Queen Rania's Interview with Harper's Bazaar Arabia

February 27, 2019

"I'm not ready to give up on humanity,” says Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, the steel in Her Majesty’s voice belying her softly smiling eyes. It’s a position that must have been sorely tested over the 20 years that her husband King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein has ruled Jordan, the Arab nation that shares its borders with Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel and Palestine, placing it at the heart of some of the most harrowing global conflicts of recent times. Yet amid five ongoing conflicts and two of the world’s biggest humanitarian disasters – in Syria and Yemen – Jordan remains a beacon for resilience and optimism in the Arab world; its Queen, a globally-revered symbol of modern Arabia.

Sitting in her office in the capital Amman, photographs of her four children beaming out from amid the whispered hush of the chic Middle Eastern-inspired surrounds, 48-year-old Queen Rania gestures as if to the beige environs of the city, musing, “It isn’t really about the magnitude of the crises we face, but what we choose to learn from them, and how we use those lessons to become better leaders, citizens and human beings.” Since the onset of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Jordan has taken in 1.3 million vulnerable people, bringing its current population to around 10 million, according to UN estimates. The strain on the resource-poor nation’s infrastructure has been immense, with schools forced to operate double shifts to accommodate around 150,000 Syrian students. “We couldn’t turn away innocent people fleeing war, death and despair,” Queen Rania states simply, “I think the choice Jordan, its leadership and its people made when Syrians started fleeing across the border will go down in history as an example of moral leadership and moral courage.”

Her Majesty’s role is as far away from the storybook ideal as one could imagine, despite her fairy tale princess exterior. It is Queen Rania’s integrity, intelligence and intuition that arm her to battle the giants that history has placed at her door. “If I were to be queen in a different time, I do not expect that it would be any different,” she says pragmatically, “The world will always bear witness to catastrophic events, some naturally occurring, others man-made. Giving up or even slowing down is not an option, neither for me, nor for His Majesty.”

Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, Rania Al Yassin was working in Amman when she met the then prince Abdullah at a dinner party in 1992. They married the following year but it was not until 1999, when Rania was 28, that the line of ascension was changed by King Hussein on his deathbed and her husband ascended the throne. Over the latter half of his reign, His Majesty King Abdullah has steered the country through the fallout of the global economic crisis in 2008, the Arab Spring in 2011, the rise of Islamic extremist factions across the region and the ongoing civil war in Syria.

Jordan’s open-arm position towards its neighbours pushes back against the tide of global populism that erects walls at borders and sees countries turn in on themselves, ostensibly out of fear of what lies beyond. “Fear is a powerful emotion, and, in today’s uncertain world, it has become a potent political force,” Her Majesty explains. “People are worried about the economy, social and technological disruptions, violence and terror attacks… They’re worried about their future, and the future of their families.” In times of seismic change, she explains, it is natural to seek comfort in the familiar as people can feel left behind, which creates “room for others to capitalise on their unease, and to sow divisions and hatred.”

It is all too easy to sense the tremors of isolationism that threaten to rip humanity apart as would-be leaders espouse a rhetoric of division masquerading as patriotism. “After all, one of the simplest ways to win people over is to validate their anxiety by giving them someone else to blame, like globalisation, foreigners or refugees,” Queen Rania explains, “that’s certainly easier than finding real and lasting solutions!” Yet find lasting solutions to humanity’s woes we must, she asserts. “Our world is too interconnected for any nation or group to succeed on its own. Turning inwards and trying to keep the world out is no longer a viable option. Climate change, economic downturns, the global refugee crisis… These challenges transcend borders. So instead of indulging prejudices or playing the blame game, we need to come together to seek sustainable solutions to the issues plaguing our world.”

As a Muslim, Queen Rania is acutely attuned to the divisions propagated by religious separatists. “There are over 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, yet many people continue to confound this diverse group of people with a small minority who commit heinous crimes in the name of Islam,” she says. “Our religion preaches compassion, tolerance, forgiveness and embracing people of other faiths; it condemns hatred, prejudice and bigotry.” To those who would spread dissonance, she counsels, “There can be no true understanding or trust in a world divided by walls – and not only those walls built of concrete and stone…But the walls we erect in our minds.” She urges Muslims to “speak up and reclaim our religion’s true values and principles which – not too long ago – built a thriving and diverse intellectual civilisation.” Only by Muslims and non-Muslims addressing their growing intolerance and fear of the other can they move past their divisions, she says, adding with innate optimism, “I would like to believe that extremism falsely committed in the name of Islam has reached the apex, and that if we as Muslims continue to reject the extremists’ mangling of our faith, they will eventually lose their sway on the ground.”

