Queen Ra­nia of Jor­dan is known as much for her hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts as her grace and style. But now her king­dom’s refugee cri­sis has her speak­ing out against Is­lam­o­pho­bia and the need for in­creased global com­pas­sion.

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On Twit­ter (where she has 7.1 mil­lion fol­low­ers), she de­scribes her­self as “a mum and a wife with a re­ally cool day job”. That job is be­ing queen and she looks the part with her fab­u­lous de­signer clothes, long glossy hair and teeny-tiny waist. Her In­sta­gram ac­count (3.5m fol­low­ers) of­ten re­sem­bles a fash­ion shoot, with the oc­ca­sional fam­ily snap such as the one of her shar­ing a heart-shaped Valen­tine’s Day cake with an ador­ing king. But among the pho­tos are less glam­orous shots: pic­tures of her ap­pear­ing amid wail­ing women in head­scarves and grief-stricken chil­dren. That’s be­cause Her Majesty Ra­nia Al Ab­dul­lah lives in a king­dom sur­rounded by war. Jor­dan shares bor­ders with Syria, Iraq and Is­rael/pales­tine. Un­like some of its oil-rich neigh­bours, it is a poor coun­try, but it is giv­ing a les­son to the world by tak­ing in more refugees than the whole of Europe. In fact, one in four of its in­hab­i­tants is a refugee – Unicef es­ti­mates that 2.7m of Jor­dan’s to­tal pop­u­la­tion of 9.5m are refugees – and it hosts the world’s big­gest camp out­side Africa. If we were to liken this sit­u­a­tion to Europe, it would be as if the UK took in the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of Hol­land. Apart from be­ing a wife and a mother to four chil­dren, aged be­tween 12 and 22, Queen Ra­nia, who turns 47 this Au­gust, is the world’s high­est-pro­file Arab woman, a plat­form she uses as an out­spo­ken ad­vo­cate for refugees and for a more com­pas­sion­ate world in the time of Brexit and Trump. And this is os­ten­si­bly what we have come to the Al Hus­seiniya Palace to talk to her about. Ra­nia was thrust into the lime­light at the age of 28, when she sud­denly be­came the world’s youngest queen. “It was ex­tremely dif­fi­cult – not least as I wasn’t ex­pect­ing it, so wasn’t pre­pared for it,” she ad­mits, hav­ing been un­der the as­sump­tion her hus­band’s un­cle, Has­san, who was the crown prince and re­gent, was next in line to the throne. But in a Shake­spearean twist, five and half years af­ter she and Prince Ab­dul­lah wed, King Hus­sein, who was dy­ing of can­cer, rocked the coun­try from his deathbed by send­ing his brother a let­ter ac­cus­ing him of ev­ery­thing from slan­der­ing his fam­ily to med­dling with the army. The king then named Ab­dul­lah as heir in­stead. “From day one, it’s been one chal­lenge af­ter an­other. We had 9/11, the war in Iraq and the refugees that came in then, the in­tifadas in Gaza, the brief war in Le­banon and the pro­tracted Civil War in Syria, and many more refugees, so it’s re­ally been a chal­lenge.” Yet, in be­tween ful­fill­ing her main role of pro­duc­ing an heir and a spare, she has be­come a global ac­tivist every­one wants on their boards or at their con­fer­ences. Her main fo­cus is on girls’ ed­u­ca­tion, par­tic­u­larly through bet­ter teach­ing – she has been work­ing with the In­sti­tute of Ed­u­ca­tion in Lon­don to set up a teacher­train­ing in­sti­tute in Jor­dan for ex­am­ple – but she has also be­come a Chanel-clad de­fender of Is­lam and an ad­vo­cate for refugees. And though she might be a queen, her fam­ily were at one time refugees too. Born Ra­nia Al Yassin, her fam­ily are Pales­tini­ans who were liv­ing in Kuwait. Dur­ing the first Gulf War in 1991, they were forced to flee along with thou­sands of other Pales­tinian fam­i­lies and re­set­tled in Am­man. Ra­nia was do­ing an MBA in Cairo and joined them, get­ting a job in mar­ket­ing at Citibank be­fore mov­ing to Ap­ple and even­tu­ally meet­ing and mar­ry­ing then Prince Ab­dul­lah, el­dest son of King Hus­sein. “I think Jor­dan has an un­par­al­leled hu­man­i­tar­ian record when it comes to host­ing refugees,” she says. “We are a small coun­try and re­source-poor, but we are the num­ber two per capita host of refugees [af­ter Le­banon]... We have taken in 1.3 mil­lion Syr­ian refugees, whereas the whole of Europe has strug­gled to take in even a mil­lion.” She is an­gry at the lack of help. “Though I am re­ally proud of the Jor­da­nian re­sponse, it pains me to see how much Jor­da­ni­ans have had to suf­fer and how high a price they have had to pay for the world’s com­pla­cency.”

