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Queen Rania of Jordan: the new Marie Antoinette?

The Spectator, March 5th 2011

She is admired in the West but unpopular at home

Amman, Jordan

To the western world, she is the closest the 21st century gets to Princess Diana: glamorous, beautiful, charitable and royal. But to many of her citizens, she is extravagant, meddling and possibly even corrupt. She describes herself on Twitter as ‘a mum and a wife with a really cool day job…’ So which is the real Queen Rania? As the Arab spring spread across Jordan, I took a trip to Amman to find out.

The 40-year-old Palestinian never expected to be Queen of Jordan. She was born and brought up in Kuwait; her father, a doctor, was first-generation middle-class. Rania went to university in Cairo and her family moved to Jordan after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. She met her husband, now King Abdullah II, at a dinner party, but he was not even Crown Prince when they married a few months later. His father, King Hussein, only nominated Abdullah to take over the throne on his deathbed, 12 years ago.

Rania had worked in marketing for Citibank and Apple and spoke perfect English. When she became queen she threw herself into selling Jordan to the West. It wasn’t long before she was appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show, sitting on the board of the World Economic Forum in Davos and building up a network of mega-rich celebrity friends.

To Americans, this was a revelation. A Muslim woman could be as glamorous as a western one! She was intelligent and modern and spoke up for the rights of women. Maybe the Middle East wasn’t so barbaric after all.

This was Queen Rania’s mission: to bridge the growing gulf between East and West; to prove that Muslim countries could be moderate. But what she hadn’t bargained for was the modern, global media. If she appeared on Oprah, millions of Jordanians watched it on YouTube. If she mingled at parties with Hollywood stars, her people read about it online. Given her countrymen’s traditional hostility to the West, and particularly the US, this didn’t go down well. Rania thought she was selling Jordan; many Jordanians thought she was selling out.

Oprah introduced the queen as an ‘international fashion icon’. Such an epithet was fine for Princess Diana. But in Jordan, I was told repeatedly, ‘This is a poor country.’ Jordan has no oil, the financial crisis has hit hard and food prices have soared. No wonder Jordanians resent what they see as the queen’s profligacy.

This anger came to a head last September when Rania held a lavish 40th birthday party in the Wadi Rum desert, Jordan’s answer to Monument Valley. Six hundred guests were flown in from all over the world. Two giant figure‘40’s were beamed on to mountainous outcrops — although the neighbouring villages don’t even have electricity. Locals still speak of the water used to dampen down the sand so that the guests could walk more easily, though there were desperate water shortages nearby. It might not have been as excessive as the party the Shah of Iran threw in Persepolis before his downfall, but that hasn’t stopped Jordanians from drawing the comparison. They also compare the queen, ominously, to Marie Antoinette.

Fares Al-Fayez is a senior figure in the Bani Sakher tribe, one of the bulwarks of the Jordanian monarchy. It was in his farmhouse, surrounded by olive and almond groves, last month that he and 35 other tribesmen drafted a now-notorious letter to the king, complaining about the queen. In doing so, they smashed a taboo: criticising the king is illegal, and his wife had always, in practice, been protected too.

Sitting on kilim cushions in full traditional Bedouin dress, sipping Arabic coffee, this loyal monarchist explained their grievance to me. ‘She’s spending a lot of money on clothes, jewellery and shoes. Some people say she’s like Imelda Marcos. Then there was her birthday party. Poor people see that — they have eyes — and this hurts their feelings. I want the king to stop her. Some people spend hundreds of millions and others have nothing to eat but bread and tea. It’s painful and sad.’

Queen Rania herself seems unaware of the need for tact. On her website, she has posted a link to a cover story in Hello! magazine from last April: ‘Queen Rania celebrates with famous friends in the beauty of Jordan.’ It describes how Rupert and Wendi Murdoch brought their daughters to be baptised in the same spot as Jesus, along with Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Ivanka Trump, Larry Page and ‘other famous guests’. According to Hello!, Rania met Kidman at a charity lunch the year before and they ‘instantly hit it off’. There follow 20 pages of photos of the queen looking gorgeous with her new friends.

‘The expenditure is not fine. The exposure is not fine,’ says one Jordanian journalist, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. ‘She’s become a celebrity. She lost any connection with the people when Nicole Kidman and Naomi Campbell became important to her. She should be more careful who she mingles with.’

It’s not just the queen’s liberalism and western demeanour that some Jordanians dislike. The tribesmen resent her Palestinian origins; so do a group of former army generals who wrote to the king last year claiming that she was helping tens of thousands of fellow Palestinians to gain Jordanian citizenship. Some may be prejudiced against her parentage. But a more serious claim is that she interferes in politics, which the constitution does not permit. She is certainly feistier than her husband. When a British journalist went to interview the king, he was surprised to find not only that Rania insisted on being there, but that she kept interrupting and contradicting the king’s answers.

