Queen Rania Al-Abdullah: a 31-year-old humanitarian, mother of three and co-ruler of a peaceful Arab nation, Queen Rania Al-Abdullah was surprised by her coronation—so was the rest of the world. But since taking the throne three years ago, she’s certainly proven she’s up to the challenge – Cover

Carin Gorrell

QUEEN RANIA AL-ABDULLAH OF Jordan does not allow an assistant to answer her door. She opens it herself and, looking stunning in a stylish leather skirt and stilettos, greets her guests with a friendly smile. Amazed by her casual manner, I follow her into the sitting room of her hotel suite in New York City. She is here to attend, among several other noteworthy functions, the World Economic Forum, and we chat until she delivers a second shock.

“Has anyone ever told you that you look like Gwyneth Paltrow?” I’m completely taken aback. But this reaction is exactly wrong. That’s not because I look anything like the actress. Hardly. Instead, it’s because I suddenly realize that the queen of Jordan might know more about U.S. culture and that of most countries than do I and many other Americans.

Rania’s Reign >> The world’s youngest–and arguably most beautiful–queen at only 31 years old, Queen Rania is garnering increasing international acclaim for her modern approach to presiding over a traditional Arab nation. Most apparent upon first glance, she does not wear the veil that many might expect to see covering the face of a Muslim woman; she is quick to point out that this does not diminish the strength of her faith in Islam.

“Many women in Jordan dress the way I do,” she explains. “We, as a country, give women the right to choose whether they want to wear the veil or not. From the Western perspective, I think a lot of people believe the veil symbolizes backwardness. In reality, that’s not the case.” This contemporary mind-set, which extends far beyond the absence of her veil, may stem from her more common upbringing.

Formerly Rania Al-Yasin, she was born in Kuwait to a Jordanian family of Palestinian origin who certainly did not anticipate her royal future. In fact, she had already earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration at the American University in Cairo and, fluent in Arabic and English, had begun a career at Citibank when she was introduced to Abdullah Bin Al-Hussein, the son of Jordan’s King Hussein, at a party. Less than six months later, in June of 1993, the two married. But because Prince Abdullah was not crown prince, neither he nor his new wife anticipated inheriting the throne.

“I was lucky, because when I came into the family, I had the opportunity to get used to a new way of life,” Queen Rania now says. “My husband was just a prince, and I was just a princess, so I could control, to some extent, the separation of my public duties from my private life.” A year after their wedding the couple had a son, whom they named Hussein, after his grandfather, and two years later Princess Iman was born. Then, in 1999, Jordan suffered a tragedy that significantly changed the young family’s way of life.

King Hussein, adored by Jordanians for his commitment to establishing peace in the Middle East, was dying of cancer. For 33 years, his younger brother Prince Hassan bin Tallal had been the crown prince. But just days before his death, King Hussein changed the dynastic succession by naming Abdullah, then only 37, his heir. After his death, Abdullah and Rania, now king and queen, were left to grapple with their grief and the unexpected and daunting task of ruling a country.

For her part, and despite a lack of “job training,” the new queen continued tackling the national concerns she had focused on during her first six years of marriage. In 1998, for instance, she had launched the Child Abuse Prevention Project. Prior to this, child abuse was underreported in Jordan and discussing it was taboo. This endeavor led her to open Dar Al Aman, or Home of Safety, in 2000. The first abused-children’s home in the Arab world, Dar Al Aman offers specialized psychological and physical rehabilitation.

The Children >> Last year, the queen’s love for children caught the attention of Jacques-Francois Martin, president of The Vaccine Fund, who asked her to join the organization’s international board of directors. Founded in 2000 with the help of a $750 million donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Fund works to stop the three million deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases that occur each year among poor infants.

Naturally, the queen accepted Martin’s offer, and the night after first meeting her I attend a Vaccine Fund benefit dinner at New York’s Four Seasons Hotel. The queen, Martin, Bill Gates and several other well-to-dos preside over the glittery event. As I have come to expect, the queen looks savvy and sophisticated, and her spike heels prompt one guest to lean in for comment. “How does she wear those?” she whispers, shaking her head in awe.

