Queen Ra­nia of Jor­dan talks roy­alty, refugees and be­ing a global ac­tivist

She dresses in Chanel and lives in a palace, but Ra­nia of Jor­dan – who at 28 be­came the world’s youngest fe­male monarch – is a fierce and vo­cal de­fender of women, Is­lam and refugees. Christina Lamb meets the ac­tivist queen

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On Twit­ter (6.3m 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 tiny waist. Her In­sta­gram (3.1m fol­low­ers) of­ten re­sem­bles a fash­ion shoot, with oc­ca­sional fam­ily shots 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 snaps: pic­tures of her ap­pear­ing amid wail­ing women in head­scarves and grief-stricken chil­dren.

For 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’s giv­ing a les­son to the world by tak­ing in more refugees than the whole of Europe. One in four of its in­hab­i­tants is a refugee – Unicef es­ti­mates 2.7m of Jor­dan’s to­tal pop­u­la­tion of 9.5m are refugees – and it hosts the world’s big­gest refugee camp out­side of Africa. It’s as if the UK took in the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of Hol­land.

Apart from be­ing a wife and a mother to four chil­dren, Queen Ra­nia, 46, 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. This is what I’ve come to talk to her about. But as she shim­mies into the re­cep­tion room at the Al Hus­seiniya palace in Jor­dan’s cap­i­tal, Am­man, where she and the king have their of­fices, I can’t stop star­ing at her shoes: cobalt blue with towering heels, the backs en­crusted with dia­manté. Then my tape recorder breaks, which she is very nice about, and one of her bevy of glam­orous fe­male as­sis­tants sashays in with an­other. “I al­ways find it hap­pens all in one day,” the queen smiles. “My phone, my lap­top, TV usu­ally all mal­func­tion on the same day, and I re­alise it’s a bad tech day and I give up.”

I imag­ine if you’re a queen, you have min­ions to deal with these things. Just that morn­ing, their neigh­bour­ing monarch, King Sal­man of Saudi Ara­bia, ar­rived in Am­man, de­scend­ing an es­ca­la­tor from his plane, and there was a spec­tac­u­lar pa­rade of camel corps and ri­fle toss­ing.

WHIRL­WIND RO­MANCE

More­over, it’s Ap­ple she has to thank for be­com­ing queen. A busi­ness stud­ies grad­u­ate and daugh­ter of a Pales­tinian doc­tor, she was work­ing in mar­ket­ing for the tech gi­ant in Am­man in 1993 when a fel­low em­ployee in­vited her to a din­ner party. There she met the then Prince Ab­dul­lah, el­dest son of King Hus­sein, and fell in love with his “great smile” and “in­fec­tious en­ergy”. Six months later, they were mar­ried.

At the time, Ab­dul­lah’s un­cle Has­san was crown prince and re­gent. But in a Shake­spearean twist, in 1999 the king, who was dy­ing of cancer, rocked the Hashemite king­dom 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.

QUEEN RA­NIA, 46, IS THE WORLD’S HIGH­EST-PRO­FILE

ARAB WOMAN

At 28, Ra­nia sud­denly found her­self the world’s youngest queen. “It was ex­tremely dif­fi­cult – not least as I wasn’t ex­pect­ing it, so wasn’t pre­pared for it,” she says. “And 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 wars in Lebanon and Syria and more refugees, so it’s been a chal­lenge.”

So, maybe not such a cool day job then? “I think cool may be not an ac­cu­rate term,” she laughs. “Just look­ing at our re­gion and the sit­u­a­tion of the past few years, it can be de­scribed as any­thing but cool.”

I ask if any other roy­als gave ad­vice to this in­génue com­moner; they’re fre­quent vis­i­tors to the UK, where her hus­band did of­fi­cer train­ing at Sand­hurst and their el­dest son, 22-year-old Crown Prince Hus­sein, is fol­low­ing in his footsteps. “Roy­als not nec­es­sar­ily,” she replies. “I am quite good at learn­ing from peo­ple around me. And I am very lucky to be liv­ing with some­one who leads with such com­pas­sion and con­vic­tion and in­tegrity,” she adds. “I know you may think I am just toe­ing the of­fi­cial line, but see­ing ev­ery chal­lenge we face and how he han­dled it, I be­come a big­ger fan of his.”

GLOBAL AC­TIVIST

Black-and-white pho­tos of their four chil­dren, aged be­tween 12 and 22, are the only per­sonal touch dot­ted around a palace re­cep­tion room of ivory, mar­ble and carved wood.

“Some­times, try­ing to con­vince the kids to fin­ish their home­work is harder than some of the is­sues I deal with in the of­fice,” she says. “Be­ing a par­ent re­ally hones your ne­go­ti­at­ing skills. They’re dif­fer­ent ages – you have the teenage, pre-teenage, col­lege stu­dent – each with their own set of view­points.”

