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 might be over, but the region’s emotional and financial ties to the UK run deep. Emirs, sultans and kings attend the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England. Gulf Arab sovereign wealth has helped reshaped London’s skyline. As the son of a British mother, Jordanian 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 Mohammed, 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 did not work out that way.
Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire after the war, breaking promises and drawing often arbitrary borders, which 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 minister of foreign affairs Marwan Muasher said of the British royals and the Hashemites. “But the relationship has been marred by major issues and turbulent times.”
Abdullah I, the Jordanian king’s great grandfather, was given Jordan, a swath of desert mainly populated by nomadic Bedouins.
His brother, Faisal, was placed on the throne of Iraq, another new country, assembled from three Ottoman provinces and loosely based on ancient Mesopotamia.
The British helped establish the two Arab 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 a wave of Arab nationalism that erupted after World War II. Abdullah was assassinated by a Palestinian nationalist in Jerusalem in 1951, and Iraqi King Faisal II was deposed and killed in a bloody 1958 coup.
Egyptian military officers deposed the country’s British-backed monarchy in 1952, and hereditary rulers were later overthrown in Libya and Yemen.
However, not in Jordan.
Abdullah, 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 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.
Abdullah often flies to London to “seek advice from the British on this or that issue,” Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi said.
When the king’s half-sister, Princess Haya, sought legal protection from her ex-husband, the Emirati ruler of Dubai, she looked no further than the British capital.
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 former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule and wars with his neighbors.
The US-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,” International Crisis Group senior Iraq analyst Lahib Higel said.
Further east, across the glittering cities of the Persian Gulf, British influence remains strong decades after independence.
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.”
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