Charles of Arabia

Glen Newey

People sometimes ask me why I moan on so much about the royal family. Aren’t there more important things to worry about, like war, political repression, man-made climate change or Arsenal’s exit from the Champions League? To give the short answer, yes. But in a funny way, no.

As constitutional monarchists never tire of saying, the sovereign is a figurehead. A figurehead symbolises or stands for something else. In the UK, the queen bears the same relation to the state as the Michelin man does to the tyre company, or the golden arches do to McDonald’s Corporation. Brand protection is big bucks; symbols matter. To return briefly to Arsenal: when it did up its old Highbury ground, the plywood hoardings were painted with a mural of supporters’ faces – which were all white, despite the club’s many non-white fans. After public outcry, a smattering of black faces were duly daubed in. With the royals, we are still in the pre-daubing phase. Courtier commentators drool over the fact that the Duchess of Cambridge, a mere ‘commoner’, has managed to mingle her body fluids with the blood royal, but it would have been interesting to see the response had William hooked up with a black single mother from Hackney.

The Windsors grind on, Eton-schooled, unblack, Anglican, unintellectual, heterosexual, and in so doing impersonate our state as being all these things. They exemplify hierarchy and hereditary privilege. By standing (significant preposition) ‘above politics’, they validate what they embody, and in so doing, legitimate it. They also, as shown by Prince Andrew’s now defunct role as the CBI’s overseas emissary and Prince Charles’s green-ink letters to ministers, play a direct political role – one handily de-politicised by the very fact that they play it.

So to the dauphin’s current kerosene-guzzling beano to the Middle East. In a manner vaguely reminiscent of Andrei Gromyko’s Cold War ‘friendship tours’ round Soviet allies, Charles is only visiting Middle Eastern monarchies – with the exception, obviously, of the one ruled by the Assad dynasty. Beyond the schmoozing with his brother princelings, Charles is mainly there to plug UK plc and shore up British strategic assets.

The royal couple will go to non-aligned Oman, ruled by sultan Qaboos since 1970. He took over in a British-backed putsch, the main purpose of which was to crush Marxist rebels in the south of the country. Charles may be hoping for advice: the coup turfed out Qaboos’s father, who died in exile at the Dorchester two years later.

A major-staging post on the tour is Saudi Arabia, where torture remains rife, and which Charles has visited a lot over the years. As has been widely reported, this week the Saudis publicly executed seven men for theft. All were in their early twenties; two were minors when the crimes were committed. Clarence House says airily that it’s not going to bother to raise this, as the main aims of the Saudi visit are to promote inter-faith dialogue and plug British ‘exports’ – that is, mainly, arms. The £43 billion al-Yamamah arms deal continues, as do UK training programmes for Saudi military and police personnel, who were deployed to put down rebellion in Bahrain in 2011. In 2010 the UK granted arms export licences worth £110 million to Saudi, for items such as tear gas and small arms – maybe those used to shoot the seven on Monday, whose trial has been widely condemned as unfair, with confessions extracted under torture. Those men, the Bahraini rebels, and Shia prisoners tortured by the Wahhabi regime, are but eggs to be cracked in the making of the great anti-terrorism and pro-export omelette.

So: war, political repression, a bit of man-made climate change, yes (we’ll do the Arsenal-Emirates link another time). We all share in these things. But some people’s share is more equal than others’.


  • 17 March 2013 at 4:50pm
    ledmatt says:
    I seem to remember an elected politician being responsible for the al-Yamamah arms deal.

  • 18 March 2013 at 6:45pm
    Glen Newey says:
    Sure, and more than one of them. But, first, the deal depended heavily on mediation by Prince Bandar, a long-time friend of the UK royals and the Prince of Wales in particular; second, the great thing about elected politicians is that you can de-elect them.

  • 20 March 2013 at 2:53am
    flybye88 says:
    I read "The royal couple will go to non-aligned Oman, ruled by sultan Qaboos since 1970. He took over in a British-backed putsch, the main purpose of which was to crush Marxist rebels in the south of the country...." with some dismay. My own perspective, having been a young telegraphist with the RAF on Masirah Island, Oman in the late 1960's was far more concerned with the arch-reactionary and despotic nature of "the father" Sultan bin Said.
    While the locals will have been more concerned with him having "owners of books" or "users of reading-glasses" summarily executed. (He correctly seeing all forms of popular education as a threat to his despotic rule.) My own disgust and abbohrence was more focused on him having a US citizen traveling the more poverty- stricken mountain viallages of Spain, Portugal and Italy -buying- young concubines from thier desperate families for sums of 400- 600$. These were freighted to the (thentime-) Royal Palace in Salalah where most of them only survived for 2 - 3 months, being then decapitated in the Palace Yard for the offence of being "worn out" or "non-cooperative."

    The demands for an end to British military support for this evil man had at least as partly to do with the troops no longer able to countenance the above as with the geo-political alternaves presented by the Maoist- led marxists in the South.