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 girls’ ed­u­ca­tion, but she’s also be­come a Chanel-clad de­fender of Is­lam and an ad­vo­cate for refugees. She might be a queen, but she’s a refugee her­self. 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.

PRIDE AND ANGER

“I think Jor­dan has an un­par­al­leled hu­man­i­tar­ian record when it comes to host­ing refugees,” she says. “We are a small coun­try – the size of Hun­gary – and re­source-poor, but we’re the num­ber one [per capita] host of refugees. We’ve taken in 1.3 mil­lion Syr­ian refugees, whereas the whole of Europe has strug­gled to take in 1 mil­lion.”

She is an­gry at the lack of help. “Though I’m 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.”

SHE’S BE­COME A GLOBAL AC­TIVIST

EVERY­ONE WANTS ON THEIR BOARDS

‘DOES MY HUS­BAND ORDER HIS SOL­DIERS

TO CLOSE THE BOR­DERS? HOW IS HE

GO­ING TO SLEEP AT NIGHT?’

I get some sense of what Jor­dan is deal­ing with when I head 80km north­east to Za’atari, the world’s big­gest camp for Syr­ian refugees. Though some have moved on, Za’atari is still home to 80,000, half of which are chil­dren, mak­ing it Jor­dan’s fourth-largest city. 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.

Al­most 90% of refugees in Jor­dan live in towns and cities among the pop­u­la­tion, how­ever, they put 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 youth un­em­ploy­ment is 29%.

“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 says. “Only 35% of the cost of host­ing refugees comes from donor coun­tries. To cover the rest, we’ve had to bor­row. A quar­ter of our na­tional bud­get goes to refugees.

“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 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.”

TRUMP AND BREXIT

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 says. “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. I ask how she feels 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.”

Her talk of stand­ing to­gether and the need for em­pa­thy in a frac­tured world could not be fur­ther away from the rhetoric of Trump and his Mus­lim ban, and I ask what kind of mes­sage that sends. The queen is care­ful in her re­sponse: not sur­pris­ing, as she and her hus­band are head­ing to Wash­ing­ton for a state visit to the new pres­i­dent a few days af­ter our meet­ing – an in­di­ca­tion of Jor­dan’s piv­otal role. But it’s clear what she thinks.

“Ev­ery coun­try has its own pre­rog­a­tive and, for ev­ery leader, his pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity is to safe­guard the se­cu­rity of his own peo­ple, that I un­der­stand,” she says. “But the prob­lem of global ter­ror­ism is very com­plex and won’t be solved by ap­ply­ing bi­nary so­lu­tions like a ban.”

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 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.”

IS­LAM VER­SUS ISIS

It’s an is­sue close to home. The head of the Jor­da­nian army re­cently ad­mit­ted 300 Jor­da­ni­ans had gone to fight with Isis or al-Qaeda in Syria, though western in­tel­li­gence es­ti­mates it may be as many as 2500. She be­lieves the onus is on Mus­lims to do more. “As Mus­lims, we must work harder and speak louder against these ex­trem­ists and re­ally ex­pose them for what they are, so we can strip them of their abil­ity to at­tract re­cruits.”

As ar­guably the most prom­i­nent Mus­lim woman in the world, she’s 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.”

Yet I point out that in many Mid­dle Eastern so­ci­eties, in­clud­ing Jor­dan, more women are grad­u­at­ing than men. The prob­lem is af­ter­wards, when they can’t work be­cause of cul­tural or le­gal re­stric­tions.

“Cul­tural rea­sons are a big fac­tor,” she agrees. “The men­tal­ity is once you get mar­ried and have chil­dren, your pri­or­ity is to stay home. But we’re see­ing ev­ery day this is chang­ing. A woman who has a job is seen as a more at­trac­tive bride, as that means two in­comes in the house­hold. We’re see­ing women use tech­nol­ogy to start busi­nesses at home.”

If Queen Ra­nia is a role model with her busy sched­ule, it doesn’t seem to be mak­ing much dif­fer­ence. The govern­ment’s own fig­ures show the con­tri­bu­tion of women to the over­all eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity in Jor­dan in 2014 amounted to just 12.6% of the to­tal – roughly the same as in 1995 – and Jor­dan ranked 142 out of 144 coun­tries.

“Look around Jor­dan and you see po­lice­women, fe­male judges, women in the army, women CEOs,” she coun­ters. “They are out there, we are head­ing in the right di­rec­tion, but we need to push.”

The queen, who claims to drive her­self (some­thing banned in neigh­bour­ing Saudi Ara­bia) 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.”

I ask about her de­ci­sion not to wear a hi­jab. “I re­ally do think re­li­gion is a very per­sonal thing,” she says. “I feel 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.”