Martin speaks admiringly of Queen Rania as he delivers a few words of thanks to the dinner crowd and again later, when asked to describe her work with children. “I believe that her commitment to children is a very real and tangible part of her daily life,” he says. “On the occasions I have been with her, she has always mentioned how, as a mother, she finds it heartbreaking that so many children die each year of vaccine-preventable diseases. It is obviously something she believes in deeply.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, there in brief attendance, stops to embrace Queen Rania before departing. The two first ladies, who appear genuinely pleased to see each other, have worked together with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on securing loans for small businesses.

“The queen is a former banker, so she understands the criteria you need to be a successful borrower,” says USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios, who discussed microfinancing with her majesty at a recent conference in Washington, D.C. “But she clearly also understands the problems of the poor. The only way you get out of poverty is to create jobs, businesses and enterprise; and microfinance does that. She’s been an articulate worldwide spokeswoman.”

This initiative has assisted the Jordan River Foundation (JRF), a nonprofit organization the queen founded in 1995, in significantly improving the quality of life for Jordanian women.

“The challenges that women face in the Arab Muslim world are similar to challenges that women face in developing worlds,” Queen Rania explains. By presenting loans to Jordan’s small-business entrepreneurs, JRF is empowering women to become skilled contributors to society and income providers to their families. “Women are beginning to educate themselves on their rights. Once they know what their rights are, they can be more proactive in demanding that these rights are met,” she says.

Her Causes >> Truly, the list of organizations that Queen Rania supports is endless. And while some might suggest that her royal role is a symbolic one when compared with her husband’s executive role, others would argue that her dedication to humanitarian causes make the two equally important to their nation of five million.

Her inherent knack for connecting with commoners has enticed the media to draw parallels between her majesty and Princess Diana, a compliment Queen Rania hesitates to accept. “It’s an honor, because she was very special,” she admits when prodded. “However, when you’re in a public role, people tend to compare you with someone else.”

All flattery aside, Queen Rania believes that her most important role is that of a mother to her three children, the youngest of whom, Princess Salma, is less than one year old. Given the current political climate surrounding Arab nations, however, the queen and her husband are being asked more and more to play a peacekeeping role, which may make balancing the family’s work and private life a significant challenge.

“If you’re conscious of it and make sure that you have time on your own, you can pull it off,” she says. “I think from the outside, people don’t expect mine to be a normal life. But when you get to know it, it actually is.”

RELATED ARTICLE: In her own words: a chat with editor in chief Robert Epstein.

Robert Epstein: Xenophobia, or the fear of foreigners, is a fairly widespread phenomenon. You are of Palestinian ancestry, and your family was once forced out of Kuwait. Have you personally ever experienced xenophobia?

Queen Rania: I went to an English school, and there was a very large expatriate community in Kuwait. My classroom had children from many different nationalities, so I grew up with people from Europe, the United States, Africa, the Far East. These interactions made me realize how alike we are, that what makes us similar is much more than what separates us. Over the past three years with my husband, we’ve had to travel to so many different countries–from China to Russia to countries in Africa–and most countries I was visiting for the first time. Beforehand, I felt a sense of apprehension: I didn’t know what to expect. But once there, I interacted with the people and realized that, although on the outside they may do things differently, at the end of the day, they’re just like us. They have the same hopes and fears, they want the same things out of life. Parents worry about their children, people worry about their health, their future, their jobs. These are things we all have in common as humans, no matter where we come from. That knowledge helps you get over that kind of fear.

So you’re suggesting that the cure for xenophobia is meaningful contact, knowledge, information.

I do believe that. And today we stand at a crossroads. On the one hand, what happened in the United States in September may increase fear, and that’s understandable. Having gone through such a traumatic experience, it’s normal to worry about people who come from a different kind of life. But at the same time, we have an opportunity today, because we have certain tools–the Internet, TV news–available to us; it’s so easy to obtain information about different countries, different cultures. This kind of education, if we take the time to invest in other people, will really help widen our perspective and therefore reduce our fear and increase our confidence.

