When Queen Elizabeth II took to the throne in February 1952, the British Empire had entered its last days. Though Britain maintained control over vast swathes of the planet and counted hundreds of millions of people as subjects, the beginning of the "Second Elizabethan Era" was marked by unrest and revolt in Africa and the Middle East against British rule. At the time of her accession, there were more than 7.3 million subjects in the Middle East and North Africa region, while a further 55 million at least were under British influence.
The drive to expel Britain out of the Middle East was largely led by Arab and Jewish nationalists, two forces which Britain nurtured and then exploited to serve its war time interest of defeating the Ottoman Empire. The fall of the Ottomans in 1918 paved the way for Britain and France to carve up the region, breaking promises and drawing arbitrary borders that virtually guaranteed decades of conflict across the region.
The vacuum left by the Ottoman was filled by many different groups and ideologies. The most potent of which was Arab nationalism. When Elizabeth II acceded to the throne these powerful forces were fully formed and at the peak of their powers. The new leaders had no intention of replacing one empire with another, least of all Britain. London's power and legitimacy had hit rock bottom. Not only did it break its promise to the Arabs by carving up the region, Britain surrendered Palestine in 1948 following a series of terrorist attacks by Jewish extremists. The fate of the UK was sealed four years later when the British Empire entered its last leg as Queen Elizabeth acceded to the throne.
Five months into her reign the goal of driving Britain out of the Middle East found a new momentum. A group of army officers led by Mohamed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser, carried out a coup against the British backed monarchy of King Farouk. It was one of the most seismic political shifts in the Middle East. It pitted Arab nationalist leaders against religious parties, conservative regimes and western backed monarchies that would go on to shape the region for decades to come, including during the 2011 Arab Spring.
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However, the goal of removing any remnants of British influence in Egypt was not complete. That would not be realised until four years later when the UK, backed by France and Israel, launched a military operation to take over the recently nationalised Suez Canal. It was a last-ditch effort to halt Britain's decline on the global stage. The Tripartite Aggression, as it came to be known, suffered an ignominious defeat and the wrath of the United States.
In Iran it was the same story. The clash between nationalists and imperialists was being played out on another stage, only this time Britain – allied with the US – went on to inflict a defeat on groups demanding autonomy and self-determination. The democratically elected Iranian government led by Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, nationalised the country's oil industry in 1951. Alarmed by the decision, Britain and America orchestrated a coup in 1953 to overthrow Mosaddegh and replace him with the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
It was one of the most consequential events in the region, one in which Queen Elizabeth II played a role. Five months before the British and US led coup, the Shah of Iran was teetering and considering fleeing the country. This would have effectively wrecked the joint plot before it even began. During that critical moment Queen Elizabeth II is said to have sent a vital message to the shah to dissuade him from leaving the country. The extraordinary message appears to read as if Queen Elizabeth is appealing to a fellow monarch to remain resolute. Washington viewed the message from Britain as an ace card to convince the shah to stay put.
It was a similar story across the region. Britain, the dominant power in the Middle East and North Africa for centuries, was either in retreat or hanging on to the empire by a thread. Expulsion from Egypt quickly followed by retreat from Sudan, Iraq, Yemen and further loss of indirect control over Gulf states such as Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. In the years following the Suez war, several new countries that had formerly been colonies and dependencies of Britain declared their independence.
Britain's role and legacy in the region, however, did not cease and Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family in general would go on to cement ties with authoritarian regimes. The most significant of which is the UK's ties with Gulf countries. These relations would go on to serve Britain's interest for decades to come. Strong partnerships with Gulf states forged through bonds between royals in the Gulf and London became vital to the UK's interest in defence, security, investment and energy sectors.
The royal family were vital to this new post-colonial arrangement as the investigative journalism website Declassified UK revealed. As far back as 1974, with Britain becoming more dependent on Gulf oil, the Foreign Office noted: "There is clearly advantage in encouraging further contacts between members of the Royal Family and the Saudi Royal Family, who occupy most of the positions of power in the country." The bond was cemented through veteran diplomats, as well as military and intelligence officers that would routinely travel to the region with British royals on trips to the Middle East as part of their entourage.
Through such visits, UK royals helped to promote British policy and interest in the region, not to mention influence over countries that supplanted Arab Republics, such as Egypt, for the top position of regional power. Meetings in the UK with Arab royalty would often take place back-to-back with trips to Downing Street or overlap with sessions where government ministers are present at royal palaces.
The mutually beneficial bond between the royal families and the role played by the Windsors in cementing Britain's ties with Gulf kings exposed the convenient lie that the Queen only played a ceremonial role. At least in foreign policy, Queen Elizabeth II was vital to UK interest, most of all in its use of soft power. Far from being a passive player in British foreign policy, the House of Windsor draws on its personal friendships with Middle Eastern monarchs to enhance UK relations, through shared interests such as horse riding and lavish jewellery.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.