“Was it the ra­tio­nal thing to do, to take so many refugees? Prob­a­bly not.”

We get some sense of what Jor­dan is deal­ing with when we head 80 kilo­me­tres north­east to Zaatari, the world’s big­gest camp for Syr­ian refugees. Though some have moved on, Zaatari is still home to 80,000, of which half are chil­dren, mak­ing it Jor­dan’s fourth-largest city; the white trail­ers cover more than five square kilo­me­tres. It has nine schools, 11 hos­pi­tals, two su­per­mar­kets, its own foot­ball league and a main street – nick­named the Champs-elysées – of cafés and shops, where you can even hire a wed­ding dress. Yet, al­most 90 per cent of refugees in Jor­dan live in towns and cities among the pop­u­la­tion, which puts im­mense stress on ser­vices. More than a third of Jor­da­ni­ans live below the poverty line and the land is in­cred­i­bly arid – one of the world’s five most wa­ter-short coun­tries. The wars all around have de­stroyed tourism to an­cient sites such as the stun­ning rose-red city of Pe­tra, and un­em­ploy­ment among young peo­ple is 29 per cent. “It may not have been the log­i­cal or sen­si­ble de­ci­sion to take in refugees, be­cause our econ­omy can’t take it. Our public re­sources, our in­fra­struc­ture and so­cial ser­vices have been to­tally ex­hausted. Our ca­pac­ity to cope has been dev­as­tated,” she ad­mits. “Only 35 per cent of the cost of host­ing refuges comes from donor coun­tries. To cover the rest, we’ve had to bor­row. A quar­ter of our na­tional bud­get goes to refugees. Our debt-to-gdp ra­tio [now 90 per cent] has sky­rock­eted. Was it the ra­tio­nal thing to do, to take so many refugees? Prob­a­bly not. But at the core of this cri­sis are hu­man be­ings who lost ev­ery­thing through no choice of their own.” She cites the ex­am­ple of a fe­male refugee called Maha, whom she met on a visit to a camp on the Greek is­land of Les­bos. “She was just one year from qual­i­fy­ing to be a gy­nae­col­o­gist. She’d had a har­row­ing jour­ney out of Syria, an equally agonising sea cross­ing to get to Les­bos, her life had been turned up­side down and she had noth­ing. But her num­ber one pri­or­ity was to be­come a doc­tor. That’s what’s so sad when peo­ple think of refugees as des­per­ate peo­ple wait­ing for hand­outs. Th­ese are peo­ple with pride, hopes, dreams and as­pi­ra­tions. Only when we see them that way can we start to empathise and come up with so­lu­tions.” For Queen Ra­nia and her hus­band, there was never any ques­tion of not ac­cept­ing the Syr­i­ans mass­ing at their bor­ders. “Do you turn your back on the mother and chil­dren tak­ing a huge risk ven­tur­ing into the dan­gers of the un­known be­cause she knows what she’s leav­ing be­hind is worse?” she asks. “Does my hus­band or­der his sol­diers to close the bor­ders? How is he go­ing to sleep at night? It was never a ques­tion of yes or no, it was al­ways a ques­tion of how are we go­ing to make it work.” The im­pli­ca­tion is clear. Why couldn’t the EU, home to 500 mil­lion rel­a­tively af­flu­ent peo­ple, do the same? “I don’t want to lump the whole global re­sponse in one cat­e­gory,” she replies. “We have seen in some ar­eas in Europe an out­pour­ing of com­pas­sion, but in other places, in­stead of be­ing viewed with sym­pa­thy, refugees are viewed with fear and sus­pi­cion. That’s a very dan­ger­ous phe­nom­e­non, where se­cu­rity and eco­nomic fears are ma­nip­u­lated to pro­mote iden­tity pol­i­tics and pop­ulist poli­cies.” The words Trump and Brexit hang in the air. We ask how she feels that now the world’s most pow­er­ful leader is preach­ing that kind of pol­i­tics. “It’s sad that, in many parts of the world, the word ‘dif­fer­ent’ is be­com­ing syn­ony­mous with ‘dan­ger­ous’,” she replies. “Of course it’s fright­en­ing to think we live in a world where peo­ple can be ran­domly killed sit­ting in a restau­rant, at­tend­ing a con­cert or kneel­ing to pray, but to turn that into iden­tity pol­i­tics and to pro­mote ul­tra-na­tion­al­ism and iso­la­tion­ism and this frac­tur­ing of our world, that’s dan­ger­ous. This global or­der we have, we can’t turn it back. Fenc­ing our­selves off and each coun­try fend­ing for it­self is not go­ing to serve any­body.” She also wor­ries about what she sees as grow­ing Is­lam­o­pho­bia. “One of the main in­jus­tices in our world is the mis­con­cep­tion sur­round­ing Is­lam and the 1.6 bil­lion Mus­lims. Is­lam is not the en­emy. Daesh [Isis] and the like are the en­emy. Their ac­tions are not re­li­gious but crim­i­nal, and if you look into the back­grounds of many of their fight­ers, they are linked to crim­i­nal net­works and prison cells. Whole­sale fear of Is­lam and Mus­lims only en­cour­ages ‘oth­eris­ing’ of

