Rania of Jordan’s glamour and eloquence have won her celebrity friends in the West – and comparisons to Marie Antoinette at home
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 ov
er 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.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 5, 2011