The Palestinian Queen: Is Jordan’s Rania 'Marie Antoinette With a Social Conscience'?

Despite her deferential reception in the West, Jordanians are split in their assessment of their first lady.

Queen Rania of Jordan is greeted by refugees and migrants during her visit to Kara Tepe municipality camp in the Greek island of Lesbos, Greece, April 25, 2016.
Office of Her Majesty Press Department / AP

Jordanians still speak about Queen Rania’s extravagant 40th birthday party in the beautiful Wadi Rum. Inviting 600 people, including guests flown in from overseas, the 2010 celebration used truckloads of precious water in an area with severe water scarcity. Pink granite walls were lighted with the number 40 despite many in the surrounding impoverished villages not having electricity. Abroad the Jordanian Royal has a polished image known for her progressive values. However, inside her own country, the queen’s reputation is more controversial.

Rania al-Yassin was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents. Five months after first meeting Prince Abdullah at a dinner party, the two married when Rania was 22 years old.  

Typical of Western coverage, People Magazine ran a glowing article last December focusing on a “Stunning Photo” of Rania’s family. In the most reputable American publications, Rania presents her country’s positions such as a May 5 Washington Post op-ed on Syrian refugees. During a September 2015 CNN interview, the journalist asked Rania softball questions including on European Islamophobia but avoided probing Jordan’s challenging human right’s record. Few other spouses of Middle Eastern leaders are viewed so favorably in the West — and treated so leniently, if not deferentially.

However, domestically, the picture is somewhat different. Rania, a Palestinian by origin, has been a frequent target of criticism based on Jordan’s identity politics. During heated soccer matches, East Bank fans, whose roots lie East of the Jordan river, have repeatedly chanted: “divorce her you father of Hussein (King Abdullah), and we’ll marry you to two of ours.”

The attacks against the queen are voiced by “East Bank Jordanians who feel that over the years that their power, and job opportunities have been diminished,” while Jordanian of Palestinian descent have appeared to prosper, explained Daoud Kuttab, Director of the Amman-based Radio Balad. Some ultra-nationalist East Bankers are concerned that the next king, Crown Prince Hussein, will now be of Palestinian origin due to his mother’s lineage — a first in Jordan — noted Bassam Badareen, veteran Al-Quds al-Arabi correspondent. It’s an embodiment of East Banker’s longstanding fear of Jordan becoming the “alternative homeland” for Palestinians. 

The attacks intensified during the onset of the Arab Spring. 36 tribal leaders issued a joint statement in February 2011, noting, “The queen is building centers to boost her power and serve her interests against the will of Jordanians.” Comparing the queen to the wife of deposed Tunisian President Zine Ben Ali the letter condemned Rania for corruption. The tribes are considered an important bedrock of the Hashemite Regime, especially in the country’s security forces. “King Abdullah should stop his wife and her family from abuse [abusing their power]. Otherwise, the throne might be in danger,” the tribesmen wrote. 

While attacks against the Queen have increased, some of the critique against her is actually directed elsewhere — though close by. According to Jordanian law, criticism against King Abdullah is illegal and punishable by jail, while the Queen is not protected explicitly protected by law in a similar fashion. Therefore, she becomes an “easy target” when a Jordanian is interested in condemning Abdullah’s policies but dare not speak directly against him, noted Kuttab.

Queen Rania declined an interview request for this article.

Nonetheless, Her Majesty has a base of supporters, particularly liberal Jordanians. Deema Farraj, host of a popular Jordanian television political talk show and a loyal supporter of the Hashemite Family appreciates the Queen’s strong outspoken opposition against ISIS. “I wish there were ten women like Queen Rania in the Middle East.” When acknowledging the critiques against her, Farraj believes much of this is due to the conservative character of Jordanian society: Rania “gets criticized because she is a woman who is vocal and influential.”   

