh Nasser still had boundless energy to pursue his many other interests, and principal amongst these was the study and collection of art from the historic Islamic world. Over several decades he and Sheikha Hussah created the largest and most important corpus of this material anywhere in the Gulf region, and with masterpieces to rival any of the great museums of the world. In the last decades, his interests travelled backwards into the ancient cultures of the pre-Islamic world.
Through his deep knowledge and connoisseurship, he was respected and admired by all the great scholars in these fields. A quote from one renowned scholar includes the following:
"Sheikh Nasser was an astonishing phenomenon. As a collector he possessed an enviable constellation of qualities - piercing historical insight, an unerring eye for quality, a sixth sense of what mattered and a sleepless determination to track it down. But he was very much more than a collector. He understood the wider implications of works of art as vehicles and mirrors of culture and civilisation, and he did all he could to make these treasures known to the widest possible public, both in Kuwait itself and abroad. His imaginative sympathy extended across the entire Islamic world, and also embraced the art of the preceding civilisations so that the Islamic objects themselves could be fully contextualised. For the global community of scholars dedicated to the study of Islamic art he has left a wonderful legacy."
The series of catalogues Sheikh Nasser commissioned have subsequently become the standard works for scholars and students.
A constant presence in the international salerooms led to investment in the auction house Christie's, in which Sheikh Nasser was the largest shareholder at one time.
In the early 1980s Sheikh Nasser commissioned The Arabs, a series of ten films on the Arab peoples, their history, religion, science and their place in the then contemporary world. The Arab world has changed so much in the intervening four decades, that these films have now become a valuable research archive.
Sheikh Nasser's disinclination to stay in luxury hotels during constant travel for business, political and cultural pursuits led to another of his hobbies. In any place that he visited frequently he would look for an old house to restore and furnish in traditional style, and which he generously lent to friends and colleagues. I wonder if he knew how many houses he had, spread from the US to Mongolia?
His great love of horses led Sheikh Nasser to breed and race thoroughbreds in the UK. I remember him being shocked to hear that other owners put down healthy mares at the end of their breeding lives. From then on, we were instructed to send all retired horses to Kuwait to live out their natural lives in comfort.
Sheikh Nasser's love of the natural world did, at least on one occasion, even intervene with the purchase of a major Islamic work of art. I had the auction house on one phone and Sheikh Nasser on the other as this important lot came up. As was often the case, I had no idea where he was in the world. As the bidding became critical he suddenly went silent until the lot sold elsewhere. Upon asking what happened, he replied that he was in India, a tiger had walked by and he did not want to disturb it by speaking on the phone!
And we must not forget his love of cooking and entertaining. When he was in the UK, I frequently received instructions to "come to lunch and bring interesting people". When we arrived, he was invariably in the kitchen cooking for us.
Above all, Sheikh Nasser was a perfectly splendid human being, always courteous, always considerate, no matter the status of the person, humourous, cheeky and greatly loved by so many. He was my mentor, support and friend for nearly 50 years.
In the words of our great poet: "He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again"
In addition to contributing to the growth of the collection, the conversations with Hussa laid the foundation for another project that came later: The Arabs.
The Arabs is a series of 10 one hour documentaries produced by Video Arts Television in association with Kufic Films B.V. Nasser was a key figure in the production, contributing to the series concept, outline, and casting.
In truth, the series was a continuation of his quest to understand and share his culture with those less familiar – just in another visual media.
Later, content that he had a firm understanding of Islamic art, Nasser found himself curious about the art that preceded the advent of Islam and thus influenced the evolution of art in the Islamic world.
This led to the acquisition of objects from Late Antiquity, the period of transition and the spread of the religion.
Working backwards, exploration of Late Antiquity was followed by investigations of the contributions of Hellenism as practiced outside of Greece, then the Iron Age in Central Asia and the Bronze Age primarily in Mesopotamia and Bactria-Margiana.
To learn more about The al-Sabah Collection and the activities of the
Dar al-Athar al-islamiyyah, click here
A tribute to honour Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, held at Christie’s Auction House on October 24, 2022
Click on the name of the speaker to listen to his honorary participation for
Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad
There have been more than a hundred masterpieces shown in a special pavilion allocated by the Ministry of Culture of Saudi Arabia for the tribute of the memory of Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, and in appreciation of his achievements.