Jordanians claim that Rania has a hand in appointing ministers and local politicians. Of course this is impossible to prove, but people point to friends and associates of hers who have won top jobs, often at a surprisingly young age. ‘She has too much power now, definitely,’ Hamzah Mansour tells me. An elderly man with crinkly eyes, he is head of the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, the political arm of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

Mansour receives me in his office in the most Islamist part of Amman. Most of the women on the streets are in full niqab: the black robe that covers all of their body and much of their face. His organisation is campaigning for the king to cede more power to parliament. But he also has words for the queen.

‘She is the wife of a king and a citizen — no more than that. We don’t want her to have power. But she goes around inside the kingdom and abroad. She gives and she takes and she forbids. We don’t like that.’

Adham Gharaibeh couldn’t be more different from Mansour. He is a leader of the youth movement, and helped organise the recent pro-democracy protests. He wears western clothes and belongs to the Twitter generation. But even he agrees.

‘The queen is not allowed to get involved politically in the country. She’s only the wife of the king. We’re standing against the queen because of her interference in political issues. She’s using her position as the wife of the king and making business all the time with her family. Look at her brother, for instance. Where did he get all his money from?’

Allegations of nepotism and corruption are now widespread. The letter sent by the tribesmen accused the queen and her family of ‘looting the country and the people’, of ‘building centres of power for her own interest’ and of ‘wasting public money to improve her personal image abroad at our expense’.

Fares Al-Fayez, the instigator of the letter, says, ‘There’s a lot of talk that she and her family have taken over institutions and done deals and made money and we don’t want her to combine power and money. Money and power produces corruption.’ These are serious allegations, I tell him. ‘Yes, but most of the Jordanian people are talking about this.’

The queen’s allies defend her robustly. Salaheddin Al-Bashir, who has been both foreign and justice minister and is now a senator and a lawyer, says, ‘There has to be evidence of her interfering in the political system. I have never had a policy meeting at which she was present and I’ve worked in the Jordanian government.’

Still, she has taken her revenge. After the local Ammon News website published the letter, it received a call from ‘the authorities’ demanding that the story be removed. When the editor refused to do so, the website was shut down temporarily. The Palace then threatened to sue the bureau chief of the AFP wire service, which also reported the story. Other journalists have reported being intimidated.

Some people argue that the queen is now being attacked as a surrogate for the king. Intelligent wives of powerful men often get it in the neck — look at Cherie Blair. And how much more tempting this is when open criticism of the king can land Jordanians a three-year jail sentence.

Whichever one is the real target, it’s a serious matter for both Queen Rania and her husband. Given the political tremors that are shaking all the region’s thrones, neither of them can afford this level of unpopularity. She is doubtless aware that Abdullah’s father, King Hussein, divorced two of his four wives. So what can she do? The political analyst Labib Kamhawi, who says he likes her personally, has a few words of advice. ‘I think it’s time she adopted a low-key profile. She should keep quiet and act as the queen of a small and poor country.’

No more 20-page spreads in Hello! magazine, then. And perhaps her next birthday celebration should be a quiet night in.

20 Responses to “Queen Rania of Jordan: the new Marie Antoinette?”

  1. Mark Jordan says:

    How much does Rania worth? 10 Billions? The article is OK, but there are no new facts? Need to dig deeper and write an article which will bring her down.

  2. Adnan Jaradat says:

    It is very disturbing.she should go low profile for the sake of her self ,her husband and the country.We are a poor country ;celebrating lavish birthdays is in not in our culture,is not in her favour.God help and protect Jordan .

  3. Swasan abdallah says:

    I don’t agree that she is like princess Diana. She lacks humbleness, genuine concern about the “Jordanian people”, and has done injustice to the Palestinians that are migrating into Jordan daily. They have been given a temporary visa, rather than allowing them to keep their status as “Palestinians” in Palestine . This is doing more harm to the Palestine State, by narrowing the population, a major tragic move!
    Never mind, the creation of resentment and a huge divide between time tables exists in regards to the Palestinian migration/refugees, income level, long standing status. Furthermore, how this is a major effect on the native/indigenous people of Jordan. They are becoming the minority in their own country.
    Tragically, most of the citizens can not offered to live in Jordan, nor is able to provide for their families. The price of food,gas and every day necessitates are no longer affordable.
    In addition, the amount of foreign involvement in the work place is unbearable. She no longer respects the Arab Culture, heritage, unwelcoming change. She removed a special and incredible festival (in the ancient city of Jerash), that all talented people of the world to perform classical and traditional Arts. This is a major travesty!
    It takes a Jewish reporter to write about an Arab Queen, then compare her to a misbehaved selfish French Queen. What irony?
    Also, just as a correction, H.R.M.King Hussein did write a book in 1960′s “As the Lyon Lay”, which indicated that his son Abdulla will secede, as king.

