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Farewell to Iraq’s last princess

Iraq's last princess dies aged 100. Princess Badiya bint Ali was born in Damascus in 1920. Her father King Ali bin Al-Hussein briefly ruled the Hejaz kingdom in western Arabia and held the title of Grand Sharif of Makkah

The last princess of Iraq, Badiya Bint Ali Bin Al-Hussein, died in Britain on Saturday, aged 100, more than 60 years after the rest of her family were killed in the bloody coup of 1958 which ended Hashemite rule in the country. Princess Badiya passed away peacefully after a long illness, marking an almost underwhelming end to a life characterised by years of turbulence in the Middle East, from a childhood spent in Makkah, to years enjoying the region’s most luxurious royal residences, to exile in Britain.

Princess Badiya was born in Damascus in 1920, into a world in which the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, Sykes-Picot Agreement and Balfour Declaration had already started to shape the region. A member of the Hashemite dynasty – which traces its lineage back to Prophet Muhammad — Princess Badiya was also the grandaughter of Sharif Hussein Ibn Ali, the first King of the Hejaz in western Arabia. Hussein declared himself king of the region, which is now part of Saudi Arabia, when he launched the British-backed Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1916, during the First World War.

After the war Hussein failed to achieve his aim of ruling an Arab state, and was deposed from the Hejaz by Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in 1924, but not before establishing two monarchies in Jordan and Iraq under his sons Abdullah and Faisal respectively. While the Iraqi monarchy was felled by the 1958 coup, Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy remains intact and is ruled by Abdullah’s great-grandson, King Abdullah II.

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Princess Badiya was the daughter of Abdullah and Faisal’s brother, Ali Bin Hussein, who ruled the Hejaz kingdom briefly, and held the title of Grand Sharif of Makkah from October 1924 until December 1925. Under her uncle Faisal’s Hashemite monarchy, established in 1921 in Iraq, Badiya officially became a princess and remained close to the throne throughout her life.

Faisal I was succeeded after his sudden death in 1933 — officially from a heart attack but believed to have been caused by poisoning – by his only son Ghazi I, who was married to Princess Badiya’s sister, Queen Aliya Bint Alia. After King Ghazi’s suspicious death in a car crash, which was allegedly orchestrated by pro-British Prime Minister Nuri Said who clashed with the monarch over his anti-British stance, Aliya’s three-year-old son, and Badiya’s nephew, was the heir. Once again, Princess Badiya remained close to the throne as her brother, ‘Abd Al-Ilah, acted as regent for young King Faisal II between 1939 and 1953.

In 1958, however, only five years after King Faisal II returned from his education at Harrow School in Britain, came of age and took control of what was by then a flourishing Iraq, the monarchy was overthrown in a military coup. On 14 July 1958, a pan-Arabist group called the Free Officers, led by Brigadier Abd Al-Karim Qasim, marched on Baghdad and staged a coup. Faisal reportedly ordered his guards not to resist as Qasim took control of the Rihab Palace. Members of the royal family, including the King, Princess Badiya’s brother ‘Abd al-Ilah and her sister Princess Abadiya, were then lined up against a wall and shot dead. The body of ‘Abd Al-Ilah was later mutilated, dragged through the streets of Baghdad and finally hanged outside the Ministry of Defence.

Princess Badiya was not at the Rihab Palace with the rest of her family on that fateful day. Instead, she was watching from a balcony of a building in another part of Baghdad. If she had been in the palace, it is almost certain that she would have met the same fate as the rest of her family. Instead, the princess, her husband Sharif Al-Hussein Bin Ali and their three children managed to flee to the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Baghdad. The family sheltered there for a month, before fleeing to Egypt, then Switzerland, and finally settling in Britain.

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Princess Badiya spent most of her life in London, from where she supported her son Sharif Ali Bin Al-Hussein’s activism. Ali, who strongly opposed Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, has advocated for the return of a monarchy, albeit a constitutional one, to Iraq, championing himself as the rightful heir. Ever dedicated to her roots, in 2002 Princess Badiya published Memoirs of the Heiress to the Thrones, which was written by Iraqi politician and lawyer Faiq Al-Sheikh Ali. The book provides an unrivalled first-hand insight into the shaping of the Arab world through the eyes of the Hashemite monarchies of Iraq and Jordan.

Tributes, including pictures of the princess in her youth, poured in for the late Iraqi royal over the weekend.

The country’s new Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi tweeted: “With the passing of Princess Badiya Bint Ali, a bright and important chapter of Iraq’s modern history ends. She was part of a political and societal era that represented Iraq in the best of ways. May she rest in peace and my sincere condolences to her family and loved ones.”

Though Princess Badiya never played an active role in the governance of Iraq, her life encompassed events that many would see as key factors in the shaping of the modern Middle East. Her death signals the end of an era, and the passing of the generation of Middle Eastern royals who were unseated in the wake of the Second World War. Iraq bids farewell to its last princess as the state grapples with the increasing strain on the oil industry caused by the coronavirus pandemic; struggles to overcome sectarian opposition to the formation of a new government; and faces months of unabated anti-government protests.

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