Max Nash/AFP/Getty Images
Britain's Prince Charles speaks with Prince Turki Al Faisal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia. The recent release of secret diplomatic cables by the organization WikiLeaks has revealed the power still held by royals in diplomacy.
Colum Lynch is the United Nations correspondent for the Washington Post. He writes the blog, Turtle Bay.
The sun may have set on the British Empire, but Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, is still looking to revive the Great Game, the 19th century competition between Imperial Russia and the British monarchy for influence and wealth in Central Asia.
"The United Kingdom, Western Europe (and by extension you Americans, too) we're now back in the thick of playing the Great Game," Prince Andrew said at a November, 2008, luncheon in Kyrgyzstan with the U.S. ambassador Tatianna Gfoeller and a group of British business executives, according to one of hundreds of U.S. diplomats cables released by WikiLeaks this week. "And this time we intend to win."
Prince Andrew's hubris may seem quaintly comical, as it's coming from a member of a generation of British royals that has been known more for its petty scandals than imperial ambitions. But the secret U.S. cables provide a rare glimpse of the persistence of monarchal privilege and power in the world of international diplomacy - especially in the Middle East, where oil-rich kings and princes exercise extraordinary personal authority, if not always wisely, and where great attention is paid to the personal prestige bestowed by a visit from Prince Charles or a wild game-hunting trip in Tanzania with Prince Andrew. Indeed, the cables confirm both that the symbolic currency of nobility is still highly valued in much of the world, and that the British royal family retains an impressive share of it.
In a private meeting with General David Petraeus, Saudia Arabia's King Abdullah exhibited the traits of a scheming Shakespearean sovereign, as he tried to persuade a powerful ally to destroy his Iranian rival's nuclear arsenal. "Cut off the head of the snake," he demanded of the general, in hopes of provoking him to action. The King also counseled an American national security official to implant chips in the bodies of Guantanamo Bay detainees, the same way Saudis use the technology to track valued horses or falcons.
But the Saudis have demonstrated their willingness to lavish hospitality on their royal friends. Prince Khalid bin Faisal of Saudi Arabia went to extraordinary lengths to spruce up his late father's aging palace for a party he hosted for Prince Charles, the Duke of Wales, according to a British businessman — or "fixer" — who helped him prepare for the event. The British businessman, whose name is redacted from the document, spent three weeks fixing up the reception hall, filling holes in the wall with Styrofoam and lighting the space with candles to disguise its imperfections, according to the U.S. cable, titled "Tales of a Prince."
"The palace was described as aged and in dire need of renovation," the businessman told American diplomats. "The plan was successful as the Prince of Wales commented on how luxurious and beautiful the place was, despite the fact that it was not." Khalid — who was "known for being extremely cheap" — rewarded the businessman with a $13,000 "tip" and paintings by the two princes. "Prince Khalid was very happy and the relationship between the businessman and the prince was cemented."
The British royals have failed to extend similar courtesies to their hosts. During a 2008 visit to Kyrgyzstan, Prince Andrew's insulted just about every other country, including the United States, that was competing for influence in Central Asia. He called Chinese commercial interests in the region "probably inevitable, but a menace," decried Russian bullying, and mused about American fecklessness. Explaining why British firms could compete in the region as effectively as their much more powerful American competitors, he said: "The Americans don't understand geography. Never have. In the UK, we have the best geography teachers in the world!"
While lamenting Kyrgyzstan's corrupt business dealings, Prince Andrew attacked British investigators who pursued bribery charges against the British Aerospace firm, BAE, and members of the Saudi royal family. "He railed at British anti-corruption investigators, who had had the 'idiocy' of almost scuttling the al-Yamama deal with Saudi Arabia," according to the cable. "He then went on to 'these [expletive] journalists, especially from the National Guardian, who poke their noses everywhere' and (presumably) make it harder for British businessmen to do business. The crowd practically clapped."