  4. What makes you think I’m Jewish? Actually, I’m Christian.

  5. Abed A says:

    The problem is the political system itself in Jordan that has allowed Queen Rania to do these things without any accountability whatsoever…In Jordan, the king is in charge of everything…It’s an absolute monarchy…The bottom line: The king and queen govern and are not held accountable for their actions!

  6. The Engineer says:

    Mary,

    Agree with your article and most of the facts about Jordan and how infelential and political people such as Queen Rania need to be carefull about how her people see her. Her task is hard in trying to balance between being a Queen of Jordan, a mother and an excellent political advocate for a number of causes. Having spent some of the country money on her 40th birthday does not justify or even expalin of why Jordan is “poor”.

    I am not in a position to explain the Jordainian financial situation but I can only state the obvious facts. If Dubai is booming, why Jordan is not?

    Also, to be fair to the Queen, why are you not questioning the King spending, habits and Lavish life style.

    One fact I have learned over the years that makes me feel sorry for the Arabs. The Queen was born with a Palestinian Origin and Jordanians should accept her and love her because she is from the West Bank, Jordan is the East bank and she delivered to them the next King !

  7. Garden says:

    Mary,

    Cute story. Perhaps you should have spent a longer time in Jordan. What this whole Mid East crisis has taught me more than anything else is to be suspicious of media, especially bloggers. I am sure you had a nice time visiting the small handful of families/connections that you did; sadly, your assessment reeks of Western bias and speculation. As a volunteer based in the Eastern desert of Jordan for two years, I erk to think that a journalist could encapsulate a nation’s sentiment in one article while I can’t even begin to understand the social intricacies as a member of a Bedouin community!

    Queen Rania gets the press and media attention because of all the things she is doing… Madrasati Program (school systems for disenfranchised youth), Queen Basma resource centers (employment centers), language centers, Bedouin women organizations, etc. Don’t you feel it ironic to slam a woman for representing the exact same ideals we strive for in our own ‘Western world’. Additionally, she is seen as a representative of the refugee Palestinian population settled in Jordan. When Israel forcefully stopped the Turkish flotillas from aiding Gaza almost a year ago, SHE was the first country to send aid. If you ask Palestinians (who mostly reside in the cities of Amman, Zarqa and Irbid)what they think, they will most likely say they support her.

    You are right to say that there is a large portion of the population that don’t like her. However–and this is the most important part, Mary–the main reason has less to do with what she represents/does, but rather, where she is from. In Jordan, there are two communities that haven’t exactly lived peacefully from time to time. These communities are the Palestinians and native Jordanians. Jordanians are seeing their country increasing being “taken over”–as they will tell you–by Palestinians. While this sounds outlandish and is everything I am against, there is no denying the sentiment. These attempts to demonize the queen as a Marie Antoinette (clever) are nothing more than a public relations coup d’etat.

    Please take further care in the future to accurately portray sentiments rather than write a piece that just feeds the uniformed mass. While reform is needed, social attitudes, traditions, and responsibilities need to be put in place first.

  8. Saddam Al Majali says:

    Hi,

    why did you wrote about a local issue?
    first question came on my mind before reading:
    is there anybody advice you to write about this?

    warm regards,
    Saddam-HKJ

  9. Amer Abbadi says:

    In fact The essay is not giving the queen her true value and true deeds. What she has been doing makes her now in the eyes of Jordanian another Laila Tarabulsi (same as Tunisian’s Bin alli Wife). In a recent visit to a neglected village in Jordan valley 2 months ago, one of her office managers arrived the town an hour before the queen arrives. Her office Manager picked a woman who was working in her humble shop and dictated her what she has to say when she will be taken to meet the queen as a samople of the neglected families in the area. When that woman enteredto meet the queen, she shaked hands with her and after smiles and whispering to her assistants, the queen did shoot her question: what does the Medical Care Center of your town requires?! In addition, the queen “instructed” her helpers to follow up preparation and built of a small public garden in the midle of the twon (Although this town is located in the heart of Jordan valley- Jordan cuontryside!)

    This woman, if continues doing business and wasting Jordan’s money on her brwauty and her own image, she will lead the country to a horrific chaos!

