“They would all love to have their cars,” said a weary British government official, one of hundreds working at the Queen’s funeral.
Laying down the world’s famous woman has become a big diplomatic challenge. Members of the 23 royal families will be seated in front of President Biden and about 90 other presidents and prime ministers in the first rows of Westminster Abbey as per protocol.
Leaders of the nearly 200 countries and territories that fly into London were strongly encouraged to take commercial flights because airports still have fewer staff from the coronavirus pandemic due to the complexity of scheduling landing slots at the same time. But anyway many private jets are coming.
Intense talks are going on behind the scenes at the UK Foreign Office in an area known as “the hangar”. Hundreds of people are working at the request of around 500 foreign dignitaries attending the funeral.
Diplomatic disputes have taken place before. House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle blocked a Chinese delegation from attending a public viewing of the Queen’s coffin at Westminster Hall this week.
Hoyle cited China’s decision to refuse to allow some British politicians to travel to China as he criticized Beijing’s treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman reacted sharply: “As hosts, the British side must maintain diplomatic etiquette and hospitality.”
The Chinese delegation is led by Vice President Wang Qishan. President Xi Jinping was invited but declined.
Almost every country or region with diplomatic relations with Britain was invited. Some did not make the list, including Russia, Belarus and Myanmar on the Ukraine war and human rights abuses. Some countries, including Iran, North Korea and Nicaragua, were invited to send an ambassador, but not their head of state.
The invitations include a reception hosted by King Charles III at Buckingham Palace on Sunday night and another reception soon after the funeral.
Olena Zelenska, wife of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, is attending, but her husband is expected not to attend.
British officials said they were not sure Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was attending. US intelligence officials have said that MBS, as he is known, was behind the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a contributing writer for the Washington Post.
Khashoggi’s fiancée said his presence would be a “stain” on the Queen’s memory.
Queen Elizabeth II personally met many of those who attended her funeral. He traveled to more than 100 countries. In many cases she met leaders of several generations.
Many guests will be in their 80s and even their 90s, and how to seat them quickly and comfortably is also extensively planned.
For example, Spain’s King Felipe VI, 54, and Queen Letizia, 50, are arriving. So did the king’s parents, former King Juan Carlos I, 84, and his wife, former Queen Sofia, 83, who also knew Elizabeth.
VIP guests have consistently made special requests. Some have asked to bring their doctor and some have asked a personal assistant. Some have requested a private room where they can relax.
“You can’t just issue a blanket ‘no’, but nine times out of ten it’s a ‘no’,” the officer said. “But we want everyone to make a good impression.”
One exception: interpreters. Chinese Vice President Wang, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and a few others asked for an interpreter because they do not speak English. Fewer than ten of those requests were granted, but only for receptions – not funerals, where space would be severely limited.
Capricia Marshall, former head of protocol for the United States in the Obama administration, said having so many world leaders in one place gives them rare opportunities to talk without aides and note-takers.
“They don’t have anyone else to talk to each other on, and they take advantage of that,” Marshall said.
Marshall said countries usually send lower-ranking officials to funerals and other events.
Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Karen Pierce, said she believed Biden to be the first US president to attend a British state funeral. The last state funeral was in 1965 for Winston Churchill and Lyndon B. Johnson, around that time, were hospitalized.
Peter Westmacott, the former British ambassador to the United States, said there is always the potential for things to get worse between leaders who have strong personal or national differences. But, he said, the Queen’s death has caused an “outbreak of civilisation”.
He cited French President Macron, who has several differences with Britain over Brexit, Britain’s departure from Europe, and personal disagreements with new Prime Minister Liz Truss and her predecessor Boris Johnson.
“He’s getting so mad with Liz Truss and Boris Johnson,” Westmacott said. “But look at the good things he’s saying about the Queen and the relationship between Britain and France.”
In the end, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to come after saying he couldn’t have his own presidential car – an exception to the rules given only to Biden, Israeli President Isaac Herzog and a few others.
“That call was made on the basis of security concerns. It has nothing to do with special ties or politics,” the British official said.
When the British refused Erdogan’s request, they decided to send their foreign minister in his place.
For many Britons, the idea of pampered princesses and world leaders getting on the bus is simply amusing.
Asked by The Washington Post his views, British comedian Jimmy Carr said, “All world leaders are on a field trip.” “And you know who’s really in charge? For that 45 minutes the world leader is the bus driver. ‘My bus, my rules! Get on your back. North Korea, get along with South Korea. Sit down! China ‘What are you doing in the back? Sit down!'”
Carr agreed with protocol experts that just in time presented opportunities.
“I think more can be done in that bus in 40 minutes than what has been done at the United Nations in the last 40 years. Maybe Israel and Palestine sit next to each other on the bus and go, ‘You know what, we have a lot in common. What did you bring for lunch, Palestine? Hummus? Well, I have some pitas. Let’s do it.'”
Michael Birnbaum in Washington and Lily Kuo in Taipei contributed to this report.