It was supposed to be a celebration filled with regal splendour which would herald the beginning of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations.
But even before the poached eggs and noisettes of lamb had been served a row was raging over Britain’s decision to extend invites to a string of controversial unelected monarchs.
The autocratic leaders of Bahrain and Swaziland, a prominent Saudi Arabian prince and the next in line to Thailand’s throne were among some of the more controversial dignitaries at today's “Monarchs’ Lunch” in Windsor Castle.
The Foreign Office insisted that invitations for the lunch and a subsequent dinner at Buckingham Palace were sent out to all the world’s national sovereigns. But the Queen was roundly criticised for allowing some of more contentious and extravagant royal families to dine with her.
The most controversial person on yesterday’s guest list was King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain. His regime has been roundly condemned by human rights groups for the slow pace of reforms and politicised trials that have taken place since widespread protests to his family’s rule broke out last year leading to the deaths of more than 60 people.
Only this week new allegations emerged suggesting a young man who was found dead earlier this year may have been tortured to death. An official report into the death of 23-year-old Yousef Mowali in January declared that he had drowned in the sea off the island of Bahrain. However a second autopsy published this week by an independent pathologist from Turkey found evidence that Mr Mowali may have been electrocuted and was unconscious when he drowned.
Eye-brows were also raised over the inclusion of the King of Swaziland whose retinue opted to stay in the £400 a night Savoy hotel despite presiding over a country where the average annual wage is little more than £1,500. Exiled Swazis protested outside the hotel on Wednesday night criticising sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch for his playboy lifestyle and spending habits.
Although Thailand’s monarchy heads up a constitutional democracy like Britain’s the inclusion of the country’s Crown Prince comes at a time of renewed debate and anger over Thailand’s stringent lese majeste laws. Earlier this month a 61-year-old man died in prison just months after he was handed down a 20-year jail term for sending offensive text messages about Thailand’s queen.
Opposition politicians in Bahrain told The Independent that King Hamad’s invitation to Windsor Castle sent out worrying signals that Britain was normalising relations with the Gulf Kingdom despite continued violence and dissatisfaction over the slow pace of promised reforms.
“This invitation is a gift to the regime and the hardliners,” said Matar Ebrahim, a prominent member of the Shi’a opposition party al Wefaq. “It will be the moderates and those who want to see reforms take place who will suffer. The British seemed to have reached the conclusion that they don’t need the Bahraini people, just the Khalifa regime.”
Maryam al-Khawaja, whose father Abdulhadi is a prominent imprisoned opposition leader currently on hunger strike in a military jail, added: “The invitation is outrageous. It is salt in the wounds of the Bahraini people who have already had to pay such a high price in trying to push for greater freedoms.”
British based opposition activists said they would join forces with the anti-monarchy group Republic to protest outside Buckingham Palace. Graham Smith, the chief executive of Republic said: “The Queen’s decision to personally invite these tyrants to lunch sends an appalling message to the world, and seriously damages Britain’s reputation. Thanks to the Queen’s misjudgement, her jubilee will forever be associated with some of the most repressive regimes in the world.”
A Buckingham Palace spokesperson refused to comment on the row. The Foreign Office defended its decision to invite King Hamad of Bahrain. “The UK is a long standing friend and ally of Bahrain and Ministers regularly meet with Bahraini counterparts in the UK and abroad,“ a spokesperson said. ”We work together closely on a range of important issues.”
The Bahraini embassy in London did not return requests from The Independent for comment.
Royal Guests: The roll of dishonour
1. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn (Thailand)
King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s only son is first in line for the Thai throne. The monarchy has been mired in an ongoing controversy over the country’s strict lèse-majesté laws, which carry long jail sentences for slights against royal members. They have been used in increasing numbers, often to stifle political dissent.
2.Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa (Bahrain)
The head of Bahrain’s Khalifa dynasty has been criticised for his country’s violent crackdown of predominantly Shia Muslim opposition protests. Bahrain insists it is implementing reforms, but human-rights groups have heavily criticised the pace of change and continued violence.
3. Mswati III (Swaziland)
Sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch is estimated to be worth £100m by Forbes. Many of his 1.2 million subjects, however, live in poverty. Protests against the King’s spending have previously broken out, forcing him to cancel a recent jubilee celebration.