In an era of fake news, Queen Rania warns that our human instinct to judge those different to ourselves has been amplified by social networks, leading to the global spread of false stereotypes and divisive discourse.“The danger here is substantial,” she says, “but is even more so when this online debate starts gaining ground offline; when negativity on Facebook or Twitter becomes fodder for negativity on the streets, schools or in conversations with friends and even strangers.” Her measured response is not to blame or ban social media itself but to reassess the way we use it. “The repercussions of misusing social media have already permeated our daily lives, and now we are a little in over our heads,” she cautions. “Our best bet is not to dial down our use of these platforms, but to become more discerning about what we are exposed to online. If destructive discourse is being brandished around us, we need to question whether it can be validated and think before we share in the conversation.”

At its most base level, social media can be an easy tool for bullying, and as an outspoken woman in the Arab world, Queen Rania is wide open to negativity and criticism, which she handles with grace and insight. “Listening to criticism is part of my job,” she smiles. “It’s important to respect all different viewpoints, and sometimes it’s the people who disagree with you who are able to point out something you may have overlooked. But criticism is constructive only when it is based on fact. Sadly, in today’s media landscape, false information can become irrefutable fact in a matter of hours.” She admits that when she first stepped into the role of royalty she was reluctant to speak out or take risks for fear of opening herself up to scrutiny or attracting censure. “With time and experience, I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin. There is nothing more important than being authentic, saying and doing what we believe in, and owning our narrative. If we don’t, others will fill in the gaps on our behalf,” she says. “I’ve learnt that the path to progress is long, hard, and often thankless – if you let fear of criticism paralyse you, you’ll never make it out the door. The difficult choices – the ones we most fear – are often those that need to be made.That fear is there to let us know that they are worth it.”

One of the most politically candid first ladies in the Middle East – if not the world – Queen Rania muses, “I never really made a conscious decision to be outspoken, I feel it’s something that I have to do because any voice raised against injustice erodes the power of that injustice.” She urges us all to follow suit. “I think it’s the most important thing in the world to be authentic, to live according to your beliefs and to speak your truth. Particularly at this time because the public discourse is dominated by hatred and intolerance and anger and fear, and so we need to provide a counter-narrative to that, particularly for people in public positions.”

Beyond those in the public sphere, Queen Rania encourages individuals to speak out, particularly women in the Arab world whose voices may have been hushed by cultural restraints. “For too long that voice has been quite muted,” she says.“When it comes to women from the Middle East you’ll find a lot of international experts ready to jump in and speak on their behalf, but you get narratives that are either inaccurate or just stereotypes. Women are usually painted with two broad brushstrokes, whether as dangerous extremists or oppressed victims; the nuance is lost in the narrative. Authentic voices from the Middle East are few and far between and it’s absolutely critical that women do speak for themselves because the stereotypes really don’t capture what women in the Middle East are all about.” Few would deny the yawning chasm between the perception of Arab women that proliferates in the West and the reality of the female experience across the Middle East.

“The women that I see and interact with are so strong, they are so determined, they are so ambitious, they are resilient. A lot of them are extremely well-educated. A lot of them are high achievers,” Queen Rania agrees, adding, “We can’t expect the rest of the world to recognise our successes and our achievements until we recognise them ourselves. We have to do a better job of celebrating Arab women, of highlighting their successes, of creating environments for them to thrive and express themselves and build on each other’s successes. Then we can start to reset global perceptions about Arab women.” Are observers in the West aware, for example, that in many Arab countries there are more females enrolled in universities than males? “In Jordan girls are much higher achievers academically than boys are, but the challenge is how do you transform those academic achievements into successful careers? All the time we see women bumping into glass ceilings and barriers in the work place. A lot of times it is because there is just a bias and a lot of times it’s because the working environment is not helpful or not conducive for women.” Such obstacles, however, can forge iron wills. “I think cultural and familial barriers really hold women back but I’m always inspired by how determined Arab women are. Because we are faced with all these challenges we try that much harder, so they’re very resourceful.”

