“They would all love to have their own car,” said a weary British government official, one of the hundreds working at the Queen’s funeral.
Resting the world’s most famous woman has become a major diplomatic challenge. Members of the 23 royal families will sit in the front rows of Westminster Abbey, ahead of President Biden and some 90 other presidents and prime ministers, according to protocol.
Heads of nearly 200 countries and territories flying to London have been strongly encouraged to take commercial flights as the coronavirus pandemic complicates scheduling simultaneous landing slots at airports that are still understaffed. But many private jets come anyway.
Intense negotiations are taking place behind the scenes in an area called “The Hangar” at the UK’s Foreign Office. Hundreds of people are working on the requests of nearly 500 foreign dignitaries attending the funeral.
Diplomatic skirmishes have already taken place. Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, this week barred the Chinese delegation from attending the public viewing of the Queen’s coffin in Westminster Hall.
Hoyle cited China’s decision to refuse to allow some British politicians to travel to China because of their criticism of Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman responded sharply: “As the host, the British side must uphold diplomatic etiquette and hospitality.”
The Chinese delegation is headed by Vice President Wang Qishan. President Xi Jinping was invited but declined.
Almost every country or territory with diplomatic relations with Britain was invited. Some, including Russia, Belarus and Myanmar, did not make the list because of the war in Ukraine and human rights abuses. A handful of countries, including Iran, North Korea and Nicaragua, were invited to send an ambassador, but not their head of state.
The invitation includes a reception by King Charles III at Buckingham Palace on Sunday night and another reception immediately after the funeral.
Olena Zelenska, the wife of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, will attend, but her husband is not expected to attend.
British officials said it was unclear whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would attend. US intelligence officials have said MBS was behind the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a contributing writer for the Washington Post.
Khashoggi’s fiancee said his presence would be a “stain” on the queen’s memory.
Queen Elizabeth II met many of those attending her funeral in person. He traveled to more than 100 countries. On several occasions he met leaders of several generations.
Many guests will be in their 80s and even 90s, and how to get them seated quickly and comfortably is planned in detail.
For example, Spain’s King Felipe VI, 54, and Queen Letizia, 50, arrive. Elizabeth knows the king’s parents, former King Juan Carlos I, 84, and his wife, former Queen Sofia, 83.
VIP guests are constantly granted special requests. Some asked to bring their doctor, some a personal assistant. Some have requested a private room to rest.
“You can’t give a blanket ‘no,’ but nine times out of ten it’s a ‘no,'” the official said. “But we want everyone to leave with a good impression.”
One exception: translators. China’s Vice President Wang, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro and others asked for an interpreter because they did not speak English. Fewer than ten of those requests have been granted, but only for receptions — not funerals, where space would be severely limited.
Having so many world leaders in one place gives them rare opportunities to speak without aides and memos, said Capricia Marshall, the former chief of ethics for the U.S. in the Obama administration.
“They don’t have anyone else to talk to, and they take advantage of that,” Marshall said.
Countries typically send low-ranking officials to funerals and other events, Marshall said.
Britain’s ambassador to the US, Karen Pearce, said she believed Biden would be the first US president to attend a British state funeral. Winston Churchill and Lyndon B. The last state funeral was held in 1965 when Johnson was hospitalized.
Peter Westmacott, the former British ambassador to the United States, noted that there is always the potential for bad things to happen between leaders with strong personal or national differences. But he said the Queen’s death had caused an “explosion of civilization”.
He cited French President Macron, who has many differences with Britain over Brexit, Britain’s exit from Europe and personal disagreements with new prime minister Liz Truss and her predecessor Boris Johnson.
“He’s crazy about Liz Truss and Boris Johnson,” Westmacott said. “But look at the good things he says about the Queen and the relationship between Britain and France.”
In the end, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to come after being told he couldn’t have his own presidential car — with exceptions to the rule granted only to Biden, Israeli President Isaac Herzog and a couple.
“That call was made on security grounds. It has nothing to do with special relations or politics,” said the British official.
When the British refused Erdogan’s request, he decided to send his foreign minister instead.
For many Brits, pampered princesses and world leaders hopping on the bus is fun.
“All the world leaders are on a field trip,” said British comedian Jimmy Carr when asked for his thoughts by The Washington Post. “You know who’s really in charge? The bus driver is the world leader for that 45 minutes. ‘My bus, my rules! Sit in the back. Get along with North Korea, South Korea. Sit down! China, what are you doing in the back? Sit down!'”
Carr agreed with ethics experts that bus time offers opportunities.
“I think we can do more on that bus in 40 minutes than the UN has done in the last 40 years. Maybe Israel and Palestine sit next to each other on a bus and say, ‘You know, we have a lot in common. What did you bring for lunch Palestine? Hummus? Well, I have some pitas. Let’s do this.'”
Michael Birnbaum in Washington and Lily Guo in Taipei contributed to this report.