The Queen is active in the field of education. Her initiative Madrasati has improved the physical infrastructure of schools across the kingdom. Launching the Queen Rania’s Teacher Academy (QRTRA), her program has trained 30,000 teachers since it was founded in 2009. Haif Bannayan, Director of QRTA confirmed that Rania is far more than a mere figurehead of the projects in her name. “She’s extremely involved, and very hands on!” Bannayan noted. 

Rania’s work involving children extends beyond education. Her firm rhetoric condemning child abuse was critical in raising awareness across Jordan. Maha Khatib, Jordan's former Minister of Tourism and the Queen’s personal adviser explained, “Child abuse was a taboo in our society. Nobody would dare tackle it.” The Queen’s support for providing citizenship to children of Jordanian women who married foreign men produced a split response. Although human rights activists commended Rania for supporting these disadvantaged children, Jordanian nationalists opposed the Queen’s political intervention. 

However, discontent toward Her Majesty does not only arise from East Bankers. Sean Yom, an expert on the Hashemite Kingdom at Temple University, explained that poorer Jordanians of Palestinian decent have been disappointed with Rania. “Lower income Palestinians don’t feel that Queen Rania, as a woman of Palestinian origin, has been a very powerful voice fighting for better Palestinian representation in any part of the overall political system in Jordan,” said Yom. Since most low-income Palestinians still feel “politically disenfranchised,” their hope that an advocate at the heart of the Royal Court bureaucracy would improve their marginalized status has not materialized, added Yom. 

Some question the authenticity of the Queen’s care for disadvantaged populations. Rania wrote a passionate May 5th Washington Post op-ed detailing the suffering of the trapped Syrian refugees in Lesbos, Greece. Yet, an influential activist, who insisted on anonymity due to the sensitivity of critiquing the Royal Family in the international media, emphasized the Queen’s doublespeak. Rania doesn’t visit the approximately 59,000 Syrian refugees blocked on Jordan’s northern border nor write an article in the foreign press about their misery. Witnesses have described mass graves with over half of the besieged Syrian population in this isolated desert are minors. “Who is she (the Queen) bluffing?” asked the activist. 

Rania’s frequent initiatives, which are admired by her supporters, provoke anger among less sympathetic voices. Fares al-Fayez, Political Science Professor at the University of Jordan and an author of the influential 2011 letter against Her Majesty said that the Queen does not have any legal position according to the constitution. Nonetheless, he charged that she has an oversized role in Jordan’s political scene, an inappropriate step. According to a 2008 cable released by Wikileaks, Queen Rania told U.S. Senate staffers about the necessity of “defeating Iran’s influence.” She repeatedly meets with foreign leaders without the King including a January 12 visit with EU High Representative Federica Mogherini to discuss the Syrian war. 

While the Jordanian Royal lowered her public profile during the beginning of the Arab Spring, images from her abroad have again provoked controversies. Attending New York’s Met Gala last month, Rania wore a Valentino dress that many in Amman believe cost an astounding $250,000. The influential female activist called the Queen’s appearance and dress at the Met Gala “irresponsible” given the high level of unemployment in Jordan. “It’s a shame with 33% of people living below absolute poverty. You are not Marie Antoinette.”  

Not towing the party line when writing about Rania can be dangerous. Former AFP Amman Bureau Chief, Randa Habib, penned one of the articles citing the 2011 tribesmen’s letter against the Queen The Royal Court’s response was decisive. It issued a statement devoted entirely to attacking Habib for her “erroneous and defamatory” reporting while threatening legal action against the journalist. Member of Parliament Yehya Saud protested against the French publication demanding that she be expelled, and 10 men broke into the AFP office damaging equipment and furniture, wrote Habib. 

When ranking the world’s 100 most powerful women, Forbes has repeatedly included Rania praising her contributions to education. But, inside Jordan that kind of ranking is a double edged-sword: her power is seen to be expressed by wasteful spending and perceived excessive political influence. Added to tensions over her Palestinian identity, many Jordanians view her far more as a divisive figure.  

Aaron Magid is an Amman-based journalist. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Al-Monitor, and Lebanon’s Daily Star. Follow him on Twitter: @AaronMagid