One third of start-ups in the Arab world are headed by females, a higher percentage than in Silicon Valley. “That tells you a lot about how determined Arab women are to succeed in spite of their barriers. And how little of a victim mentality they have, contrary to what many in the western world think,” Queen Rania smiles. “So there’s a lot to be celebrated in the Arab world. But we need to amplify those successes. We need to talk about them. And we need to create linkages between these women because it’s like the reverse domino effect where one woman lifts another woman up and we all end up standing together. The greatest support that a woman can get is from another successful woman who lifts her up and tells her, ‘You can dream, you can succeed.’” We all have a role to play, she says, in encouraging, listening to and sharing a diversity of women’s voices from across the region, “so they can speak of their own story whether it’s the good, the bad, the triumphs or the trials. All of it. It’s part of the picture of who Arab women are and we’re so diverse; there isn’t one stereotype of an Arab woman. In different parts of the Arab world each woman is her own unique person. I would love to hear more voices coming up. Increasingly we’re seeing them but I think we still have a long way to go before we really leave a mark on the world stage.”

As recent times have highlighted, it is not only in the Middle East that the female narrative is silenced, subdued or subjugated. “Women all over the world see the subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways that gender discrimination can hold us back,” Her Majesty says. For women in the Middle East, however, the stakes can seem so much higher. Surrounded by war and conflict, women face issues of displacement, barriers for movement, and the severe economic challenges that result. “And whenever those things happen, there is a disproportionate effect on women; they tend to bear the brunt of the fall-backs. We see women and their needs and their status fall down the priority list,” she explains. The battle for equal rights, for education, for gender parity is forgotten when a battle of bombs and bullets is raging outside. “If you look in a lot of the countries where there is conflict, people don’t talk about how the rights that women have worked so hard to acquire are now taken away from them,” she says.

For the daughters, sisters and mothers who are thrust into life-destroying circumstances – whether Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims forced to flee child murder and rape, or those touched by atrocities in neighbouring Syria – the effects of such butchery are unimaginable. Yet while the rest of us can switch the channel on the television or turn the page of a newspaper when faced with images too horrific to process, Her Majesty has witnessed first-hand the suffering inflicted on humanity across the Muslim world, encounters that must levy an enormous emotional toll. “Every day we’re bombarded with images of human suffering and injustice and that can turn you into a cynic,” she agrees, “but we need to remember that even in the worst of circumstances you still see incredible acts of humanity and sacrifice. Even in the darkest places – particularly in the darkest places.” By seeking out the compassion of mankind, Queen Rania refuses to let the darkness overwhelm her. “I’m not ready to give up on humanity. Against all the terrible things that we see, there’s incredible goodness in people,” she says, “and it would be good for all of us to focus on that, and also our faith, in prayer. I feel that at times of reflection you find a lot of the answers, and our religion teaches us to face these kinds of situations with patience and determination and acceptance. That’s a great source of comfort for me and it keeps my faith.”

Cocooned by the zen surroundings of the Al Husseiniya Palace compound, where elegant cypress trees line the drive and the air is softly scented, the ills of the world seem a million miles away. Bringing up four children – Crown Prince Hussein, 24, Princess Iman, 22, Princess Salma, 18, and Prince Hashem, 15 – the temptation to be protective must have been strong. “Like any mother, I want my children to be happy and fulfilled and challenged but also I really want them to be decent human beings,” Queen Rania says of her drive to instil compassion and empathy in her children. “As parents we’re always very protective over our kids and eager to take care of their needs but I think we need to teach them from a young age to balance their needs with other people’s needs. Whether it’s standing up to a bully or sharing a toy; those are qualities that you instil in your kids from a young age.”

The playing field is skewed, however, when you have the word Prince or Princess before your name. “I want them to be normal kids. Sometimes I feel like I’m swimming against the current because obviously they’re royals and people sometimes treat them that way, but I try to make sure that they have an identity outside of their title,” Queen Rania says. “I always tell them, ‘You carry your title, it doesn’t carry you’ and to think of it more as a responsibility and not a privilege.” Ultimately, she explains, honorifics are not character defining. Children’s true identity is derived not from a title but through values, morals and principles, and “making sure that they’re aware of their history and heritage and their faith.” These are the things, Queen Rania says, that create a sense of identity for a child. “Although we can’t shield our kids from all the things that life is going to throw at them, when you instil those things in your kids they become resilient. That’s what I want for my kids, to have that kind of resilience.” “I tell my children, ‘You carry your title, it doesn’t carry you’ and to think of it more as a responsibility and not a privilege.”

