QUEEN OF HEARTS
Her majesty Rania Al Abdullah on refugees in Jordan, Isis and being a Muslim woman today
On Twitter (6.5m 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. Her Instagram ( . m followers) o en resembles a fashion shoot, with occasional family shots. But among the Instagram photos are also less glamorous snaps of her appearing amid crying women in headscarves and grief-stricken children. For her majesty Rania Al Abdullah, 46, 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 o ering a lesson to the world by taking in more refugees than the whole of Europe; Unicef estimates that one in four of its inhabitants is a refugee.
As she walks into the reception room at the Al Husseiniya Palace in Jordan’s capital, Amman, where she and the king have their o ces, she is wearing towering, cobalt-blue heels, the backs encrusted with diamantés. She is arguably the world’s highest-pro le Arab woman, a platform she uses as an outspoken advocate for refugees and for a more compassionate world in the time of Brexit and US President Donald Trump.
It was at a dinner party in 1993 that 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. Unexpectedly, Abdullah was named heir instead of his uncle Hassan, and Rania suddenly found herself to be the world’s youngest queen at 28.
‘It was extremely di cult not least as I wasn’t expecting it, so I wasn’t prepared for it,’ she says. ‘From day one, it’s been one challenge a er another. We had 9/11, the war in Iraq and the refugees that came in then, the intifadas [uprisings] in Gaza, the wars in Lebanon and Syria and more refugees, so it’s really been a challenge.’
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 nish their homework is harder than some of the issues I deal with in the o ce,’ she says. ‘Being a parent really hones your negotiating skills.’
She might be a queen now, but her family were once refugees. Born Rania Al Yassin, her family are Palestinians who were living in Kuwait. During the rst Gulf War in 1991, they were forced to ee along with thousands of other Palestinian families and resettled in Amman, capital of Jordan. Rania was doing an MBA in Cairo and joined them, getting a job in marketing at Citibank, then Apple, before meeting the prince.
Rania is a Chanel-clad defender of Islam and an advocate for refugees. ‘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 one [per capita] host of refugees. We have taken in 1.3 million
with ‘I alwaysif you find that, women, EMPOWER THEM a little bit, they lift everyone around them. EDUCATION FOR GIRLS is the best investment you can make’
Syrian refugees, whereas the whole of Europe has struggled to take in 1 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 su er and how high a price they have had to pay for the world’s complacency.’
I get some sense of what Jordan is dealing with when I head 50 miles 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 whom are children, making it Jordan’s fourth-largest city; the white trailers cover more than ve 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.
Almost 90% of refugees in Jordan live in towns and cities among the population, however, putting 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 ve 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%.
‘It may not have been the logical or sensible decision to take in refugees, because our economy can’t take it. Our capacity to cope has been devastated,’ she admits. ‘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 in 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 woman 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, 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 about people thinking of refugees as desperate people waiting for hand-outs. 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 a uent 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. I ask how she feels now that the world’s most powerful leader is preaching that kind of politics.
‘It’s sad that, in many parts of the world, the word di erent 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. Fencing ourselves o 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 (she and her husband were heading to Washington for a state visit to the new president a few days a er our meeting) 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 such as 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 ghters, they are linked to criminal networks and prison cells.
‘Wholesale fear of Islam and Muslims only encourages othering of those who speak, look or pray di erently and plays into the hands of the extremists, who say Western culture is against all of us Muslims.’
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.’
She has also long been an advocate of girls’ education and has spoken out against child marriage and honour killings. ‘I always nd that, with women, if you empower them a little bit, they li everyone around them. Education for girls is the
best investment you can make, because the ripple e ect a ects so many issues; health, child mortality, economic empowerment all bene t when you give girls an education.’
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 battle elds, like the Yazidi women ghting 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 li each other up.’
I ask about her own choice of clothes and her decision not to wear a hijab. ‘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 di erences by trying to impose homogeneity. Many women in my country wear the hijab, and you’ll also nd many women dressed like me. It just ba es me sometimes that there’s a huge debate about an issue that should really be a non-issue.’
A er our interview, I accompany her to one of the community centres of the Jordan River Foundation, the NGO she chairs that was the rst centre in the region to tackle child abuse and domestic violence.
Many of the children are Syrian refugees. ‘We need to think not just about the economic e ects of being a refugee, but also the need to address psychological trauma and build resilience,’ she says. ‘I think that in our lifetimes we haven’t seen a humanitarian crisis more heart-breaking and urgent. There is a whole generation of children under seven growing up knowing nothing but war and loss. Their childhoods are being lost to ignorance, and ignorance makes them much more susceptible to radicalisation. Are we breeding a world more dangerous than we face now?
‘When you think about it, there is no logical reason why we in Jordan are still standing,’ the queen admits. ‘This is a country that had a nancial crisis, our debt is sky-high, we went through the Arab Spring, we had wars on four of our ve borders. One of the things that has kept us together is that here in Jordan we take pride in the fact that 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. It is part of the reason that, against all odds, Jordan has remained intact in the face of taking in so many refugees.’
The conversation comes back around to her impending visit to the Trump White House and I ask if she would be imparting any advice to the rst lady, Melania Trump, who like Queen Rania is a foreigner who unexpectedly found herself as the country’s leading woman.
‘It’s my rst time meeting her and I don’t want to presume I’d have anything to o er, but if she asks, I would be more than happy to share.’
And with that, the amazing blue heels click-clack away to go and take on another cause.
LEFT FROM TOP THEIR MAJESTIES KING ABDULLAH II AND QUEEN RANIA, HRH CROWN PRINCE AL HUSSEIN, HRH PRINCE HASHEM, HRH PRINCESS IMAN AND HRH PRINCESS SALMA. AMMAN, JORDAN; QUEEN RANIA DURING A VISIT TO THE CHILDREN’S MUSEUM AMMAN, JORDAN; QUEEN RANIA VISITS SOCIAL IMPACT PROJECTS IN AL SALT; QUEEN RANIA DURING A VISIT TO THE HOME OF THE HUMAN CARE IN AL-FUHAIS