Some researchers suggest that xenophobia is a natural phenomenon, that we have this tendency because we need to protect ourselves from the unknown. Americans have had relatively little face-to-face, meaningful contact with Arabs. All of the 19 hijackers last September were Arabs, all of one religion, all male. Are Americans going to overreact in our reaction to Arabs?

The feelings are natural, and sometimes feelings don’t have to be logical. But if we do try to put things in perspective, these 19 Arabs are not representative of the millions around the world. Many Americans who have Arab neighbors don’t fear them at all; they have great relationships with them. At the same time, a lot of Americans live in our world and have excellent experiences. These are the people we should listen to, because they’ve had experience firsthand and they’ll tell you there’s nothing to fear. We have to ask, `What are we protecting ourselves from?’ The unknown is always frightening. I find that in anything in life, not just in other people. The more you know, the less you fear.

In the United States, we’re having a debate now about racial profiling. If you were an authority in this country, what would you say? Should we practice racial profiling to protect our citizens?

One of the United States’ major strengths is the fact that it is a melting pot. People come here and feel comfortable. They don’t feel they’re being discriminated against, and they assimilate into society very quickly. I don’t think that there’s any other country in the world that offers this kind of environment to foreigners. I see that as a strength. Obviously, this debate is going to go on; how much of American civil liberties are going to be compromised for the sake of security? Security is a very important issue, but I encourage the United States to hold onto its strengths and to continue to be the tolerant, accommodating society it is now. Because that’s what makes it so great; that’s what people love about it. The differences are what enrich American society. Especially in New York. Here, you see people from all different parts of the world, and it’s just wonderful; it’s so cosmopolitan.

I have read two things about you which are a little hard for me to reconcile. First, I read about your wonderful romance with the man who is now king and your husband. On the other hand, I also read that it was good politically for you to be princess and then queen because roughly 60 percent of the population of Jordan is of Palestinian origin. Do you serve a political purpose, and if so, have you helped ease tension within the country?

I think the first thing you read was closer to the truth. The second is something that people came up with after the fact. Had I come from a different background, people would have a different take on things, hay husband didn’t look at me and say, “This is her background, so that makes her suitable for me.” It wasn’t something that was in our minds. We always say that we hove 30 percent Jordanians, 30 percent Palestinians, and the rest are Jordanian-Palestinian, because Jordanians marry Palestinians and we have a second generation. We feel that Jordanian society is very well integrated. When I meet people, I don’t know if they are Jordanian or Palestinian. I never ask, and it’s not something that crosses my mind. The makeup of the country is something that analysts look into, but with us, living day to day, it’s not something we think about.

What advice would you give to the people of America about how to carry on in the face of terrorism and a vastly changed world?

What happened in the United States was tragic, was dramatic; it was a huge shock. The American people should not expect themselves to be over this any time soon. But it’s very important to take this negative event and turn it into something that we can build on in a positive way. Out of tragic events, sometimes we can have shifts in the way we think, and it improves the way we look at our world. Since September, there’s been a feeling all over the world of collective moral consciousness. We feel that what happens in different countries in the world is important to us. That is a positive thing, we need to build on that. So I would advise the American people to learn about what happens in other parts of the world, to get to know the Arab world, the Islamic world and to try to understand that there’s nothing to fear in that society. That will help them to get over the emotions that they’re going through now. Faith in God is the most important thing to deal with traumatic situations such as these. I know that what has happened has really strengthened all of you today.

The Royal Road

1970: Born in Kuwait on August 31

1991: Earned bachelor’s degree from Cairo’s American University

1993: Met Prince Abdullah bin Al-Hussein

1993: Married His Majesty on June 10

1994: Gave birth to son Prince Hussein

1996: Gave birth to daughter Princess Iman

1998: Launched the Child Safety Program to help prevent child abuse

1999: Became Queen of Jordan

2000: Produced The King’s Gift, a children’s book, as a tribute to the late King Hussein

2000: Gave birth to daughter Princess Salma

2001: Awarded the Life Achievement Award by the International Osteoporosis Foundation

2001: Visited the American Red Cross national headquarters to support those impacted by September 11

COPYRIGHT 2002 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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