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Queen Elizabeth II and the whitewashing of empire

An objective view of her reign must separate her personal qualities from the role the monarchy has played in the service of Britain's imperial interests
The late Queen Elizabeth II inspects a military parade during the Sovereign's Parade at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, southern England, 12 April 2006 (AFP)

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth, no one in the established media is taking any chances with the public mood. Public affection for the late queen is not in doubt, and yet BBC journalists are whipping up paroxysms of grief that wouldn't be out of place in North Korea.

The BBC's Johnny Diamond and Nicholas Witchell have wrung out every possible emotive line about the queen's selfless devotion to service and the nation's unending sorrow. Yet an objective view of her reign must separate her personal qualities from the role the monarchy has played in the service of Britain's imperial interests, machinations and crimes over the last 70 years.

The British policy of installing and supporting monarchies across the Middle East sits oddly with the UK's proclaimed support for democracy

The examples are too numerous to list, but in every major crisis since the queen was crowned, amid a period of troubled decolonisation, the monarchy played its part.

Britain's close ties to the shah of Iran prior to and following a British and US-backed coup in 1953 is a perfect illustration of the way the monarch functioned to legitimise neocolonial policies through direct relations with pro-western dictators. Shah Pahlavi ruled with a brutal secret police and was put into power because his elected prime minister had nationalised Iran's oil industry - a highly strategic part of Britain's Middle East imperial possessions.

Once safely installed, the oil profits flowed once more. The queen received the shah as an official guest in 1959 and made a state visit to Iran as the shah's guest in 1961. Further mutual visits followed, and relations were extremely cordial

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Of course the queen did not author the 1953 coup - that was Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Eisenhower - but she helped strengthen relations with Iran over the decades by forming a personal relationship with the shah and his wife, until he was overthrown in the revolution of 1979.

Backing autocracy

Britain attempted to continue its imperial influence across the Middle East through the support for the royal regimes that it put in place and supported in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya and the Gulf emirates. In the post-war period of anti-colonial revolt, several of these monarchs were overthrown to the great chagrin of Britain.

In the case of Libya, King Idris, formerly the leader of the Sanussi tribe and emir of Cyrenaica, was awarded the Grand Cross of the British Empire for his support in the defeat of German and Italian forces in North Africa during World War II.

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The queen's cousin Earl Mountbatten (who oversaw the precipitous and disastrous partition of India in 1947) was a close friend of Idris and used to visit him in Libya and stay at his royal palace. In return Idris supported the UK and France during the attack on Egypt in 1956, and provided the US with a major airbase near Tripoli, home to 4,600 Americans. All of this was lost in Muammar Gaddafi's coup of 1969.

The British policy of installing and supporting monarchies across the Middle East sits oddly with the UK's proclaimed support for democracy, when no democratic or constitutional reform has taken place in most of these UK-backed regimes. The British royal family plays an essential role in maintaining an autocratic model of diplomacy and personal relations with regimes including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman.

These regimes support western economic interests across the Middle East, while also pouring billions into the British economy, pumping up invisible earnings and buying up luxury property and Premier League football clubs.

The queen's love of horses was shared with her good friend Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the emir of Dubai, who notoriously kidnapped two of his daughters, one in the middle of the English countryside in 2000, the other in the Indian Ocean in 2018. It was reported that the queen would no longer be seen in public with the emir following the recent court case confirming the kidnappings.

Commander in chief

Much is made of the non-political nature of the monarch and the way the queen stayed out of politics and kept her views to herself. But no matter her discretion, her role was hardly non-political. The queen was the head of state and the commander-in-chief of the British Armed Forces. All soldiers had to swear an oath of loyalty to her before deployment to Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. These wars have left devastation and hundreds of thousands dead.

As the queen said in her broadcast to the armed forces in 2009 as Britain's iniquitous role in the Iraq war came to an end: "Wherever you are deployed in the world, you should be assured that I and the whole nation are deeply thankful for the part you play in helping to maintain peace around the globe." 

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Her grandson Prince Harry is only the latest royal who served during a war where British forces have been accused of war crimes; the deaths of scores of civilians in night raids, executed in a macabre game of body counts that was covered up at the highest levels of the army, according to a recent BBC investigation.

The Duke of Sussex served in the British Army for 10 years and was deployed to Afghanistan twice during Nato's 20-year intervention in the country, first in 2007 on the frontline as a forward air controller, and then again as a copilot gunner with the 662 Squadron, part of the army's Attack Helicopter Force.

His father, King Charles, has visited the Gulf region many times, enabling the continued sale of British weapons to the Saudi regime in its bloody war in Yemen that has seen thousands killed in air strikes. This aspect of the royal family's function within the British state is currently being airbrushed.

Many have praised the role of the queen in transitioning the UK to a post-colonial power through her role as head of the Commonwealth. But more critical voices have raised the question of the way in which Britain withdrew from its colonies and dealt with the legacy of empire during the queen's reign.

The sense of criminals fleeing a crime scene is hard to avoid: mass burning of colonial files began in India and, from the early 1960s, the British government engaged in Operation Legacy, destroying countless records of the British colonial regimes. As a commentator wrote on Twitter: "Now is the time to discuss this kind of detail because [the queen's] death is being used to push a sanitised history of her reign."

For the duration of the period of mourning that is now being enforced nationwide, criticism of the monarchy by the 22 percent who support a republic is being treated as a form of dissidence, with protests against the royal family shut down by the police. The truth is support for the monarchy has declined significantly in recent years, and the debate about its role domestically as the pinnacle of a semi-feudal system of land ownership and class hierarchy will not go away.

The queen will be mourned by the millions who loved her, but as Charles becomes king, a reckoning must be made with the monarchy's role in preserving a corrupt authoritarian system across swathes of the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Joe Gill has worked as a journalist in London, Oman, Venezuela and the US, for newspapers including Financial Times, Morning Star and Middle East Eye. His Masters was in Politics of the World Economy at the London School of Economics. Twitter @gill_joe
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