There’s a well-established rule that the British royals don’t do politics.
Usually, this does not prove an overly complex directive, one even the dimmest royal can grasp, and its benefits are clear for all to see.
Prince Harry, for example, recently had cause to be grateful when Meghan Markle’s dad revealed the content of private conversations with him in a British TV interview.
Thomas Markle had asked Harry leading questions about Donald Trump and Brexit, to which Harry wisely demurred in the most general of, “Well, we’ll have to wait and see” terms.
There are occasional slips. The palace hit the roof when The Daily Beast revealed that the queen was in the habit of asking her guest to name “three things Europe had done for us” ahead of the Brexit referendum.
Prince Charles caused controversy with his “Black Spider memos” to government ministers, and has made occasional public pronouncements about architecture.
Generally, not getting involved in politics helps portray the Monarchy as impartial, and goes hand in hand with another wise injunction, which is that the Royals must never seek to profit from their names and position.
But Prince Andrew has never seemed to take seriously the importance of either of these self-evidently sensible precautions—combining his love of money with his tolerance of repressive regimes helped lead to Andrew’s sale of his house in Windsor to a Kazakh oligarch for £3 million ($3.85m) over the asking price.
The house was then left to rot by its new owner, and the sale has come to be seen as the most egregious example of a royal cash-in for generations.
Once again, Andrew now seems to have allowed his commonsense to be eroded by the dazzle of extreme wealth, by wading into the delicate diplomatic attempts to pressurize and isolate Saudi Arabia over its shocking murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Bizarrely, given the events of recent weeks, Andrew this week issued a call for his worthy “Pitch At The Palace” event to expand into Saudi Arabia.
“We have been expanding over the past two years to include other members of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council),” the Duke of York said at an event at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi.
“What we are doing with Pitch in this part of the world is to work in partnership, first of all with the Khalifa Fund but also with Bahrain ... and hopefully in the future with Saudi Arabia and other parts of this world.”
It was a bizarre decision to include Saudi Arabia. The country has been publicly shunned by the international community since the admission that its agents did indeed kill Khashoggi at its Turkish consulate, with multiple business and political leaders pulling out of the country’s “Davos in the Desert” event this week in Riyadh (including the British trade secretary).
Any suggestion that Andrew’s appeal to Saudi Arabia was accidental or made in passing is refuted by the fact that Andrew reiterated the point again at the end of his speech, saying: “It’s hugely important for us to have partners in the region, we look forward to working in Bahrain with our partners there and, as time goes by, we hope to expand also into Saudi and other GCC countries.”
It is also inconceivable that Andrew was put up to making the remarks by the Foreign Office. It was likely with a sense of resigned dismay—perhaps a collective “Oh no, not again”—that British officials would have read the transcripts of Andrew’s remarks this week. They are carefully ostracizing and shaming Saudi Arabia. Andrew’s business-as-usual approach undercuts that.
While the queen has found herself having to shake hands with some pretty questionable characters over the years, she has always done so at the request of the government.
There is no way that the government would have sanctioned Andrew’s remarks about Saudi Arabia, and this is the key difference between Andrew and his mother; Andrew appears to be quite happy just doing what he thinks is best.
The root of this is Andrew’s never-ending quest for a royal purpose. He has struggled to define a meaningful job for himself ever since he was stripped of his role as trade envoy after his links to convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein were exposed.
He desperately wants Pitch at the Palace to be a big international success (and of course he should be praised for the help the program, which invites young entrepreneurs to meet potential backers at glitzy palace events, has given to start-ups).
But announcing plans to expand into Saudi Arabia right now seems at best tin-eared, at worst amoral.
The friendly relationship between the British and Saudi royal families guarantees Andrew a warm welcome, but that friendship has long been a target for human rights activists’ ire.
How, they ask, can Prince Charles merrily do the sword dance with the autocratic rulers of a country ruled by the tenets of radical conservative Islam, which represses women, does not allow press freedom and jails political opponents? How can the royals offer such succor and symbolic support?
The narrative of the palace is that soft diplomacy is better than none at all, but events like the murder of Khashoggi undermine that fragile argument.
Peter Frankental, Amnesty International UK’s Economic Relations Program Director, told The Daily Beast: “Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record is coming under unprecedented scrutiny with many governments and businesses rethinking their relations, so it is alarming to hear Prince Andrew send ‘business as usual’ signals by encouraging more trade links with the Kingdom.
“Instead of talking up trade prospects, he should be putting emphasis on Saudi Arabia’s culpability for the murder of a journalist, the jailing of human rights defenders and the lethal bombing of Yemen that is causing a humanitarian disaster on a massive scale.
“While the royals aren’t politicians, they still act as important ambassadors for our country so we should expect them to re-appraise their future relationship with the House of Saud.
“When Prince Andrew and others next meet members of the Saudi government, we’d urge them to focus on the need for some frank royal-to-royal discussions on human rights.”
The palace did not respond to a request for comment.