Flags at half mast – the right way to mark the passing of an illiberal despot?

You can probably guess that my answer to this question is a resounding “No.” When I saw yesterday that Westminster Abbey of all places was flying the flag at half mast to mark the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, I was horrified. The vomit-inducing tone of the tributes portraying him as some sort of reformer added to my irritation. If he was a reformer, Brian from the Magic Roundabout is a world champion sprinter to rival Usain Bolt.

I guess what intensified my overall sense of injustice was the chorus of silence from Liberal Democrats. Surely at least one of our parliamentarians should have openly criticised such a ridiculous decision. The only honourable exceptions I can find are Meral Ece and Mike Thornton, both of whom have been retweeting human rights information about Saudi Arabia and wry observations about the reaction to Abdullah’s death:

Most annoying was that it fell to a TORY to heap the most condemnation on the flags decision:

It’s all so different from 2007 when Vince Cable as acting leader boycotted the State Visit of King Abdullah, saying:

Mr Cable added: “I think it’s quite wrong that as a country we should give the leader of Saudi Arabia this honour.”

He said that although Britain has a “business-like” relationship with the country, Britain would not dream of extending the same invitation to other controversial leaders like Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi..

He said he had also been critical of the Saudi regime’s treatment of Britons.

None of our lot would ever condone the appalling Saudi regime’s record on human rights and I am sure that they are, through official channels, making representations about people like Raif Badawi, the blogger sentenced to a decade behind bars with a weekly public beating on the side just for writing about the sort of ideas we take for granted. The fact that women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia is symbolic of the state’s attitude to the supremacy of the male but is far from the only example. The deaths of 15 girls in a school fire after they were prevented from leaving for not wearing the appropriate dress was a long time ago but difficult to put out of my mind. Ten years later, the 2012 Amnesty report on human rights in the Kingdom is not a pretty sight. Torture, violence, discrimination, political imprisonment and abuse and exploitation of migrant workers feature. I just wish more of them would channel their Inner Vince, including Vince. None of them have been joining in the fawning, but I’d have liked to hear more criticism of that.

You can’t help feeling that money talks when it comes to human rights. Paddy is always talking about the need to work with regimes who don’t share our values for the greater international good.He has a point, but sometimes we are too timid in our dealings with them. There’s a difference between business-like and the sort of fawning that has Chas ‘n’ Dave rushing off to pay their respects and flying flags at half mast.

It seems that the Sovereign has more power in these matters than some of us might find acceptable. This country has some quaint and almost medieval protocol still in play. This guide on flag waving protocol makes interesting reading as to when flags can fly at half mast.

Flags should be flown at half-mast on the following occasions:
(a) From the announcement of the death until the funeral of the Sov-ereign, except on Proclamation Day, when they are hoisted right up
from 11am to sunset.
(b) The funerals of members of the Royal Family, subject to special com-
mands from Her Majesty in each case.
(c) The funerals of foreign Rulers, subject to special commands from
Her Majesty in each case.
(d) The funerals of Prime Ministers and Ex-Prime Ministers of the
United Kingdom, subject to special commands from Her Majesty in
each case.
(e) The funerals of First Ministers and Ex-First Ministers of Scotland and Northern Ireland and First Secretaries and Ex-First Secretaries of Wales, subject to special commands from Her Majesty in each case. Unless otherwise commanded by Her Majesty this only applies to flags in their respective countries.
(f) At British Embassies,High Commissions and Missions when flags in the host country are being flown at half-mast, subject to the discretion of the Chef de Mission.
(g) Any other occasions where Her Majesty has given a special command.

It’s not a huge amount of executive authority, but worth noting. Could the government have told her “no”? I certainly think it should.

However, I shall end by sharing this story from MotherJones.com which recounts Her Majesty, who drove ambulances during World War II, taking the then Crown Prince Abdullah for a wee spin.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

Read more by or more about , , , or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Rabi Martins 24th Jan '15 - 11:37am

    I feel really let down by our Party leadership’s failure to speak up against the decision by the Conservative led government to honour the head of country with such an appaling Human Rights record Why are we flying our flags at half mast ? This man was not a world leader but a despot
    And then to add insult to injury I hear our esteemed leader will be joining Cameron at the funeral WHY ?
    We claim to be a Party that puts people first The way we have behaved on this occasion it seems we put people first so long as it our actions do not risk our trade and profits.

