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Feature Article

Spectacle and Ceremony: Honoring Tradition or Managing Expectation?

Bursting with pomp and circumstance, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, and later the coronation of her heir, King Charles III, were monumental productions involving the full apparatus of state, broadcast live to the world (with the taxpayer footing the bill). In contrast, the funeral of Saudi kings and the accession of a new monarch are swift and simple affairs, grounded in the Kingdom's austere brand of Islam and the royal family's tribal roots.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Queen Elizabeth died on September 8, 2022, aged 96, after reigning for 70 years. Her death triggered a full set of planning arrangements already in place for her state funeral, dubbed Operation London Bridge, whilst the U.K. observed a national mourning period of ten days. Prior to the funeral, her coffin was carried to Westminster Hall, where she lay in state for four days while hundreds of thousands of people passed by to pay their respects, and her children and grandchildren held a series of ten minute vigils.

The funeral service at Westminster Abbey, attended by 2,000 people in total, was followed by two processions. The first, featuring seven military bands and 3,000 military personnel from the three armed forces, forming a guard of honor, led to Wellington Arch. Watched by over a million people as it wound through London, this stretched for over a mile. A final procession involving 1,000 military members took the coffin to Windsor. She was then buried in the King George VI Memorial Chapel at St George's Chapel in Windsor, after a committal service in the presence of 800 guests, which included not only the Queen's household and staff but also family members, dignitaries and foreign royals. This was followed by a private service attended only by her closest family. In total, the public expenditure was estimated to have been 162 million pounds.

Although former monarchs have been known to have had their bodies embalmed after death, it is not known whether the queen opted that she should be embalmed; nonetheless, she was not buried or cremated in the same way the majority of her subjects are. Instead, and for hundreds of years, royals have been buried in vaults and crypts, where their remains stay in lead lined coffins, their decomposition slowed by the heavy material in the coffin and the air-sealed vaults they are held in. The tradition is that it helps preserve the corpse for longer after its burial.

Her son immediately acceded to the British throne as King Charles III, avoiding any period of discontinuity in the monarchy, but an Accession Council assembled on September 10 at St James's Palace to formally proclaim the accession. Further spectacle followed, however, when the coronation of Charles III and Camilla took place on 6 May 2023 at Westminster Abbey in a two-hour ceremony. For this, 4,000 armed forces personnel and 19 military bands took part, and gun salutes were made across the U.K. Ninety heads of state as well as celebrity guests attended the deeply religious Coronation service at Westminster Abbey, which involved another huge procession through London. The new king was anointed with holy oils by the Archbishop of Canterbury, presented with various bits of ancient and obscure regalia, and led through a series of ritualized formalities already dramatically pared down from the last such ceremony, decades earlier.

More secular times demanded a less overtly religious show, however, and an implicit recognition that the monarchy had much less relevance in modern political or social life. It was significant that the traditional, and individual, pledge of allegiance from the noble class was omitted from the event, replaced by a "voluntary" (and widely mocked) pledge from those watching at home, to be recited aloud at an appointed time. The sombre formalities were later relieved by an airshow and celebrity concerts, while a small number of protesters was bundled off in police vans before they had a chance to unfurl their banners; the extent of public support for the monarchy is hard to gauge, being so far impossible to distinguish from the personal popularity of the late queen. Saudi's representative to the coronation, Turki bin Muhammad bin Fahd, seemed a diplomatic snub given the status of others who attended, but despite appearances he was still the grandson of a former king who could be relied upon to behave appropriately. Still, his relatively low rank came as a surprise.

Related articles: Charles of Arabia: Royal Friend or Thorn in the Side?
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Page 2: a different framework?
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Past Feature Articles
Succession In A Time Of Uncertainty: Revisiting The Past? (Part IV)

After King Salman ascended the throne, his son Muhammad began consolidating power, presuming himself the next in line. Having eliminated his rivals and becoming effectively immune from future challenge, he has cast aside the guidelines and traditions governing the process of succession. But does the ambitious exercise to reset the political dynamic represent merely a course correction for an outdated system, or does it forebode something more sinister?

Succession In A Time Of Uncertainty: Revisiting The Past? (Part III)

A generation of royals brought up to believe that each would rule in turn was unwilling to accept that this could never be realized in practice, while factional rivalries complicated the dynamics of what had been an informal process of consensus building within the family.

Succession In A Time Of Uncertainty: Revisiting The Past? (Part II)

With no formal mechanism in place to decide the succession after Ibn Saud, royal family politics in the decades following his death were often turbulent, as a traditional leadership style based on personal influence and loyalty gave way to the more bureaucratic structures of a modern state. Still, there was no provision for extending the succession to the next generation of princes.

Succession In A Time Of Uncertainty: Revisiting The Past? (Part I)

The crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, is set to become the first of a younger generation to sit upon the throne, a transition which represents a fundamental break with both precedent and a tradition in which of the sons of the Kingdom's founder each took their place in turn. Succession in the royal family, however, is a dynamic process, a reflection of the realities of the time as well as the political environment.

Neom, The Crown Prince And Disruptive Innovation: The Collapse of Illusions?

2022 has seen the reputations of once high-flying titans of industry, media and politics left in tatters, as a veneer of carefully curated branding was stripped away to reveal the shaky foundation underlying the celebrity sizzle. Will Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, a self-proclaimed visionary and disruptor, suffer the same fate, or do his plans for a utopian future reveal an even more unsettling reality?