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
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.
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
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.”
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
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’.