Death of Iraq’s last princess closes tumultuous chapter in Middle East history

Death of Iraq’s last princess closes tumultuous chapter in Middle East history
Princess Badiya bint Ali died peacefully aged 100 in London on Saturday. (Wikimedia Commons)
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Updated 11 May 2020

Death of Iraq’s last princess closes tumultuous chapter in Middle East history

Death of Iraq’s last princess closes tumultuous chapter in Middle East history
  • Princess Badiya bint Ali, who died aged 100 in London on Saturday, was the aunt of King Faisal II
  • She took refuge in Saudi embassy in Baghdad after royal family was eliminated in 1958 coup

LONDON: When Princess Badiya bint Ali spoke in her later years about the coup that killed much of her family and brought an end to Iraq’s monarchy, she would still be moved to tears.

She watched, terrified, from the balcony of a building in another part of Baghdad as smoke rose from the Rihab Palace on July 14, 1958.

Princess Badiya, who died peacefully aged 100 in London on Saturday, was the last surviving princess of Iraq.

Her death marks an end to a tumultuous chapter in Middle East history that took her from a childhood in Makkah to the grand palaces of the region’s capitals and into exile in the UK.

Born in Damascus in 1920 into the Hashemite dynasty, Princess Badiya was the daughter of King Ali bin Al-Hussein, who briefly ruled the Hejaz kingdom in western Arabia and held the title of Grand Sharif of Makkah.




Princess Badiya's nephew, King Faisal II, takes the oath in Iraq's parliament in 1953 watched over by the princess's brother Crown Prince Abdullah. (AFP/File)

Her grandfather, Hussein bin Ali, had led the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire and established the Hejaz kingdom in 1916.

In 1925 Princess Badiya and her family left Makkah for Iraq after the kingdom was overthrown by Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia.

In Jordan, Princess Badiya’s uncle had already established a kingdom with the support of the British, and as the Ottoman Empire crumbled, another uncle, Faisal I, became the king of Iraq in 1921.

For the young princess, arriving in Baghdad was a time of great excitement, and she was immediately smitten.

“Baghdad was lovely compared to Amman because Amman was small and lit with candles,” she recalled in an interview with Al-Sharqiya TV in 2012.

“There was electricity in Baghdad and a bridge and a high corniche. Baghdad was beautiful and I loved it.”

Faisal ruled for 12 years until his death from a heart attack, aged 48. His son, Ghazi, took the throne in 1933.

He was married to Princess Badiya’s sister, Princess Aliya.

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READ MORE: 

60 years on, Iraqis reflect on the coup that killed King Faisal II

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When Ghazi died six years later in a car crash in Baghdad, the next in line was his son Faisal II, who was just 3 years old.

Again, Princess Badiya found herself up close to the reins of power as her brother, Crown Prince Abdallah, served as the regent until the young king was old enough to rule.

After his education in Britain at Harrow, Faisal II took the throne aged 18 in 1953.

Regarded as highly intelligent and in charge of a country with a wealth of resources, he was expected to take the country forward.

Iraq was starting to flourish. Oil revenues were flowing and the country was undergoing rapid industrialization.

But there was also a huge social divide and the country’s poor were persuaded that Iraq was too closely aligned with Britain and the needs of the West.

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IRAQ: KEY MOMENTS

1917 Britain seizes Baghdad during World War I.

1921  Faisal I, son of Grand Sharif of Makkah Hussein bin Ali, appointed king.

1932  Iraq becomes independent with end of Mandate. Britain retains military bases.

1941 Britain re-occupies Iraq after pro-Axis coup amid World War II.

1958 Monarchy overthrown in coup led by Abdul Karim Qassim. Iraq leaves pro-British Baghdad Pact.

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The tide of Arab nationalism started to turn and hostility towards Iraq’s close relationship with Britain was exacerbated by the Suez crisis in 1956.

If Princess Badiya had been at the Rihab Palace when Brig. Abdul Karim Qassim arrived with troops on July 14, 1958, she would surely have been killed.

The disaffected officer ordered his tanks to open fire shortly after King Faisal II and other members of the Royal family and their staff had exited through the rear entrance.

Among those lined up and shot dead with the king were Princess Badiya’s brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, her sister Princess Abadiya and sister-in-law Princess Hiyam.

Princess Badiya heard the coup unfold from where she was staying in the Iraqi capital with her husband, Sharif Al-Hussein bin Ali, and their three children.

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IRAQ: KEY MOMENTS

1963 Prime Minister Qassim ousted in coup led by pan-Arab Baath Party.

1963 Baathist government overthrown.

1968 Baathist led-coup puts Ahmad Hasan Al-Bakr in power.

1972 Regime nationalizes Iraq Petroleum Company.

1979 Saddam Hussein takes over from President Al-Bakr.

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“I heard an explosion at around 6-6.30 a.m. and I jumped out of bed,” she said in the interview. “I asked Hussein ‘what was that?’ … I had a look at the Rihab Palace and saw smoke coming out of it.”

She spoke to King Faisal II shortly before his death and he offered to send guards to protect her but she declined.

Then a royal staff member came running, covered in blood, to where she was staying. “They killed them, they killed the king and his family,” he cried.

Princess Badiya recalled: “I started crying and screaming, and when the kids’ English nanny asked me what was wrong, I said ‘They’ve killed my family.’”

Along with her husband and children, she made it to Saudi Arabia’s embassy, where they sheltered for a month.

Saudi Arabia’s King Saud insisted the family must escape the country alive.

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IRAQ: KEY MOMENTS

1980 Iran-Iraq war begins and drags on for eight years.

1990 Iraq invades and annexes Kuwait, prompting first Gulf War.

1991 US-led military campaign forces Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.

1998 US and Britain launch campaign to destroy Iraq’s nuclear and chemical weapons program.

2003 US-led invasion topples Saddam Hussein’s regime, marking start of years of violent insurgency and power struggle. Saddam captured in Tikrit in December.

2006 Saddam executed for crimes against humanity.

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“King Saud told the ambassador to take care of us,” she said.

In the interview, Princess Badiya was clearly upset and shaken at the memory of an episode that came to define her life.

Through the shelter of the Saudi embassy, she fled to Egypt and on to Switzerland before settling in the UK, where she lived until her death.

For many Iraqis, the coup and the bloody circumstances of the royal family’s demise marked a turning point in the country’s history that led to a dark era of coups, dictators and conflicts that are still playing out today.

One of Princess Badiya’s sons, Sharif Ali bin Al-Hussein, worked in opposition to Saddam Hussein, and after the US-led invasion in 2003, he lobbied for a return of a constitutional monarchy with himself as king.

On Sunday, tributes were paid to Princess Badiya from both the country where her family once ruled, and another where they still do.

Iraq’s President Barham Salih sent a message of condolence to her son.

“Our hearts hurt deeply from having to hear the tragic news about the passing of Princess Badiya bint Ali,” it read.

Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who is now shouldered with the burden of trying to solve Iraq’s many woes, also paid tribute.

“With the passing of Princess Badiya bint Ali, a bright and important chapter of Iraq’s modern history ends,” he said on Twitter.

“She was part of a political and societal era that represented Iraq in the best of ways. May she rest in peace and my sincere condolences to her family and loved ones.”

From Jordan, the remaining Hashemite kingdom, King Abdullah II said the royal court mourned Princess Badiya’s passing.