by Matt Broomfield
When I was living in Kurdistan and told locals I was from Britain, two responses occurred again and again, particularly from the older generation. “The empire where the sun never sets,” some would say. Others would simply remark, “ah, yes – Sykes-Picot,” a mischievous twinkle in their eye as they reminded me of my government’s role in carving up the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence – with ultimately disastrous results for the Kurds, among others.
Other locals, of course, brought up the Queen – often in the same breath as David Beckham, Mr. Bean, the Peaky Blinders, and other erstwhile cultural ambassadors for our storied island. Scottish and Irish citizens, on the other hand, would likely hear mention of Braveheart and the IRA respectively, in a further reminder of the way Britain’s cultural capital abroad is undermined by its enduring reputation as a colonial power.
For although many British people like to think of empire as a thing of the past, and the late Queen Elizabeth a reminder of all that is benign about our role on the world stage, the frequent references to colonial expansion and Western-imposed treaties made by ordinary people in the Middle East show we cannot forget our past so easily.
On the one hand, there is little sense in getting into a debate over the Queen’s legacy. The logic of arguments against the Royal Family’s vast and largely untaxed wealth, implication in global sexual abuse scandals, and quiet interference in domestic British politics in the defence of their class interests is readily apparent. But nor are such arguments likely to convince the masses who view Elizabeth as the symbol of all they love about Britain.
Rather than using this moment to argue fruitlessly for the abolition of the monarchy, then, it is worth using the end of Elizabeth’s long reign to consider the way Britain’s role in the Middle East has evolved over the past 70 years.
It is worth recalling that the newly-crowned Queen did indeed rule over a globe-spanning empire, numbering some 7 million British subjects in the Middle East alone upon her ascension in 1952. The British de facto or de jure ruled over 7 million subjects in the region, across Cyprus, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, South Yemen, Oman and Sudan, and exerted effective influence over 55 million more, with Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia all part of the wider British sphere of influence.
Iraq, and its sizeable Kurdish minority, is a suitable case-study. During a state visit by Iraq’s King Faisal II to the UK in 1956, Elizabeth described Iraq as the “model of a modern state built on ancient and famous foundations and confidently facing towards the future”.
That nation’s modern borders had of course been determined by the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France and the subsequent establishment of a British mandate – during which time the British brutally repressed attempts to achieve self-determination by the Kurds and other minorities.
By 1958, however, Faisal was deposed and executed, and Iraq became a Soviet-aligned republic. The same story repeated itself throughout the Middle East, as new-found republics ossified into neo-protectorates of Washington or Moscow with scant respect for the rights of their citizens, and former British colonies in the gulf became oil-rich absolutist monarchical states in their own right.
The monarchy has played a key role in maintaining the UK’s ties with the region, and in legitimising some of these regimes – for example, when Elizabeth toured the six Gulf states in a show of support following the 1979 overthrow of the Western-backed Iranian monarchy.
But more broadly, both supporters and denigrators of the UK’s monarchy must agree that the nation and empire she represents have both undergone a process of irrevocable decline in the course of Elizabeth’s reign.
It seems likely the decline in British influence in the Middle East will continue apace with Britain’s dwindling role on the world stage, itself forced to kowtow to US foreign policy. As compared to other Western powers, indeed, the UK is considerably more willing to placate and cover for its key trade partner in Turkey, and considerably less willing to lend even a modicum of support to the Kurdish freedom movement by engaging with it on the diplomatic level.
Perhaps the most likely future for the UK is a gradual acceptance of its new status as a middling power and middling economy, lacking the clout to exert any profound influence on the world stage. But the global response to the Queen’s death shows that the one-time dominions have a long memory.
For better or worse, the world will not easily forget the twilight of the British Empire. Making reparations for the damage done to Kurdistan, and across the region, would go some way to ensure the UK’s legacy is not forever summed up as imperialism, monarchical pomp, and Mr. Bean.