This is a guest post written by Nasser Rabbat, director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The passing of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8, 2022, is presented in the Western media as the end of an era. This unrelentingly broadcast mantra is, to say the least, an overt exaggeration, except perhaps for the die-hard royalists in the UK and the anglophile, mostly wealthy Commonwealth citizens. For the rest of us, her passing’s significance ranges from being a pompous distraction, deliberately spread over many days, to a reminder of how different the world is now from the time of her ascension to the throne in 1952 and how vacuous the British royal pageantry is and totally out of step.
The first reminder is particularly poignant for an Arab observer like me, totally comfortable in the Western modes of thought, yet immersed in critiquing their mindless disregard of other, non-Western perspectives.
It is also even more distressing because the reign of Elizabeth II coincided with the persistent dismantling of every hopeful aspect of modernity in the vast Arab world – from political independence to economic prosperity, social emancipation, and stability.
Elizabeth II was obviously not personally responsible for any of these mishaps, which should be blamed fairly and squarely on the Arab regimes and peoples and their lopsided handling of the challenges they faced in the last 70 years. But she symbolized the colonial world order that, though waning by the time she arrived, had already entrapped not just the Arabs, but the entire Global South, in its extremely unfair distribution of power, knowledge, and wealth. The actors have changed multiple times, but the devastating grip of global inequality has endured almost unscathed.
Retracing British Colonization in the Middle East
Britain’s meddling in the Arab Mashriq is old (the Maghreb was resolutely ceded to the French). In 1190, a remote predecessor of Elizabeth II, Richard I (Lionheart, r. 1189-99) led the third crusade to Sicily, Cyprus, and the coast of Palestine with mixed results that earned him everlasting fame, nonetheless.
The next military foray into Arab lands came in 1801 when the British landed in Egypt to force the withdrawal of the French and re-establish Ottoman rule there. The British reaped huge economic and geopolitical benefits from their manoeuvres around the crumbling Ottoman Empire, snatching outlying territories such as Aden, which came under the rule of the British East India Company in 1839.
But the rise of a local modernizing dynasty in Egypt required a quick intervention in 1882 to secure both the financial and navigational benefits generated after the opening of the Suez Canal. The British occupied Egypt until 1954.
Sudan was next when it was conquered by a joint British-Egyptian army in 1898.
In the meantime, Britain also extended its colonial hegemony to the Gulf sheikhdoms from Kuwait to Oman, tying them by treaties that effectively erased their independence.
The end of World War I saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rush of European colonial powers to gulp up its Arab provinces. Britain, betraying its Arab allies who were promised an independent Arab state, won the most territory of the Mashriq, including Iraq and Trans-Jordan, where it installed two subservient Hashemite dynasties, and Palestine, which was destined to be stripped of its name, identity, and people.
This British imperial plan, epitomized by the absurd Balfour Declaration of 1917 promising what was still Ottoman Palestine to the Jewish people, proved disastrous not only to the Palestinians, who lost their country after Israel was established in 1948, but to the entire Arab region. It severed the territorial connection between Egypt and the Mashriq, quashed true liberation, and created an environment hostile to modernity and democracy.
Under Queen Elizabeth II’s reign
The flaws of that imperial policy started appearing shortly after Elizabeth II's accession, when the Free Officers in Egypt staged a coup against their king in July 1952 and established what they claimed to be a republic geared toward progress and political sovereignty. That they ultimately botched their project because of their inexperience and political greed in no way diminishes the role the UK, and the West, in general, played in giving these inept rulers more rope with which to strangulate their nation.
The hasty nationalization of the Suez Canal by Abdel Nasser in 1956 led to the Tripartite Aggression by the UK, France, and Israel, which revealed the Egyptian regime’s military and strategic weaknesses despite the retreat of the invaders. Thereafter, the US imposed a new order that pushed the UK to the back row in Egyptian affairs but not without various attempts at regaining some influence.
Another stage for the UK/US competition in the freshly independent Arab states was Syria, which suffered a series of foreign-masterminded military coups between 1949 and the rise of Hafez al-Asad in 1970. A number of these coups are believed to have been coordinated with the British secret services, especially in the 1950s, when a rising Pan-Arabism threatened the conservative regimes allied with the UK in Jordan, Iraq, and some of the Gulf sheikdoms.
Purportedly mapped on a napkin by the indomitable Gertrude Bell, at a cocktail party in some British high commissioner’s mansion in 1918, Iraq, too, suffered from foreign interference throughout its modern history. The last episode was particularly devastating when the country was occupied by a US-led coalition in 2003. The UK, presumably nostalgic for its old colonial days, claimed the southern governorate of Basra as its fiefdom. Elsewhere in the Gulf, British expats and businesses dominate many economic sectors in the super-rich city-states from Kuwait to Oman. The once “Happy” Yemen (the Arabia Felix of the Romans), whose southern half was for more than a century a British colony, is now in the throes of a schizophrenic civil war, fueled by geopolitics and misguided dreams of grandeur among its invaders.
So why should the people of the region remember Queen Elizabeth II for other than the uptight, terribly conservative figurehead of an empire in decline she really was? In fact, her passing may usher not the nostalgic end of an era, but the hopeful beginning of a new era for the British monarchy’s relationship with the Arab world. Her son and successor, Charles III, has always shown great interest in and appreciation of Islam, Sufism, and Arabic culture and architecture.
These intellectual pursuits, if properly redirected, may be translated into an actual rapprochement with the Arab world. But this will depend not only on the will of the new king, but also on his ability to navigate the restrictions of his constitutional monarchy and transcend the lingering prejudices of Orientalism, colonialism, and xenophobia.