“We have seen in some ar­eas, refugees are viewed with fear and sus­pi­cion. That’s a very dan­ger­ous phe­nom­e­non.”

those who speak, look or pray dif­fer­ently and plays into the hands of the ex­trem­ists, who say western cul­ture is against all of us Mus­lims.” As ar­guably the most prom­i­nent Mus­lim woman in the world, she has long been an ad­vo­cate of girls’ ed­u­ca­tion and has spo­ken out against child mar­riage and hon­our killings. “I al­ways find that, with women, if you em­power them a lit­tle bit, they lift every­one around them. Ed­u­ca­tion for girls is the best in­vest­ment you can make, be­cause the rip­ple ef­fect af­fects so many is­sues – health, child mor­tal­ity, eco­nomic em­pow­er­ment all ben­e­fit when you give girls an ed­u­ca­tion.” The queen, who claims to drive her­self and wears western clothes, gets frus­trated at western stereo­types. “What we see with Arab women is what we see with women ev­ery­where – they beat the odds,” she says. “In many in­stances, they form pro­tec­tive shields against the rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion of young men in their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. They pool re­sources to feed their fam­i­lies. We see them on battlefields, like the Yazidi women fight­ing Isis in Iraq. The West can help by re­sist­ing easy stereo­types of Arab women as sub­mis­sive and help­less. They are not, and once we stop see­ing them that way we can reach out. Women lift each other up.” Those stereo­types are not just for Arab women. Queen Ra­nia was all too aware of a re­cent Daily Mail head­line, which con­tro­ver­sially fea­tured a ‘Legs-it’ head­line, over a pho­to­graph of Theresa May and Ni­cola Stur­geon in skirts. “I was so dis­ap­pointed,” she con­fesses. “I think a lot of peo­ple woke up, saw that and thought we just trav­elled back 40 or 50 years.” We ask about her own choice of clothes and her de­ci­sion not to wear a hi­jab, which is in­creas­ingly be­com­ing a fash­ion state­ment in her coun­try rather than a re­li­gious one. “I re­ally do think that re­li­gion is a very per­sonal thing,” she says. “I feel that it’s wrong to try to deal with our dif­fer­ences by try­ing to im­pose ho­mo­gene­ity. Many women in my coun­try wear the hi­jab, and you’ll also find many women dressed like me. It just baf­fles me some­times that there’s a huge de­bate about an is­sue that should re­ally be a non-is­sue.” An is­sue that does war­rant her at­ten­tion is the war in Syria,which is now in its seventh year, and there is no sign of the refugeeflow let­ting up. How does Queen Ra­nia feel about the fail­ure of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to deal with it? “This is a re­ally dark spot in the his­tory of world diplo­macy,” she replies. “Part of the rea­son we haven’t been able to move for­ward is the world is di­vided on what they want to see hap­pen­ing in Syria. We need a more co­her­ent vi­sion that can get us to a ne­go­ti­ated peace set­tle­ment and cease­fire.” She re­veals how she be­lieves the West was naive in its in­ter­ven­tions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, top­pling the Tal­iban regime and dic­ta­tors such as Sad­dam Hus­sein and Colonel Gadaffi, and think­ing things would change. “Democrati­sa­tion is a long process – you can’t hope for democ­racy that will pro­duce the free­doms peo­ple as­pire to when those val­ues haven’t been in­grained in them,” she says. “Val­ues of free speech, re­spect for dif­fer­ent opin­ions, re­spect for di­ver­sity, re­spect for civil in­sti­tu­tions, free press – all those things are the build­ing blocks you need for healthy democ­racy, oth­er­wise you end up with one-time elec­tions that pro­duce dic­ta­tors who are worse than the ones you re­moved, and then you are set back an­other 20 years wait­ing for the next set. Democ­racy is not just about elec­tions – that’s just the cherry on the pie. The hard work that comes be­fore­hand to pro­duce the kind of democ­racy you want, that’s what you need to fo­cus on.” And with that, the Queen rises, bids us adieu and heads off to go and take on an­other cause.

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