Have you ever received an invitation to an event and wondered who was not selected? Or how far away are you seated from the host? Or who else is at your table?
In recent days, hundreds of presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens, emirs and other world dignitaries invited to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral – scheduled for Monday – have pondered similar questions, reading protocol agreements as they would do with tea leaves amid speculation over who has been invited to attend the UK’s most important diplomatic event in recent years.
Although the official guest list has not been released, Westminster Abbey, where the funeral will take place and which seats 2,000 people, is expected to be filled to capacity. Leaked documents from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) relating to funeral arrangements show the government is urging visiting leaders to limit their number of delegates and consider commercial flights in a bid to reduce the congestion at Heathrow.
But it’s another demand that has drawn the ire of diplomats: that dignitaries leave their private cars at a rallying point near the abbey and travel en masse by bus – such a controversial idea, it seems. it, that the British Prime Minister’s official spokesman insisted on Monday that arrangements for the leaders “would vary according to individual circumstances” and that the information provided was “guidance”.
Rumors of exceptions granted to some leaders – like President Biden, who accepted the invitation early on and will be driving to the Abbey in his stretch of armored Cadillac known as “The Beast”, – have reportedly left the diplomats scramble to get the same treatment for their bosses, or at least clarity on who will be sitting next to them in the coach.
Meanwhile, the question of who is invited (or not) and who will go (or not) has brought its share of problems.
So far, European royals from Belgium, Denmark, Monaco, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden have confirmed their attendance. The same goes for all the heads of Commonwealth countries, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Indian President Draupadi Murmu and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she would attend, as would Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska; must join them the presidents of Austria, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy and Poland. On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted from his official account that he would also be present.
From further afield, Japanese Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako, in a break from standard protocol, will attend the funeral, as a measure of the close ties he and his family had with the late monarch. Strange bedfellows are expected: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, King Abdullah II of Jordan, the leader of the Emirates Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.
Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol are also among the expected attendees.
Mexico will send Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard. And in a move hinting at tepid relations with the UK, Iran, North Korea and Nicaragua have been asked to send representatives only at ambassadorial level.
Only six countries are not on the guest list in any capacity: Russia, following its invasion of Ukraine, and Belarus for facilitating the attack; Afghanistan, now under Taliban rule; Myanmar, where the military took control in a coup last year; Syria, with which there have been no diplomatic relations due to the ongoing civil war; and Venezuela, which also has no diplomatic relations with the UK.
A particularly big hiccup occurred with China when on Thursday a group of British parliamentarians heard about the invitation to Chinese President Xi Jinping and called for it to be rescinded, describing it in a letter to the leader of parliament as “totally inappropriate”.
The animosity there centers on the British government’s imposition of sanctions on Chinese officials found responsible for the genocide against the Uyghurs, China’s Muslim minority. Beijing imposed its own travel bans and asset freezes days later on British officials, including the lawmakers who drafted the letter. Parliament retaliated by banning the Chinese ambassador to the UK from entering parliament. In April, he also voted to recognize as genocide Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang territory.
Despite the uproar, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan confirmed his attendance, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Yet some MPs, in statements to the British press, said they had received assurances from parliamentary leaders that a Chinese delegation would not be allowed to travel to Westminster Hall to see the Queen’s lie, where tens of thousands people have lined up for more than 24 hours since Thursday for a chance to pay their respects.
But in an apparent about-face, a parliamentary spokesman told reporters on Saturday that “the Head of State (or his representatives) who has been invited to attend the state funeral at Westminster Abbey is also invited to attend the laying out in Westminster Hall.
Another controversy has erupted around Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who Saudi officials say will hold a phone call with new British Prime Minister Liz Truss on Saturday evening. The crown prince was determined in a declassified CIA report to have ordered the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose corpse was later dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Turkish capital, in 2018.
The crown prince denied having anything to do with the murder; since then, he has been working to rehabilitate his image internationally; if he were to attend the funeral, it would be his first trip to London since 2018.
Saudi Arabia remains an important customer for British arms companies and employs thousands of expatriate workers. During his decades as prince, King Charles III visited Saudi Arabia more than 10 times; his personal assistant last year quit after news reports revealed the assistant had promised to confer a knighthood on a Saudi businessman in exchange for a donation to the Prince’s charities era. Businessman, Mahfouz Marei Mubarak bin Mahfouz, was awarded a Commander of the British Empire medal by then Prince Charles in a private ceremony in 2016; the Metropolitan Police launched an investigation earlier this year. The king denied knowledge of the promises made to Mahfouz.
Although there is still no official confirmation, CNN Arabic quoted a source close to the Saudi royal family as saying the crown prince will land in the English capital on Sunday. It remains unclear if he will attend the funeral or if he will have the opportunity to offer his condolences to the royal family in private. But the prospect of her coming has infuriated several rights groups, as well as Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee, who condemned the invitation.
“The passing of the Queen is a truly sad occasion. The Crown Prince should not be allowed to be part of this grief and not be allowed to stain his memory and use this time of mourning to seek legitimacy and normalization” , Cengiz said in an interview with The Guardian newspaper.She instead called on British authorities to arrest him when he landed in London, but said she had little hope they would.
Lobby group Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) also blamed the British government for inviting Saudi Arabia and said it would stage protests outside the embassies of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain; both countries are major importers of British arms.
“Mohammad bin Salman is the head of a murderous regime,” Katie Fallon, CAAT’s parliamentary coordinator, said in a statement. “These despots are using the Queen’s state funeral as an opportunity to whitewash their reputation.”