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Jan '15 - 12:08pm

    I checked Russia Today last night and as expected they were having a field day on the western hypocrisy over human rights and Saudi Arabia. We should send someone to the funeral, but the half-mast thing and all the fawning was ridiculous.

    We need to get tougher on human rights. I recommend less fawning plus a switch from free trade to responsible trade.

  • Once yours was a party that protested an illegal war in that part of the world; now you cannot even summon up an official tsk at a figure embodying monstrous killings and human rights abuses. What a sad decline under your glorious leader, Clegg.

  • I share your reaction Caron, and well said Ruth Davidson. The Saudi regime is deeply unpleasant and a country like Britain with its justified pride in freedom, democracy and human rights should not be paying it this honour. It is not like, say, the sultan of Oman who has been a very enlightened ruler in the context of the Middle East as well as a loyal friend of the British state and people.

  • The Scottish Government did not join in with the ConDem Westminster government’s flying of flags at half mast. So it is clear that the Scottish government had the backbone to tell the queen to purr off!

    With independence and our own foreign policy, Scotland would not need to be associated at all with this

  • Aarh! moral absolutism that is not based on the teachings of the wise, including Christ…

    I ask a few questions:
    1. Did King Abdullah enhance the lives of the people and so has enabled them to lead largely peaceful lives and become better off than before and to those in neighbouring countries.
    2. Was King Abdullah a friend and ally to GB.
    3. Where was King Abdullah’s heart: Did he believe in reform etc.
    4. What message do we wish to convey to his successor and people, as flags, funerals etc. are really ceremonies for the living.

    Yes there is much that is wrong in Saudia Arabia, however, the impression I got is that whilst reform might have been glacially slow, reform was the general direction of travel and he was taking it as fast as he could without getting a backlash from the closed mind clerics, rabble rouser’s and their supporters. So I think it is correct that we show what is regarded as normal ‘official’ courtesy, but likewise it doesn’t mean that we need to stop pushing for further reforms.

  • I agree with Carons feelings but I think its actually more complex. As a Party we are in favour of Democracy & Human Rights everywhere but as part of The Government we are seen from outside The UK as partly “Repesenting” The whole Country. Ruth Davidson doesnt have that problem because Scots Tories have a dipensation to act as “Independent” as they like & Scotland has a sort of semi-detached status. There is also the general convention that we dont speak ill of the dead immeidiately after their death, that strikes me as an expression of our values.

  • A despot and tyrant. Shows the absolute moral bankruptcy of the war on terror. Saudi Arabia has been pumping out propaganda, funding radical Islamist groups and destabilising it’s neighbours for decades, yet we’re supposed to see it as a steadfast allies. This is before you even get to its human rights record.
    I understand that some people think that you shouldn’t speak ill of the recently dead, but did this extend to Gadhafi or Saddam Hussein or any other historic dictator. The half flags and public shows of respect by Cameron and Obama and the rest is as disgusting and embarrassing as any of George Galloway’s fawning meetings with various despots.

  • Stephen Campbell 24th Jan '15 - 2:14pm

    @Roland: “Yes there is much that is wrong in Saudia Arabia…”

    Understatement of the century there. The Saudis execute homosexuals. Atheists are considered terrorists (recently enshrined into law in Saudi Arabia). They give out brutal punishments such as 1000 lashes for daring to be a liberal blogger. They stone adulterers. Women are treated worse than animals in many cases and are still forbidden to drive. They have spread the horrible, anti-human Wahhabism to the West and have funded extremist preachers and mosques. Apartheid between the sexes and non-Muslims is brutally enforced.

    And your wonderful, oh-so-Liberal Nick Clegg not only has refused to condemn these nasty, medieval people, but sees fit to attend the funeral. Again, more evidence that you’re nothing more than an empty shell of a once-proud, once-decent party which now kowtows to horrible despots and tyrants.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 24th Jan '15 - 2:26pm

    @stephencampbell: He hasn’t refused to condemn anything. In fact he was pretty appalled by the treatment of Raif Badawi, for example, by the Saudi regime the other day. He certainly hasn’t praised Abdullah in any way. I’d just like to have seen some liberal democrats have a bit of a go at the Saudi regime. It shouldn’t be left to a Scots Tory to do it.

    There is a need to maintain a businesslike relationship with Saudi Arabia, China and other countries which don’t share our values but there are limits to how happy we should be about it.

  • @Caron – “There is a need …” Agree.