A LOST GEN­ER­A­TION

Af­ter our in­ter­view, I ac­com­pany her to one of the com­mu­nity cen­tres of the Jor­dan River Foun­da­tion, the NGO she chairs that was the first cen­tre in the re­gion to tackle child abuse and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. It’s a bright, cheery place with a sim­u­lated street along which are var­i­ous rooms of a house, from kitchen to liv­ing room, bath­room to bed­room, each of which is used to dis­cuss var­i­ous is­sues. The chil­dren are in awe of meet­ing a real-life queen, but her warmth is so in­fec­tious, some even dare ask for a selfie.

Many of the chil­dren are Syr­ian refugees. “I think in our life­times we haven’t seen a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis more heart­break­ing and ur­gent,” says Ra­nia. “There is a whole gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren un­der seven grow­ing up know­ing noth­ing but war and loss. There are 2.75m Syr­ian chil­dren out of school. Their child­hoods are be­ing lost to ig­no­rance, and ig­no­rance makes them much more sus­cep­ti­ble to rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion. As we sit here to­day, are we breed­ing a world more dan­ger­ous than we face now?”

There’s no sign of the refugee flow let­ting up. The war on Syria is now in its

‘THE WEST CAN HELP BY RE­SIST­ING

EASY STEREO­TYPES

OF ARAB WOMEN’

‘THIS IS A RE­ALLY DARK SPOT IN THE HIS­TORY OF WORLD DIPLO­MACY... WE

NEED A MORE CO­HER­ENT VI­SION’

sev­enth year. How does she 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.”

FREE­DOM AND FAKE NEWS

Jor­dan was one of the few places in the Mid­dle East to es­cape the Arab Spring rel­a­tively un­touched, but there must have been sleep­less nights in the palace. From Jan­uary 2011, pro­test­ers gath­ered as they did in neigh­bour­ing Egypt, chant­ing the Arab Spring re­frain – “The peo­ple want to over­throw the regime” – and de­mand­ing change. The king met with lead­ers and, later that year, sur­pris­ingly agreed to de­mands to sack his govern­ment. Some po­lit­i­cal re­forms were in­tro­duced, such as an in­de­pen­dent elec­tion com­mis­sion. As peo­ple saw the chaos and re­pres­sion in Syria, the protests sub­sided. It prob­a­bly helped hav­ing the best­trained se­cu­rity forces in the Mid­dle East.

The king and queen seem pop­u­lar. When I tell my taxi driver I’m in Am­man to in­ter­view the queen, he wants to give me the ride free. But I later learn it’s for­bid­den to crit­i­cise the king. Oc­ca­sional protests con­tinue, usu­ally over the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion and the in­tro­duc­tion of GST to try to plug the hole in rev­enue caused by refugees.

“This is a coun­try that had a fi­nan­cial cri­sis, our debt is sky-high, we went through the Arab Spring, we had wars on four of our five bor­ders. One of things that’s kept us to­gether is that here in Jor­dan we take pride in the fact we do work on build­ing in­sti­tu­tions, we have strong civil so­ci­ety and strong NGOs that work hand in hand with govern­ment to ad­dress many is­sues.

“We’re not where we want to be, by a long way,” she adds. “But democrati­sa­tion is a long process.” She clearly be­lieves the West was naive in its in­ter­ven­tions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, top­pling the Tal­iban regime and dic­ta­tors Sad­dam Hus­sein and Colonel Gadaffi, and think­ing things would change.

“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, then you’re set back an­other 20 years wait­ing for the next set.”

She be­lieves the con­cept of fake news be­gan with the Arab Spring. “There was a lot of mis­in­for­ma­tion, a lot of de­ci­sions be­ing made by ru­mours started on so­cial me­dia that didn’t re­flect re­al­ity on the ground.”

Talk of fake news brings us back to her visit to the White House; will she be im­part­ing any ad­vice to the first lady, Me­la­nia? “It’s my first time meet­ing her and I don’t want to pre­sume I’d have any­thing to of­fer, but if she asks, I’d be more than happy to share.”

As the queen kisses me good­bye, I can’t imag­ine two women more dif­fer­ent than Ra­nia and Me­la­nia. You got on very well with Michelle Obama, I men­tion. A broad smile breaks out and she starts to say, “I love Mi…” then checks her­self. “Michelle is very in­spi­ra­tional, and Ivanka [Trump’s daugh­ter] is a highly in­tel­li­gent young lady and very com­mit­ted to the em­pow­er­ment of women, es­pe­cially in the busi­ness world.”

And with that, the amaz­ing blue heels click-clack away to go and take on an­other cause.

Ra­nia, a staunch ad­vo­cate for women, says whether or not a woman wears a

hi­jab is a ‘non-is­sue’.

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