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

  • 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.



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


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.



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.


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.



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.


“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.



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.


“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.

How well do Arabs understand the US political system? Not very well, study shows

Updated 26 October 2020

How well do Arabs understand the US political system? Not very well, study shows

  • Arab News/YouGov survey tried to find out the Arab region’s familiarity with the US Electoral College system
  • A whopping 82 percent said the candidate who gets the most votes is guaranteed to be the next president

NEW YORK CITY: The 19th century French statesman and writer Alexis de Tocqueville is famous for writing what is arguably considered the most insightful book on America, its system and people. “Democracy in America” is a fruit of this outsider’s travels across the nation, deep into areas few foreigners had ventured into before.

He called it “that vast American society that everyone talks about and no one knows.” This comment is still an eye-opener today. America is big, far away and its political system is complicated enough to boggle the minds of even the most astute experts.

When a recent Arab News/YouGov survey asked people in 18 Arab countries whether they believed Americans voted directly to elect their president, writer Joe Macaron was not surprised to see that 82 percent thought so. “I do not expect everybody to know about the Electoral College system, which resulted in Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote by three million, but losing the election,” Macaron said.

“It is a difficult system. Even some Americans do not understand it. It is complex, and very hard to change, requiring big constitutional amendments.”

An impressive 55 percent of the survey’s participants said they follow the US elections avidly or occasionally follow debates, speeches, polls and social media buzz. And while 90 percent said they have heard of President Donald Trump, as many as 47 percent admitted never having heard of his rival, Joe Biden, even though the survey was conducted in September, in the heat of the election campaign.

Still, of the two rivals, it is Biden who gets higher approval numbers among Arabs, with 40 percent saying they are very satisfied with him as a candidate, versus only 12 percent for Trump.

“The issue with Trump, as expected, is his closeness with Israel. This is clear in the 89 percent who disagree with Trump’s moving the US embassy to Jerusalem,” said Macaron.

“Neither do participants have a clear view of Biden, looking at him as a mere alternative to Trump.” Macaron said “the answer is elsewhere,” referring to the 49 percent who think neither candidate will be good for the Arab world if elected as the next president.

Macaron believes that, whether it is in supporting Israel or invading Iraq, Arabs feel the US always serves its own interest.

“Arabs are not always aware of the motivation behind US policy. They don’t understand that Trump plays mostly for his base here at home. And Obama came to power riding on two causes: Get American troops out of Iraq, and fix the economy. He was not going to go to war in Syria for anyone, just because they asked him to do so.”

Yet a resounding 53 percent of the poll respondents agreed that Obama’s Middle East policy left the region worse off. What does Macaron make of it?

“Arabs expect Americans to always intervene and help in one way or the other,” he told Arab News. “Take Lebanon, where they are waiting for the results of the American elections to see what the formation of the new government will be like.

“I can name four or five Arab countries who are just waiting for the American election to unfold. This is the wrong perception; experience should have already changed it. The Middle East has changed. The US itself has changed.

“You can’t have the same perception you had during the First and Second World Wars or, say, in 1953. Today, the US will not come and save anybody.”

Macaron said the US and the Arab world “are separated by a big geographical gap. There was never real close interaction between the two worlds.”

He puts it bluntly thus: “The Arabs’ understanding of America lacks nuance. They have a set of opinions about the US that is guiding them through. They see America in black and white. They either idolize Americans or demonize them.”

While Macaron thinks it is normal that only 11 percent of the poll participants avidly observe and read about US politics regularly, “given the million bad things thrown at them every day,” he also admits that if Arabs believe the US impact is so detrimental to their lives, “they need to do a better job getting to know US politics a bit better.”


Twitter: @EphremKossaify