  • Alex Sabine 24th Jan '15 - 4:41pm

    It’s not just flying flags at half-mast that sticks in the craw. It’s the fawning tributes and eulogies from world leaders; take for example IMF chief Christine Lagarde (who I normally have some time for) calling him “a strong advocate for women”.

    I’m aware that King Abdullah took a few baby steps in this area, creating scholarships for women to study abroad, appointing women to his advisory council and granting them the right to stand in future municipal elections.

    But come on. This remains one of the most repressive and inhumane states on earth, one in which women are treated not just as second-class citizens but essentially as the property of men. Under the so-called ‘guardianship’ system women have precious few independent rights; they need permission from their male ‘guardian’ to work, travel abroad, open a bank account, marry and undergo medical treatment, among other things.

    In 2006, a rape victim was sentenced to 90 lashes because she was in a car with a man she wasn’t related to, and when she spoke to the media about her case her sentence was doubled. Women who have flouted the driving ban – which King Abdullah originally vowed to remove but has failed to do so – have been tried in anti-terror courts.

    Despite some largely cosmetic nods to political reform, power remains overwhelmingly concentrated in the ruling family’s hands. As the Washington Post observes: “The steps King Abdullah took to limit the power of the religious establishment and to institutionalise the process of royal succession…left the House of Saud stronger than it was before he took the throne. And inside the royal family, King Abdullah’s adroit manoeuvring largely neutralised the dissatisfaction and resentment of powerful half-brothers who had been his rivals for power. “

    Brutal criminal punishments, including public executions, whippings and amputations, have continued unabated under Abdullah’s reign. His promise to implement modest legal reforms in 2007 came to nothing as he backed down in the face of conservative opposition.

    Then there’s the small matter of religious freedom: blasphemy and conversion from Islam are punishable by death, the Shiite minority are discriminated against, and Saudi Arabia’s estimated one million Roman Catholics don’t have a single church. His response to the ‘Arab spring’ was a security crackdown and populist economic measures

    Freedom of expression is almost non-existent. Political parties and public demonstrations are banned. The media is tightly censored wherever it isn’t directly state owned and controlled. Saudi authorities have cracked down on the internet social media during Abdullah’s reign. As we know, those who dare to criticise the regime or call for religious tolerance are shown no mercy, as we have seen with the punishment handed out to Raif Badawi.

    To be fair, King Abdullah’s record is not all bad. He deserves some credit for economic modernisation, notably joining the WTO in 2005 and integrating Saudi Arabia into the global economy by opening it up to FDI. There was some recognition of the need to modernise its infrastructure and reduce its huge dependence on oil revenue.

    It may be true that, as the BBC’s Frank Gardner claims,”In Saudi terms, King Abdullah was a reformer” and that the new King Salman is more reactionary. At times he certainly voiced reforming ambitions, but despite being an absolute monarch he was unable or unwilling to follow them through.

    I drew the contrast with Sultan Qaboos of Oman who genuinely has been a reformer and transformed Oman out of recognition within the first decade of his long period of rule. Even though Oman is a million miles from a democracy, and the sultan is still a despot, the contrast with Saudi Arabia is night and day.

    Abdullah’s actual achievements as a reformer were very limited and after his reign of nearly 20 years Saudi Arabia remains one of the world’s worst and most oppressive regimes. The proper response to his death at official level would have been a dignified silence in my view.

  • Lowering the flags costs us almost nothing and shows respect for a foreign country that we have long sought to make a key strategic ally. It would be petty and diplomatically foolish not to lower the flags in a simple mark of respect.

    If we want to condemn Saudi Arabia for its illiberal antics, we’d do better to cut back on selling them arms, take a stronger diplomatic stance with them, seek broader alliances in the Middle East and stop covering up our major companies being up to their elbows in corruption in their dealings with Saudi Arabia.

  • ” ….There is a need to maintain a businesslike relationship with Saudi Arabia, China and other countries which don’t share our values …”

    Same old excuses, nothing new here, nothing to see at all, move along please.
    We have “business” to do with these people, please don’t make such a fuss.

    Liberal ? Democrat ? Don’t be silly !
    We are a party of government now, we make tough decisions, decisions like how to excuse murderous tyrants.

    Let’s whip ourselves up into a lather about Page 3 of The Sun that’s a really important issue where we can all express our moral outrage! Much more important than every single woman in Saudi Arabia. When will you men understand about feminism, why do you have to complicate it by mentioning these Saudi women?

