Dan Sabbagh and Patrick Wintour
Wed, 14 September 2022 at 8:16 pm
India’s president will represent his country at the Queen’s funeral on Monday, meaning the prime minister, Narendra Modi, is not expected to be among the hundreds of foreign leaders due to attend the global spectacle.
A quarter of the 2,000 places at Westminster Abbey have been reserved for heads of state and their partners, with Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron and Naruhito, the emperor of Japan, the best-known guests confirmed as coming from abroad.
Invitations were sent out by the UK to heads of state of nearly every country, so by protocol the invite will have gone to Droupadi Murmu, the first person from India’s tribal communities to hold the largely ceremonial role of president.
In some cases the head of state has chosen to pass the invitation on, with the approval of the Foreign Office. On Wednesday, Turkey said it would be represented by Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the country’s foreign minister, not the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Modi called the UK prime minister, Liz Truss, on Saturday to express his condolences following the death of Queen Elizabeth II last week. But last Thursday, hours before her final illness was known, Modi delivered a speech urging India to shed its colonial ties, in a ceremony to rename a street once named after George V.
The presence of so many world leaders makes the event a diplomatic opportunity for the UK. Lord Ricketts, a former national security adviser, said: “The funeral of a figure admired and respected globally plus a nation united in mourning will project a much more positive image of Britain in the world.”
The former senior diplomat added that the sudden nature of the event meant “it won’t be an occasion for detailed discussions”, but it could help open doors with the EU, and would give Truss a chance to walk back comments she made about Macron in August in which she said it was unclear if the French president was “friend or foe”.
Foreign leaders will fly in over the weekend, and despite a Foreign Office request that leaders arrive in commercial aircraft to avoid congestion, Australia’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese, will use the government’s private jet to fly into the UK and bring with him leaders from at least four Pacific island nations.
Details of Biden’s arrival have not been made public but he is expected to use his own transport and security detail, and will be exempt from a Foreign Office plan to transport leaders by bus to Westminster Abbey to reduce traffic. The president spoke to Charles III on Wednesday, recalling the Queen’s kindness and hospitality, according to the White House.
The King will hold a reception at Buckingham Palace on Sunday, the principal diplomatic event before the funeral on Monday. Immediately after the main event, the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, will host a leaders’ reception at nearby Church House, as the royal family head to Windsor for the final committal.
Leaders with commitments to address the UN general assembly, including Biden, are likely to fly out of the UK later on Monday – with final details still being confirmed – although other dignitaries are expected to leave the following day.
Naruhito and his wife, Empress Masako, will leave their homeland on Saturday and head back on Tuesday, government officials in Tokyo confirmed. It is their first foreign trip abroad as heads of state, and it is rare for Japanese emperors to attend funerals, which are considered impure.
Others due to attend include Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern. Brazil’s controversial president, Jair Bolsonaro, is expected, as is the Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin, and the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, as well as monarchs from Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands.
But there has been relative silence so far from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, all ruled by autocratic royal families with close ties to Britain. The octogenarian Saudi monarch, King Salman, is not thought likely to attend, meaning the invite would most likely pass to Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, accused by the US of ordering the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Britain has snubbed a small number of countries because of political differences. It emerged on Wednesday that rulers from neither Syria, Venezuela nor Afghanistan’s Taliban had been invited, following the previous blacklisting of Russia, Belarus and Myanmar, the first two because of the war in Ukraine.
North Korea and Nicaragua – with which the UK has ice-cold diplomatic relations – are being asked to send representatives at ambassadorial level, a signal of disapproval that has already been sent to Iran.
The closing date for RSVPs is Thursday, and further details about the guest list are likely to be revealed then. Officials are still wrestling with a seating plan that will reflect seniority and status. Arrangements are also being made for VIPs to visit the Queen’s coffin to pay their personal respects over the weekend.
Bronwen Maddox, the director of the Chatham House thinktank, said she believed the funeral would “bring together world leaders in a more intimate way than the UN general assembly” – and help the UK project an image of unity amid the ceremonial display, despite changing both prime minister and monarch in less than a week.