Middle East

Queen Elizabeth witnessed the crumbling of British power in the Middle East

By Zeena Saifi, CNN

Abu Dhabi CNN — When Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne in 1952, Britain was the dominant power in the Middle East and North Africa. It had direct control over protectorates such as Sudan, Egypt and Iraq and indirect control over Gulf states such as Bahrain, Qatar, and what is now the United Arab Emirates, that had signed treaties with Britain.

But within just three decades of her rule, she witnessed her country’s supremacy in the Middle East crumble as her empire shrank.

Much of Britain’s traditional control in the region had been rooted in monarchies that had either been imposed or backed by it through close ties to its royal family. But by 1971, all its Middle Eastern protectorates had gained independence as the cost of running Britain’s empire mounted.

Still, British influence in the region, particularly in the Gulf Arab states, remained strong, not least through Queen Elizabeth and the monarchy.

“Britain’s role and the legacy it had in the Gulf was very different from the legacy Britain left behind in Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen, where Britain was basically kicked out,” said James Onley, professor of history at the American University of Sharjah who has studied the relationship between Britain and Gulf monarchies. “When Britain announced in 1968 that it would be withdrawing its military from the Gulf, and its protection from the small Gulf states, the Gulf states asked Britain not to leave.”

After its withdrawal, Britain built strategic partnerships with Gulf states involving defense, security, investment and energy interests – and the royal family played a role in safeguarding that relationship.

“The royal family has provided a means for Britain to forge and maintain decades-long connections with ruling elites in the region, especially in the Gulf, in ways that would be difficult for elected political leaders to replicate,” Kristian Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute told CNN. “Although this has not always translated into measurable outcomes for British interests in the region.”

The Queen had made two sets of state visits to the Gulf region in 1979 and 2010 and images of her laughing alongside the ruling elite depicted a strong affinity.

The number of mutual visits between Gulf Arab and British royals is comparable to royal family visits to the Commonwealth realms, said Onley. “This is quite surprising considering that the [Gulf] is not a part of the Commonwealth, but in many ways, it is a de facto member… Britain is more than just a strategic ally [in the Gulf], it’s family in many respects,” he said.

Memories of British rule aren’t as fond further north in the Arab world. Many in the Middle East attribute today’s political grievances to the era of colonialism. The death of Queen Elizabeth II may have prompted an outpouring of grief from countries Britain used to control, but the legacy of what she represented was also seen as a symbol of oppression.

The Queen started her reign when Britain was trying to reformulate its relationship with the countries it had previously controlled, Abdel Razzaq Takriti, a history professor at Brown University, told CNN.

“In that period, the region was engaged in a massive range of anticolonial uprisings… and attempts to overthrow British domination,” he said.

Those attempts succeeded, and under Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Britain’s influence in the Middle East underwent dramatic change, as colonial structures have now largely disappeared.
Queen Elizabeth II inspects men of the newly-renamed Queen’s Own Nigeria Regiment, Royal West African Frontier Force, at Kaduna Airport, Nigeria, during her Commonwealth Tour, 2nd February 1956. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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“The Queen’s reign can be characterized as overseeing the management of decline of Britain as an imperial and a global power, a period that was encapsulated by the fallout from the Suez Crisis in 1956, just four years into her reign, and the struggle to rebuild Britain’s standing in the region in the years that followed,” Ulrichsen said.

Takriti said that it’s difficult for people in the Middle East to move on from Britain’s history when its impact continues to linger.

“The most salient British legacy in the region, which of course was never resolved under the reign of Queen Elizabeth, was the question of Palestine. And many people in the region never forgave Britain for it,” he said.

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