    Forget about whippings, beheadings, imprisonment without trial, the funding of the Daesh, smile and carry on as before.

    Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Rwanda ? No reason to get too upset about these things — just maintain a businesslike relationship.

    Obviously the answer is to send Prince Charles to the funeral because he has only been on eleven state visits to Saudi.
    Why not send Prince Amdrew as well? A real example to the nation. He always has a “businesslike” approach. His attitude towards women will not seem at all out of place in Saudi.

  • @JohnTilley & Stephen Campbell

    So you’ll be okay when various countries around the world, that we consider to be friends, decide not to formally recognise the death of our monarch because of our human rights record during her reign?

    There are times where it is appropriate to show common decency and respect, whilst at the same time publicly praising/emphasising the ‘success’ of the deceased as a way of informing the new ruler of what is expected of them. This happens to be one of them, unless of cause you wish Saudi Arabia to stop supplying us with oil at 50 USD a barrel…

  • @Roland
    Saudi Arabia deserves no respect for lashing and stoning women or the lashings, amputations and beheadings of men. I have yet to see this in Trafalgar Square with the blessings of the Queen although under Sharia Law quite a few royal women would have been stoned by now. I give my common decency and respect too those who earn it not those who buy it from me and not brutal tyrants.

  • Denis Mollison 24th Jan '15 - 10:31pm

    “So you’ll be okay when various countries around the world, that we consider to be friends, decide not to formally recognise the death of our monarch because of our human rights record during her reign?”

    Of course I would. I try to follow Montaigne in seeing how the world looks to others, and Britain’s human rights record – though incomparably better than Saudi Arabia’s – is sufficiently bad that I would not be surprised or indignant if many foreigners withheld respect when our own figurehead dies. That said, I think the Queen’s taking Abdullah for a drive was a wonderful way of gedtting a point across – though it alas seems to have been too subtle to have effect.

    As an earlier commenter said, a dignified ignoring of Abdullah’s death would have been appropriate.

  • A tricky one this . Saudi Arabia is far from perfect and the restrictions placed on women are absolutely wrong, but if we want stable allies in the middle east they are in short supply. We can find faults with nearly all countries on human rights – are Saudi prisons any any worse than Abu Ghraib, Overseas Detention Centres, Guantanamo Bay etc? If Christine Lagarde says the late Saudi ruler was a “a strong advocate for women” – and lets not forget the Shura council has 20% female members these days because of his actions – perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s a very conservative country and any change is going to be very slow. Overall, he was the head of state of a important, ally and I think the right decision was made.

  • Roland

    “… There are times where it is appropriate to show common decency and respect…”

    Of course, what could I have been thinking of ? and what a shame that you were not able to make it to that bunker in Berlin in 1945 –I expect you would have liked to have respectfully left a posy of flowers for the recently deceased Fuhrer ?.
    What a pity you could not have made a similar gesture of common decency and respect at Pol Pot’s funeral.
    Were you there to show respect at the funeral of Idi Amin?

  • Tony Dawson 25th Jan '15 - 9:18am

    Saudi Arabia is a key ally in our struggle against ISIS, the people who want to bring in laws to oppress the people of Iraq, Lebanon and Syria which will mirror those of….er….Saudi Arabia. 🙁

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 25th Jan '15 - 10:53am

    On the suggested lighter note: possibly the Queen’s spectacular driving ability put Abdullah off allowing such high jinks in his kingdom. Still doesn’t explain why men are allowed to drive there. But we know why.

  • Four Saudi princesses, the late King Abdullah’s daughters, are under house arrest and have been for 14 years, and their relatives are continuing this, and the BBC reports that the reason is to silence them from criticising the regime.

  • Ian Sanderson (RM3) 25th Jan ’15 – 9:39am
    “… De Valera…. sent an official message of condolence to the German Embassy in Dublin on the death of Hitler. He was denounced by British commentators for doing so.”

    Yes you are quite right to remind us of that, Ian. One of a long list of De Valera’s embarrassing actions.
    Amazing that he got away with these things.
    What an irony that there is a De Valera Forest in Israel planted as a tribute to him.

    Astonishing to think that he was still around in the 1970s — a bit like us still having Asquith on the front bench in the age of Thatcher.

  • Jo Hayes 25th Jan ’15 – 11:25am
    “..Four Saudi princesses, the late King Abdullah’s daughters, are under house arrest …”

    Not just the princesses, Jo Hayes. Thanks to the recently deceased “King” all women in Saudi are under house arrest in practice if not in law.