Raising a future king must present its own set of challenges, ones that Queen Rania has experienced first-hand. “There’s plenty of personal sacrifice,” she says of life as a royal. “When you’re in the public eye you do get exposed to a lot of criticism, a lot of judgment. A lot of times my decisions are based on things that I can’t do rather than what I can, because there are certain restrictions or you just can’t go there because it’s not accepted, whether culturally or in any other context.” Queen Rania understands the gravity of duty. “When you are in the public eye your choices are not yours because you’re not living for yourself. But nothing that’s worthwhile is necessarily easy; you take the good and the bad, and I feel like it’s an honour and a privilege to be able to have a positive impact.”

Despite the human rights abuses she has witnessed around the world or the ongoing economic struggles of her fellow Jordanians, Queen Rania is motivated by the prospect of betterment for her country and those that surround it. “Ultimately what we all have in common is that we all want to have a meaningful life. People spend so much time trying to look for that meaning but I think it’s actually quite simple; a meaningful life is a life where you have made things better for people around you. And I think we all can do that whether you’re a public personality or a private citizen.” That’s not to say that she doesn’t allow herself some respite. “I’m more conscious now of making sure there’s a balance in my life. When I started out I didn’t understand fully the impact of emotional stress; how much that impacts your physical health, your energy, your outlook. Now I see when I am run down from too much work or too much stress that I suddenly become exhausted. So I make a much more conscious effort to create that balance. I make sure that the evenings are for my kids and for my family, watching TV. And also weekends, sometimes we’ll go to Aqaba or something like that.” With half of her children in Jordan and half studying abroad, she admits that it is hard to carve out family time. “I make sure that we somehow organise our schedules so that we’re together for a few weeks as a family over summer, and I must say that it is the most fulfilling time for me. That’s when I really fill up the tank. Just being with my kids, having that interaction every day, I love it. There’s nothing more important.”

Queen Rania was an employee of technology giant Apple when she met her future husband and today she embraces social media, where she describes herself as ‘A mum and wife with a really cool day job’ to 10.4 million Twitter followers, 16 million on Facebook, and 5.1 million on Instagram. But as her own children come of age in a newly digitised world, she is aware of the tightrope between empowerment and subversion that such connectivity brings. “When my kids started becoming old enough to be on social media and on the internet, as a mum my protective antennae shot up. But then I realised that snooping around is not going to be helpful because it will erode the trust between us and they will stop sharing things with me, so I’d rather we have an open dialogue and channels of trust that allows us to give and take,” she says. “At the end of the day it’s about moderation. It’s the same boring advice that you heard from your mum and your mum heard from her own mother: be moderate. I tell my kids to spend less of their lives on the phone and more of their lives being in the present, being in nature, picking up a book. It is hard because a lot of our lives are slowly migrating online but every now and then you just need to remind them that’s what is happening so they can be conscious of it and try to keep that balance.”

In addition to balancing time on- and off-line, the digital sphere can be a double-edged sword, Queen Rania explains. “The internet has unleashed a lot of potential for a lot of kids and sometimes when I look at YouTube channels or websites that are run by children they’re incredibly inspiring. But it is also a dangerous space where kids can be exposed to unsuitable content and negativity, to bullying, to content that makes them doubt themselves, or their self-image,” she says.“Increasingly, I try to guide my kids to look at the marvels of the internet and really steer them away from the dark corners.” The two-dimensional nature of platforms such as Instagram can be a battering ram in the face of wavering self-esteem, something that Queen Rania is also acutely aware of. “One thing that I’m very conscious of is that it’s become a very visual world and you really have to guard against your kids either becoming too superficial or unaccepting of who they are and becoming critical of themselves. Physically, emotionally; people start to think that other people’s lives are better than their own. I see that all the time, how people become incredibly insecure.” And it’s not only children who are susceptible, she warns. “Sometimes it really surprises me when I see people whose characters online are so different from their characters offline. And it makes me wonder, ‘Why do you feel you have to wear that mask? Why do you feel you have to project a certain image to the rest of the world? Why can’t you just be comfortable with who you are?’ Because ultimately your authentic self is what matters. And the closer you remain to the trueness of who you are, the happier you will be at the end of the day.” Despite what Snapchat filters would have us believe, “You don’t deceive anybody by trying to portray some kind of image on social media,” she counsels. “The number of likes that you get ultimately doesn’t matter. The validation that really matters comes from a sense of self-acceptance, achievement, doing something, developing your own skills.”

