Queen's reign saw British leave Middle East with a mixed legacy
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The long reign of Queen Elizabeth II saw large swaths of the world cast off London's rule, but after her death a handful of British-installed monarchies still endure in the Middle East.
They have survived decades of war and turmoil and are now seen as bastions of a certain kind of authoritarian stability. When popular uprisings erupted across the region a decade ago in what was known as the Arab Spring, sweeping away regimes with anti-colonial roots, hereditary rulers were largely unscathed.
The days of imperial pomp and gunships may be over, but the region’s emotional and financial ties to England run deep. Emirs, sultans and kings attend the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Gulf Arab sovereign wealth has helped reshaped London’s skyline.
As the son of a British mother, Jordan’s King Abdullah II also has familial and cultural ties to Britain.
Jordan’s ruling Hashemites, who come from the Arabian Peninsula and claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad, launched the revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. They had hoped their wartime alliance with Britain would help secure an independent Arab state across much of the Middle East.
It didn’t work out that way.
Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire after the war, breaking promises and drawing often arbitrary borders that virtually guaranteed decades of conflict in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, as well as Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“There is no question that the two royal families have enjoyed very strong relations,” former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher said of the the British royals and the Hashemites. “But the relationship has been marred by major issues and turbulent times.”
Abdullah I, the current king's great grandfather, was given Jordan, a swath of desert mainly populated by nomadic Bedouin.
His brother, Faisal, was placed on the throne of Iraq, another new country, assembled from three distinctive Ottoman provinces and loosely based on ancient Mesopotamia.
The British helped establish both kingdoms in an English mold. Jordan got a British-style bureaucracy. In Iraq, a band played “God save the King” at Faisal’s coronation.
Both were buffeted by the wave of Arab nationalism that erupted after World War II. Abdullah was assassinated by a Palestinian nationalist in Jerusalem in 1951, and Iraq’s King Faisal II was deposed and killed in a bloody 1958 coup.
Egyptian military officers deposed that country’s British-backed monarchy in 1952, and hereditary rulers were later overthrown in Libya and Yemen. All were eventually replaced by homegrown autocrats — many aligned with the West.
But not Jordan.
King Abdullah II, a native English speaker who would fit in at a British army club, and his glamorous wife of Palestinian descent, Queen Rania, today rule an Arab country that has come to be seen as an island of stability in a volatile region.
His father, King Hussein, quashed internal threats and survived dozens of plots to kill and overthrow him. His image as a friendly, Western-style monarch in a restive region compelled foreign patrons — first Britain, then the United States — to bankroll the kingdom.
Its modern-day image of stability masks an economy dependent on foreign aid, a conservative culture and popular discontent that occasionally bubbles to the surface.
King Abdullah II often flies to London to "seek advice from the British on this or that issue,” said Labib Kamhawi, a Jordanian political analyst. When the king’s half-sister, Princess Haya, sought legal protection from her ex-husband, the ruler of Dubai, she looked no further than the British capital.
Jordan’s royal court declared a week of mourning after Queen Elizabeth’s death, hailing her as an “iconic leader” and a “beacon of wisdom.”
The response from ordinary people in Jordan — and across the region — was more muted.
Many trace the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Britain’s 1917 Balfour declaration, in which it supported “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
Daoud Kuttab, a prominent Palestinian journalist based in Jordan, said he would have expected Elizabeth's passing to create more debate among Jordanians. “But she became queen in 1952. It’s hard to blame her for the Balfour declaration,” he said.
Iraqis still bitterly recall the British invasion during World War II and many view the 1958 coup that deposed Faisal II with pride. But it ushered in decades of instability, culminating in Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule and wars with his neighbors. The U.S.-led invasion in 2003, in which Britain was a key participant, removed Saddam but plunged Iraq into chaos from which it has yet to fully emerge.
“Installing a monarchy that wasn’t very popular and that was overthrown in 1958 was the ignition for the many problems that the modern Iraqi state has faced,” said Lahib Higel, senior Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Still, Iraqis of a certain age credit Britain with helping to establish education and health systems that were the envy of the region before Saddam’s catastrophic rule. Some Egyptians also look back fondly on their monarchy, whose demise was followed by decades of authoritarian rule and stagnation.
“Especially older Egyptians have this residual admiration for British culture and institutions,” said Egyptian writer Khaled Diab.
Further east, across the glittering cities of the Persian Gulf, British influence remains strong decades after independence. Starting in the 18th century, Gulf emirs came under the protection of the British Empire, which brokered truces between loosely organized tribes.
The discovery of vast oil riches ensured the survival of hereditary rule even after the British withdrew in 1971. Heirs to the tribal leaders today boast second homes in London’s toniest districts and degrees from British universities.
Bahrain was convulsed by a 2011 revolt supported by its Shiite majority against its Sunni monarchy, but there was hardly any sign of unrest in any other Gulf country.
“These Arab monarchies are modern-era creations and they’ve had to create the monarchical myth in a relatively short space of time,” said Christopher Davidson, a fellow at the European Center for International Affairs. "The British royal protocols continue to produce these states with a ready-made blueprint on how to behave and operate.”
After Elizabeth’s death, a video clip from 2015 went viral showing Ali Gomaa, the former grand mufti of Egypt, describing the British queen as a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. Her blood line, he alleged, ran through medieval Muslim Spain.
The claim, which has been made by others but never proven, drew mockery on social media. But some welcomed it as proof of enduring ties.
“There’s this desire to build bridges,” said Diab, the Egyptian writer. “Britain has this residual pull on the Arab imagination.”
Associated Press writer Joseph Krauss in Ottawa, Ontario, contributed to this report.
Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.