  • @ Denis Mollison
    “I think the Queen’s taking Abdullah for a drive was a wonderful way of getting a point across – that it alas seems to have been too subtle to have effect.”

    @Tony Rowan-Wicks
    “On the suggested lighter note: perhaps the Queen’s spectacular driving ability put Abdullah off allowing such high jinks in his kingdom.”

    I’m still trying to picture the Queen doing her best Colin McRae impression on the Balmoral estate… I do hope she took him off-road for a proper white-knuckle experience!

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 25th Jan '15 - 1:13pm

    @ Alex
    I pray she did, he deserved the lesson !!!

  • “and what a shame that you were not able to make it to that bunker in Berlin in 1945 –I expect you would have liked to have respectfully left a posy of flowers for the recently deceased Fuhrer ?.”

    Common decency and respect doesn’t preclude the throwing of a party – The history books, record celebrations across Europe at the end of WWII…

  • Alex Sabine 25th Jan '15 - 3:03pm

    As a coda to my comment above, I fully endorse Stephen Tall’s reasoning here and his choice of Ruth Davidson as ‘Liberal Hero of the Week’ for putting her head above the parapet on this. Well worth a read (as usual):


  • Peter Galton 25th Jan '15 - 6:11pm

    My reaction was why should we be doing this. The Party should have objected to this.

  • Stephen Hesketh 25th Jan '15 - 8:11pm

    Tony Dawson 25th Jan ’15 – 9:18am
    “Saudi Arabia is a key ally in our struggle against ISIS, the people who want to bring in laws to oppress the people of Iraq, Lebanon and Syria which will mirror those of….er….Saudi Arabia. 🙁 ”

    Indeed Tony, indeed!

  • Stephen Hesketh 25th Jan '15 - 8:21pm

    JohnTilley 24th Jan ’15 – 6:14pm
    “Same old excuses, nothing new here, nothing to see at all, move along please.
    We have “business” to do with these people, please don’t make such a fuss.”

    Nods head in agreement.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Jan '15 - 10:52am

    A general principle is that when it comes to protocol one doesn’t pick and choose between other countries – they have to be treated all as equal. So if the protocol says flag at half mast, ok. Otherwise every time something like this happens there has to be a big debate about whether or not to do it.

    However, fawning comments, no. Comments should have been restricted to “The King is dead, and we are doing what is conventionally done on such occasions”.

  • Julian Tisi 26th Jan '15 - 3:58pm

    @ Alex Sabine
    Thanks for those specific examples of how Saudi Arabia is still one of the most repressive and inhumane states on earth. I must admit I feel disgusted at some of the fawning eulogies to this brutal despot ruling a country where hatred appears to be enshrined in law. However, there is clearly a realpolitik dillemma here – how best to change the future of Saudi Arabia which for all its faults is still an ally and a friend? I don’t know the answer here but I’m pretty sure that it has to be somewhere between fawning eulogy and bitter denunciation. As you say, a dignified silence is probably the way we should have gone.

  • Mike Falchikov 26th Jan '15 - 5:19pm

    I share the regret expressed by Caron and others that no prominent Lib Dem spoke out in a dignified way about
    the awfulness of the Saudi regime. I would like to hear Christine Lagarde justify her views about the treatment of
    women in Saudi. I share what seems to be the majority view that the best response from the government would be low key acknowledgment and sending a minor royal and a junior member of the Cabinet to the funeral. Yes, we do have to
    do business with the Saudis up to a point but we should be thinking of disentangling as much as possible from this regime
    until there is evidence of real change.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Alex Macfie
    @Peter Martin: No-one was saying that at all, except maybe @Adam who is relying on BtL comments on news articles which cannot be taken as representative of anyt...
  • Peter Martin
    @ Chris, Adam and David, So can we all agree (except perhaps Alex ) that being in favour of the EU does require uncritical support? This is a big problem...
  • Alex Macfie
    @Adam: I rarely read BtL comments in newspaper articles as they tend not to be representative of public opinion. All I can say is that such opinions as you have...
  • Adam
    "Given the avalanche of unending and captious criticism of the EU from the pro-Brexiteer nationalist establishment prior to Brexit, it’s scarcely surprising t...
  • David Allen
    Peter Martin, "In practice, we seldom, if ever, see any criticism of the EU from its supporters." Yeah, yeah, yeah. When the Tories make a political broa...