Queen Rania Al-Abdullah: A diplomatic monarch in a troubled region
Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan was the toast of New York last week when she jetted in for the United Nations’ Millennium Goals summit and the Clinton Global Initiative conference.
Beautiful, poised, earnest and articulate on issues ranging from women’s rights, girls’ empowerment, education and the Middle East peace process, Rania has become a popular regular on the international summit circuit and a sought-after interviewee, appearing last week on American primetime programs like ABC’s This Week hosted by Christiane Amanpour, and NBC’s Today Show. (Meanwhile, her husband King Abdullah II, equally well-spoken, chatted with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show).
Proving that she’s also an impressive multitasker, during her New York visit the busy Queen and mother of four managed to squeeze in a scheduled medical operation to correct an irregular heartbeat, a routine procedure which was completed without incident.
Rania, who at 40 is the world’s youngest Queen, has been described as “the Princess Diana of the Middle East.” She shares beauty and a love of designer clothes, but also an affinity for humanitarian causes and a savvy use of the media to promote those causes. She’s a huge fan of social media; she has her own website, Facebook account and a Twitter account with more than one million followers. American broadcaster Katie Couric, who is a friend, has jokingly called Rania “Miss Twitter.”
Rania’s Youtube channel, which she launched in 2008, is her most ambitious exploration of the new media. She posts monologues and interviews aimed at breaking down stereotypes about Islam and the Arab world. Youtube awarded her its Visionary Award for her efforts.
Rania is often asked by interviewers about her use of the technology, and she explains that it prevents her from becoming too isolated.
“There are no titles, no barriers online”, she told CBC reporter Margaret Evans in a recent television interview posted here on cbc.ca. “I found that being online has opened a window for me to look into other people’s lives ... The greatest fear that I have is losing touch."
She is keen to connect with people, perhaps because the rareified existence of royalty is not something she has lived her entire life. She is a commoner by birth, raised in Kuwait by middle class Palestinian parents. Her father was a pediatrician, and her mother a homemaker.
After emigrating with her family to Jordan during the first Gulf War, Rania got a business degree at the American University in Cairo and then started a career with Citibank and Apple Computers in Jordan.
At age 22, she went to a dinner party and met the then-Prince Abdullah. They were married five months later.
That was 1993. Six years later, Abdullah unexpectedly became King. His father, King Hussein, on his deathbed changed his mind about his successor, choosing Abdullah over the designated heir, Hassan, Hussein’s brother.
Rania has been Queen of Jordan (a constitutional monarchy, and a staunch American ally with diplomatic ties to Israel), for more than a decade, yet her talents and roles are still being discovered.
One thing is clear: she is an extremely effective and unthreatening diplomat for her region, bridging the gap between the Arab world and the West at a time when relations seem especially strained.
She just published and is promoting a children’s book (available in the West) called The Sandwich Swap, which deals with an American girl and an Arab girl overcoming stereotypes about their different cultures.
In interviews she repeats her concern that, as we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, mutual suspicion between the Arab world and the West seems to be “getting worse."
“Those who perpetuated those crimes are extremists, who are on the fringe of Islam. And they do not represent the majority of Muslims. They don’t represent me, they don’t represent the hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world”, she said recently in her interview with the CBC’s Margaret Evans.
And yet, she says, the extremists have gained the upper hand.
“I think we need to redraw the lines and realize that this battle is moderates against extremists. It’s not Christians against Muslims. It’s not West against East. It’s not Arabs against Americans. It’s moderates against extremists. And once we can really understand that, then we can start to fight the real enemy”.
Middle East issues
While in New York last week, Rania was repeatedly asked by journalists about the ongoing Middle East talks. Both she and her husband, King Abdullah II, believe a resolution is vital to diffusing other conflicts in the Middle East and ensuring a broader peace.
Because Rania is herself Palestinian, she has personal insight into the Israeli Palestinian issue.
“As a child I sometimes used to travel to the West Bank to visit my family, so I know what the checkpoints felt like. I knew what it was like to live under occupation.“
However, she also recalls, “the situation was not as severe as it is right now. Palestinians and Israelis used to interact with each other all the time and there wasn’t as much tension as there is today. I’ve seen how the situation has really deteriorated and moved backwards, and that really saddens me.”
In June this year, she wrote a compelling column in The Independent newspaper concluding: “I fear if the tides don't turn in our region, moderation will be amongst the most painful casualties of continued aggression and hardline policies. As someone who lived through the late King Hussein's fight for peace until his very last breath, and watches his son, my husband, King Abdullah, continue that fight, it actually breaks my heart to see us moving further and further away from peace.”
The Western media love Queen Rania, but some journalists note it is a little difficult to square this likeable, Western-sounding Queen with the country she presides over; which, although it is the most liberal in the Arab world, has a dubious record of human rights abuses against women.
The issue of so-called honour killings is a case in point. This refers to the murder of a girl or woman by a family or clan member because she is perceived to have brought “dishonour” to the family or community. According to official statistics there are about 15 cases a year in Jordan, although Human Rights Watch says this number grossly underestimates the real extent of violence against women.
Although the Royal family has denounced these killings, under Jordan’s penal code the perpetrators often get reduced sentences, sometimes half that for another kind of murder. The government has set up tribunals to deal specifically with this type of killing, but Human Rights Watch activists say this isn’t going far enough. Jordan’s legislature has blocked changes to the law.
“We are talking about it, we are challenging it, in terms of debate, in terms of changing some of the laws to make it more difficult for people to perpetuate these crimes”, Rania said in her interview with the CBC.
Actions for change
She believes that change will come incrementally, with a shift in “mindset,” and so she just signed up to be a global advocate for the United Nations’ “Girl up” campaign. It focuses on education as a means to lift young girls out of poverty and abuse. On her website she has emblazoned on the title page: “Education = Opportunity”. She writes on the site: “When girls are educated, you get effects that cascade throughout society.”
Back in 1995, she established The Jordan River Foundation, a non-profit charity that helps women find employment and start businesses, but also helps to protect kids from abuse. In 200, she also opened the Child Safety Centre, a shelter for abused kids, said to be the first of its kind in the Arab world.
The mother of four school-age children (the eldest, HRH Prince Hussein, 16), Rania has become involved in the school system. Because she is Queen, she can do it on a big scale.
In 2008, she started the non-profit Madrasati (“My School”) Foundation in Jordan, which has UNICEF among its sponsors, and which rebuilds and repairs poorly resourced local schools throughout Jordan and most notably for Palestinian kids in East Jerusalem.
Does she have any faults? If so, we’re unlikely to hear about them. The media is only semi-free — there are lots of restrictions from the state, so she has avoided the dogged pursuit of paparazzi that terrorize other Royals and celebrities in her circle.
She says she’s a private person, and once told Oprah Winfrey in an interview that her idea of a good time is staying home with her husband (the King) , eating popcorn and watching movies.
So, a nice Queen for a turbulent region. She’s an earnest do-gooder who is more beautiful than most people, but doesn’t crave attention, and has a predilection for the philosophical.
“I’d rather be dealt with as a person than a persona. With my children, I’m just Mom. At the end of the day, the position is just a position, a title is just a title, and those things come and go. It’s really your essence and your values that are important."
Queen Rania's official website
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