King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died yesterday aged 90, and there has been some controversy over the tributes paid by world leaders to the ruler of a repressive regime that carries out public beheadings and bans women from driving.
Amid debate over whether flags should be flying at half-mast from government buildings, and Westminster Abbey, out of respect for Abdullah, it turns out, however, that our very own Queen had nailed the best way to handle the Saudi ruler many years ago.
This story, taken from former Saudi ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles’s memoir Ever the Diplomat, was widely shared on social media on Friday; mainly because it’s amazing.
The scene is that Abdullah, then crown prince but in fact de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia with his brother the king having suffered a stroke, was visiting Balmoral for lunch in 1998:
"You are not supposed to repeat what the Queen says in private conversation. But the story she told me on that occasion was one that I was also to hear later from its subject - Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia - and it is too funny not to repeat. Five years earlier, in September 1998, Abdullah had been invited up to Balmoral, for lunch with the Queen. Following his brother King Fahd’s stroke in 1995, Abdullah was already the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. After lunch, the Queen had asked her royal guest whether he would like a tour of the estate. Prompted by his Foreign Minister, the urbane Prince Saud, an initially hesitant Abdullah agreed. The royal Land Rovers were drawn up in front of the castle. As instructed, the Crown Prince climbed into the front seat of the front Land Rover, with his interpreter in the seat behind. To his surprise, the Queen climbed into the driving seat, turned the ignition and drove off. Women are not - yet - allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah was not used to being driven by a woman, let alone a queen. His nervousness only increased as the Queen, an Army driver in wartime, accelerated the Land Rover along the narrow Scottish estate roads, talking all the time. Through his interpreter, the Crown Prince implored the Queen to slow down and concentrate on the road ahead."
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