Prince Andrew saved his tartest remarks for the French. Following a discussion on the pervasiveness of corruption in Kyrgyzstan, he noted: "All of this sounds exactly like France." When the group followed up with a discussion on the need to instill the rule of law to attract western, Prince Andrew returned "to what was obviously a favorite theme...They won't need to make any change to attract the French."
After lunch, Prince Andrew left for a meeting to promote British commercial interest with Kyrgyzstan's then Prime Minister Igor Chudinov. An executive from a mid-size British company said: "What a wonderful representative for the British people. We could not be prouder of our Royal family!" Gfoeller had a different impression of the meeting: "Astonishly candid, the discussion at times verged on the rude (from the British side)."
Still, the British royals' antics remain a source of admiration, disdain, but mostly curiosity, for international political elites. According to a February 2004 U.S. cable from the U.S. embassy in Amman, Jordan, Egypt's then Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher mocked his Syrian counterpart, Farouq Sharaa, for failing to keep a straight account of the latest developments involving the British royals. Muasher told a top American diplomat that Sharaa had recounted "a tabloid like story that showed how out of touch with reality he is: Sharaa told the group that British Prince Charles would soon be implicated in a Scottish judicial investigation into Princess Diana's death, and was consequently planning a trip to Iraq and Iran "to seek the support of the Muslim world."
"'They just don't get it,' Muasher lamented," according to the cable.
Prince Andrew's conduct, however, has proven particularly embarrassing for the British royal family, which is headed by a stern Queen Elizabeth, who has striven for decades to avoid public missteps by the royal family. But the family has got some support from his royal counterparts. "I can't judge Prince Andrew; we've all been young once," Jordan's Prince Hassan told the BBC's Jeremy Paxman. Paxman responded: "He's not that young anymore, either." Prince Andrew turned 50 in February.
Indeed, the regions royals' have formed a protective shield around one another. When King Aabdullah II of Jordan needed oil to replace his Iraqi supplies following the U.S. invasion he approached his royal counterparts in the United Arab Emirates. Hamdan Bin Zayid told the U.S. ambassador that it would provide the cash equivalent of 25,000 barrels of oil a day to meet Jordan's oil needs. He also said that he had forked over and additional $40 million to Morocco in response to terrorist attack. (He admitted lying to the Saudis and Kuwaitis that he'd given twice that much in the hopes they would try to match his generosity).
"The fact that Abu Dhabi is offering cash assistance...is a measure of just how close these ties are since the Emiratis usually balk at writing checks," according to the cable. "The UAE's strong official ties with Jordan and Morocco are bolstered by personal relationships between the ruling families. Jordanian King Abdullah II is a close friend of UAE Armed Forces Chief of Staff Muhammad bin Zayid Al-Nahyan (MbZ). The two frequently hunt — in Morocco and Tanzania — joined, more often than not, by England's Prince Andrew. The ties with the Moroccan monarch are equally warm. Shaykh Zayid and other Emirati ruling family members maintain vacation palaces in Morocco and have poured money into assistance projects there."
The Wikileaks cables also show that the British royal family is grappling with the question of how it can best maintain its privileged position on the international stage. A top political advisor from the Commonwealth of Nations, Amitav Banerji, told American diplomats in June, 2009, that the group of 54 member states, who once formed the core of the British empire, is considering the proper succession protocol after Queen Elizabeth II, the titular head of the Commonwealth, dies.
"Banerji acknowledged that succession of the Head of the Commonwealth would have to be dealt with when Queen Elizabeth passes, as there is no rule stipulating that the British monarch is the head and no procedure for selecting a new head," according to the cable. "He acknowledged that heir-apparent to the British Crown, Prince Charles, does not 'command the same respect' as the Queen and said the Commonwealth was trying quietly to get him more involved in Commonwealth affairs. Banerji noted Marlborough House, the Commonwealth Secretariat's current location, was a royal property, owned and funded by the British Royal Family, and mused that may be a factor in the discussions."