As someone who has lived most of her life in London, this past week has been like nothing I have ever experienced. While the institution of the monarchy is actually held in far from universal affection here, Queen Elizabeth II somehow transcended that. From the moment news of concerns for her health broke, the nation’s feelings for its most enduring head of state have been on heartfelt display. The solemn, committed procession of mourners, snaking for kilometres – and hours – across the British capital en route to Westminster Hall, has been a poignant and moving display of love and respect for this most unique of women.
But while the queen’s position in the hearts of most Britons is secure, that of her son, now King Charles III, is less clear. As Prince Charles, his personal life, and of course his failed marriage to Princess Diana, coloured many people’s impressions of him. His occasionally outspoken views on political issues have won admiration from some, but mistrust from others. From an international perspective, this past week has also afforded a moment to reflect on the darker side of the monarchy, and the centuries of colonialism and exploitation that it also represents. As king, Charles must also shoulder that legacy.
The queen ascended to the throne when Britain was the dominant power in Middle East. Many countries were British protectorates. Newly formed nation states such as Iraq, Jordan and Yemen were bound by treaties that gave Britain an exorbitant level of control. In the Gulf, the British presence was largely accepted, and Queen Elizabeth became a familiar face as a frequent and welcome visitor.
Even as Britain’s power in the region melted away, her visits remained frequent. Members of the ruling and royal families of the GCC formed genuine and warm relationships with the British royal family. As colonial structures dissolved, they were replaced by enduring strategic partnerships that remain steadfast. As Mansoor Abulhoul, the UAE’s ambassador to the UK, reminded me this week in London, 100,000 British citizens call the UAE home, and more than one and a half million Britons visit as tourists every year.
But despite the closeness the queen clearly enjoyed with the Middle East, and the Gulf in particular, if anything her son is even more intimately engaged in the region, and perhaps better placed to forge a closer bond with its people.
King Charles’s deep interest in the Middle East was no doubt fostered by his studies at Cambridge, in history, archaeology and anthropology. There he became acquainted with Islamic art and culture, and he has continued to explore that passion during his hundreds of documented visits to the region. Perhaps more strikingly, he has also taken the time to learn Arabic, in part so he could better understand the Quran. Few if any other heads of state have undertaken such a commitment.
This level of engagement in interfaith understanding is both remarkable and durable. He has already underscored his commitment to defending it in his first duty as head of the Church of England. Charles is also patron of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, and as Farhan Nizami, its director, noted to me this week, the then Prince’s first address to that organisation, almost 30 years ago, was about the indebtedness the West has to Muslim civilisation, and its fundamental part in universal civilisation.
The new king also has a heartfelt commitment to the environment. He was a pioneering voice on ecological issues decades ago in the UK, and that has never wavered. While he will not be able to engage as openly in such causes as king, it feels unlikely that he will pass up the opportunity to take any sort of role as an encouraging voice on the climate crisis if it presents itself. Again, links between the UK and UAE in this area are stronger than ever; especially with the Emirate’s recent five-year, £10 billion ($11.4bn) investment in UK clean energy, technology and infrastructure projects. As the UAE prepares to host Cop28, Charles will no doubt be a keenly interested observer.
While the death of Queen Elizabeth has provided a moment for many in the UK to bond, it has also been a distraction from some profoundly serious issues. One of the first duties of new Prime Minister Liz Truss, the last to be sworn in by the queen, was to lead the nation in mourning its great matriarch; but that mourning period has also postponed vitally important policy decisions. Britain is facing great economic hardship this winter, and Brexit remains a divisive issue as well as a political and fiscal conundrum. Right now, the UK needs friends, perhaps more than ever in its recent history.
In our conversation this week, Mr Abulhoul referred to the monarchy as “a canopy” under which relations are built. Ironically, for a once ardent anti-monarchist, Ms Truss will now be calling on the new king for his support in forging and strengthening international bonds as she looks to lift her country out of the doldrums. A Britain that is “open for business” will no doubt be looking to its friends to increase trade. In 2021, the UAE identified the UK as one of the key growth pillars for investment. The new king, with his new Prime Minister, may well be an even more frequent visitor to the region than his revered mother.