For these portraits taken for Harper’s Bazaar Arabia by photographer Alexi Lubomirski, Her Majesty was keen to stay true to her own sense of style, a style that is always secondary to substance. “I am very passionate about my work, and the clothes I wear don’t have any bearing on that. I am also very mindful that I have a duty to represent my country well. So, rather than follow the latest trends, I aim to dress in a way that reflects who I am,” she says. “I find that I’m most comfortable in modest wear – partly because of my position, but mostly because it feels right for me, as a woman.” Her Majesty just wishes that the emphasis would be on what she says, rather than what she wears. “Of course, one of the downsides of being a woman in the public eye is that there will always be comments about my outfits and appearance. Sometimes, there is a lot of exaggeration as well. I suppose it comes with the territory,” she says, “But at the end of the day, I hope it is my work that defines me, not my wardrobe.”

Chief among her work achievements is Her Majesty’s focus on education across the Arab world. Away from the images we see of starving children, displaced families and people in desperate need of medical aid, Queen Rania believes there is another less visible crisis unfolding in the Middle East, one that doesn’t make front page news. “Across the Arab world there are millions and millions of children who are receiving education that is inadequate, it’s outdated, it doesn’t prepare them for today’s job market, let alone tomorrow’s. So they really don’t stand a chance,” she says. “People don’t see it as a crisis. I see it as an emergency.” The slowly unfolding repercussions of failing to educate the region’s youth could decimate a generation. “What will become of them? Will they become vulnerable to extremist ideology, will they be a burden on society? What kind of impact will they have on our collective future?” She has seen first-hand how Jordan’s own education reform efforts have been strained by the pressure of accommodating Syrian refugee children in the country’s schools. “There isn’t anything more urgent for us in the Arab world than education because at the end of the day it’s about the individual being able to have the skills to participate in today’s economy, to feel competitive. There shouldn’t be a conflict between the sense of, ‘I’m an Arab, I’m a Muslim but I’m able to compete on the international stage’ and you can only achieve that through a quality education.” She urges a communal effort to revolutionise education across the Arab world. “If we put our hands together we can all muster up the resources that we need for our kids. Obviously some countries have more resources than others, but ultimately when it comes to the education of our kids we all have the same vested interest. If I’m in Jordan, it’s in my best interest that kids in Syria get a great education because if they don’t, that’s going to become a problem for me in the future.” While the challenge is huge, there is also great potential. Just imagine what strides a well-educated workforce could make.

“A large percentage of our population are young and therefore with the right interventions, what we see as a challenge could become an opportunity for very quick change,” she says. The digital world also makes it easier to reach students, train teachers and modernise learning. In 2014 Queen Rania launched Edraak as an Arabic online educational platform for adult learners, who were starving for engaging digital content in their native language. Since then, Edraak has reached more than 2.2 million registered users. Last September, the platform was expanded to schoolchildren too, with the Edraak K-12 platform, which will offer e-curricula in all major subjects to Arab children everywhere. “We’ve already rolled out mathematics, and there is much more to come. The platform will eventually include thousands of Arabic instructional videos, quizzes, and practice exercises covering everything our children learn in schools, all available free of charge to anyone with an internet connection,” Her Majesty says. The aim is to provide all Arab school-aged children with free access to quality education by 2020, whether they are in urban centres, refugee camps or conflict zones. “It is a tremendous undertaking, but it is one that our region cannot afford to put off,” she says. “A child denied an education is not a tragedy for just that child – it sets us all back. So we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to give them a fighting chance.”

By taking on as mammoth a responsibility as education reform in the Arab world, Queen Rania is setting herself a gargantuan task. “Sitting still is not who I am. You can ask my team, you can ask my mum,” she smiles. “The easy life is not something that I ever aspired to. And I think the easy way is never really the right way.” The education crisis can’t be solved overnight, and reform is fraught with resistance and cynicism, she says. “I could feel discouraged when those who are resisting the change have got the upper hand, but then there are days where I feel that we’ve really moved the dial, even if it’s for an inch. Where I see teachers who have just taken a course and are feeling empowered with their new skills and I see how their students are becoming inspired by this new atmosphere in the classroom.”

With the dreams and ambitions of a generation in her reach, Her Majesty Queen Rania's lasting influence over the Arab world has the potential to be prodigious. “I don’t believe in legacy; you’re not there to see your legacy,” she muses. “What I do believe is that you need to leave good deeds behind. Do whatever you can to positively impact other people’s lives.” We may not all be queens, but as Her Majesty says, the end game is the same for all. “Really we’re all here to leave a decent mark behind.”

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