The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forget the private jet and limo. Leaders relegated to buses for queen’s funeral.

Japanese Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako prepare to leave for Britain, at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on Sept. 17. (Kyodo News/AP)

LONDON — The Japanese emperor, who lives in luxury in Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, will ride a crowded shuttle bus to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral on Monday.

But while Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako have been cheerful about the communal transport, some other world leaders have not, especially because President Biden and a few select others will arrive in their own armored vehicles.

“They all would prefer to have their own car,” said an exhausted British government official, one of the hundreds working on the queen’s funeral.

Laying to rest the best-known woman in the world has turned into a gigantic diplomatic challenge. Members of the 23 royal families will be seated in the first rows of Westminster Abbey, in front of President Biden and about 90 other presidents and prime ministers, as dictated by protocol.

Leaders of nearly 200 countries and territories flying into London were strongly encouraged to take commercial flights because of the complexity of scheduling landing slots all around the same time at airports still short-staffed from the coronavirus pandemic. But many private jets are coming anyway.

Intense negotiations are going on behind the scenes in an area called “the Hangar” at the U.K. foreign office. Hundreds of people are working on requests from the nearly 500 foreign dignitaries who will attend the funeral.

There have already been diplomatic spats. Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons, blocked a Chinese delegation from attending this week’s 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 they have criticized Beijing’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman responded sharply: “As the host, the British side should uphold diplomatic etiquette and hospitality.”

Vice President Wang Qishan is leading the Chinese delegation. President Xi Jinping was invited but declined.

Almost every country or territory with diplomatic relations with Britain was invited. Some didn’t make the list, including Russia, Belarus and Myanmar, over the Ukraine war and human rights abuses. A few nations, including Iran, North Korea and Nicaragua, were invited to send an ambassador, but not their head of state.

The invitation includes a reception at Buckingham Palace hosted by King Charles III on Sunday night and another reception immediately after the funeral.

Olena Zelenska, wife of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is attending, but her husband is expected not to.

British officials said they were not sure if Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was attending. U.S. intelligence officials have said MBS, as he is known, was behind the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing writer.

Khashoggi’s fiancee said that his presence would be a “stain” on the queen’s memory.

Elizabeth had personally met many of those who will attend her funeral. She traveled to more than 100 countries. In many cases she met several generations of leaders.

Many guests will be in their 80s and even their 90s, and how to seat them quickly and comfortably has also been planned extensively.

For example, Spain’s King Felipe VI, 54, and Queen Letizia, 50, are coming. So are the king’s parents, former King Juan Carlos I, 84, and his wife, former Queen Sofía, 83, who also knew Elizabeth.

The VIP guests have made a constant stream of special requests. Some have asked to bring their doctor, some a personal assistant. Some have requested a private room where they can rest.

“You can’t just issue a blanket ‘no,’ but nine times out of ten it is a ‘no,’” the official said. “But we want everyone to leave with a good impression.”

One exception: interpreters. Vice President Wang of China, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and a handful of others asked for an interpreter because they speak no English. Fewer than ten of those requests were granted, but for the receptions only — not for the funeral itself, where space will be severely limited.

Having so many world leaders in one place offers rare opportunities for them to talk without aides and notetakers, said Capricia Marshall, former chief of protocol for the United States in the Obama administration.

“They don’t have anyone else to talk to but each other, and they take advantage of that,” said Marshall.

Usually countries send lower-ranking officials to funerals and other events, Marshall said.

Karen Pierce, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, said she believes Biden is the first U.S. president to attend a British state funeral. The last state funeral was in 1965 for Winston Churchill and Lyndon B. Johnson had been hospitalized around that time.

Former British ambassador to the United States Peter Westmacott noted that there is always the possibility of things going badly between leaders who have strong personal or national differences. But, he said, the queen’s death has caused “an outbreak of civility.”

He cited Emmanuel Macron, the French president who has many differences with Britain over Brexit, the U.K.’s departure from Europe, and personal disagreements with new prime minister, Liz Truss, and her predecessor, Boris Johnson.

“He’s pretty hopping mad with Liz Truss and Boris Johnson,” Westmacott said. “But look at the nice things he’s been saying about the queen and the relationship between Britain and France.”

In the end, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declined to come after being told he couldn’t bring his own presidential car — an exception to the rules granted only to Biden, Israeli President Isaac Herzog and a couple of others.

“That call was made based on security concerns. It has nothing to do with special relationship or politics,” said the British official.

When the British refused Erdogan’s request, he decided to send his foreign minister in his place.

To many Britons, the idea of pampered princesses and world leaders hopping on a bus is just amusing.

“All the world leaders are on a field trip,” said British comedian Jimmy Carr, when asked for his thoughts by The Washington Post. “And you know who is actually in charge? For that 45 minutes, the leader of the world is the bus driver. ‘My bus, my rules! Sit down in the back. North Korea, get along with South Korea. Sit down! China, what are you doing in the back? Sit down!’”

Carr agreed with the protocol experts that the bus time presented opportunities.

“I think more could get done on that bus in 40 minutes than has been done in the U.N. in the last 40 years. Maybe Israel and Palestine sit next to each other on the bus and go, ‘You know what, we’ve got a lot in common. What did you bring for lunch, Palestine? Hummus? Well, I’ve got some pitas. Let’s do this.’”

Michael Birnbaum in Washington and Lily Kuo in Taipei contributed to this report.

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