  10. omar jordan says:

    thats true, her brother majdi, and uncle Hazem al razekh both corrupted, and abused their relations with the royal family to get hunderdes of millions

  11. nashetaa abee says:

    So, what is tbe queen up to lately for the Jordanian people? Is she really helping the people, the children and the rights of women?

  12. Nabil Abu-Dayyeh says:

    Dear Mary
    Congratulations. I think you did a good job. Your article is balanced and commendable. I had been living most of my life in Jordan, and would describe myself as agnostic liberal-socialist. Queen Rania, through her actions and what she stands for (Palestinian Liberal Woman) has come to symbolize many, often contradicting, things for jordanians. Her courageous attempt to create in Jordan an alternative homeland for the Palestinians, was bound to raise serious reaction. The alleged corruption of members of her family (probably true?) is no different than any other usual corruption by other members of the royal clan. East Jordanian reactions are not simply based on what she has already done, but on what she is likely to do, and how that might compromise the delicate demographic and economic balance in Jordan between Palestinian and Jordanian, which has become almost identical to division between city and country in the Marxist sense. Your article is what Jordanians need in this period to set on a middle course of action that can circumvent direct and violent confrontation and/or severe social divides. I think that, a first step, the Queen to humbly and publically address the people and explain the details of her actions. I am sure they are willing to forgive and forget if they see honesty in her eyes; otherwise, if she cannot present the honest look convincingly (as no investigation is likely to find her guilty), let her really take a low profile as Dr. Labib Qamhawi recommended.

  13. ayemin says:

    i think queen rania should act modestly like a true muslim woman. her mode of clothing should not be emulated by muslim women worlwide, in fact she has been sending a wrong signal.she shud bear in mind that as a muslim she has a big spiritual and moral responsibility. imagine, if muslim women worldwide will wear the same kind of clothings she has been flaunting around the world.

    • Unknown says:

      Not all Muslims around the world cover themselves properly.. And u have to remember she’s from Jordon where they aren’t even that strict about such things!:))

  14. Unknown says:

    Princess Diana was amazing! She was truly good and charitable!! Queen Rania I think is very different from Diana.. But I don’t think it’s fair to talk about someone who you haven’t ever met..:) and I don’t think Rania is anything like Marie Antoinette!
    ( I hope I did not offend anyone, it’s just the way I see this!)

  15. Unknown says:

    BTW good job with the article! Best of luck ahead!:)

  16. Westerner says:

    I disagree with you on the point that Jordanians hate westerners; this is not true. Most Jordanians are friendly with westerners, and they usually interact with them and treat them in a friendly manner. It is true that even if you go to the most advanced country in the world you will find people who stereotype people of different races, origins, and faiths. It does not mean that all people are unfriendly or hostile.
    I am wondering what piece of evidence do you need to prove that Rania and her husband are corrupt. There is an old saying in Arabic which reads ” You cannot hide the sun behind a sieve.” Lavish life style, shopping sprees that cost millions, nepotism and use of power from behind the scenes to benefit and get rich with each opportunity they can get.
    I have a question for you, suppose that you woke up one day and found out that a top official in your country had billions of Dollars in his account in a foreign country after he assumed position? Would you look for evidence to say he is corrupt?

    Rania and her husband have been working on fixing the economy for 14 years now, their bank accounts have grown enormously and the bank accounts of their close circle as well.
    I think it is insulting to underestimate the intelligence of your western readers to just say there is no evidence, you could have said that there are strong signs of corruption but solid evidence needs to be presented and if the economic situation keeps sliding down, evidence will surface eventually. When Abdullah II of Jordan visits a western country, his visit costs tens of millions, can’t you call this corruption. When Abdullah’s II of Jordan royal court sponsors thousands of students abroad and few of them are Jordanians, can’t you call this corruption besides who gives him the right to sponsor all of these students on the account of the poor. There is a lot to tell about their lavish life style compared to what they publicly speak of when they talk about the economy and when they try to polish their image abroad.
    It is true that the king keeps telling his people not to look at the half empty part of the cup but to look at the half full; what this means to Jordanians is that they should keep pouring into the cup to keep it half full for Abdullah II and company to keep their lavish life style.
    I wouldn call Jordan ‘The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan Company Limited’ exclusively owned and run by Abdullah II, Rania, and gang

  17. Ghassan says:

    Great job, your article is absolutly right and correct, further more she has caused sever damages to jordan and the jordanian people, she and her relatives have stolen bilions of dollars from jordan leaving jordanian people in a worse situation than thier origionaly bad situation, not to mention the millions she spent in order to creat a fake image, she has insulted jordanians snd thier national identity, she is promoting discrimination through her huge support to her fellow palastinians livivg in jordan, she has destroyed the image and the confidance of the king, and if she is not stopped soon she will lead the country into a civ war

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