By Mahlia Lone
The Muslim world is proud of such a moderate, poised and progressive couple as King Abdullah and Queen Rania of Jordan who did not anticipate ruling Jordan, as Abdullah was chosen by King Hussein for succession just a fortnight before his death. The royal couple has not let their sudden rise to power and prominence go to their heads and neither do they indulge in affectations or pretentions like many commoners. We can all learn from that. Additionally, King Abdullah is the only Jordanian monarch to date that has only married once. This is the story of the coupleâ€™s true love, enduring marriage and working partnership
Now known by friends and colleagues as â€œthe epitome of modern royalty,â€ Rania al-YassinÂ was born on 31st August 1970 in Kuwait to average, middle class Palestinian parents Dr. Faisal Sedki al-Yassin, a paediatrician, and Ilham, a home-maker. Rania led â€œan anonymous and normal lifeâ€ with brother Majid and sister Dina up till her marriage. The al-Yassins had family in the West Bank that they would frequently visit. She attended theÂ New English SchoolÂ in Kuwait, then received a degree inÂ Business AdministrationÂ with straight As from theÂ American University in Cairo, where Rania was also voted as the most beautiful student by her college newspaper. Though only 5â€™4â€ she received a modelling offer, but her parents were reluctant to trust the modelling agent. At the start of the 1991 Gulf War in 1991, her family, along with hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians, was forced to flee Kuwait as Palestinians were accused of supporting Saddam Hussein during the conflict. They relocated to Amman. Half of Jordanâ€™s population is in fact of Palestinian descent. In Amman, she and 200 other applicants took a Citibank entry exam, which she topped and got the job. Just five months later, Rania took a different job marketing computers for Apple Inc. Around this time, she is reputed to have gotten a nose job and suddenly went from pretty to beautiful.
Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein, born 30 January 1962, is King Husseinâ€™s eldest son from his British-born second wife Princess Muna al-Hussein (nee Antoinette Avril Gardiner). Although Abdullah was named Crown Prince shortly after his birth, King Hussein took the title away from the three old toddler and bestowed it on his own brother, Prince Hassan bin Talal, for reasons of political stability in 1965. Oblivious to these changes, young Abdullah began his schooling at the Islamic Educational College inÂ Amman and was sent first toÂ St Edmundâ€™s School, Hindhead, inÂ England and then the U.S. to attend Eaglebrook School andÂ Deerfield AcademyÂ in Deerfield, Massachusetts. He loved his time atÂ the Deerfield AcademyÂ so much that decades later when he became King, he createdÂ the Kingâ€™s Academy, a sister institution, in Jordan. He hired Deerfield HeadmasterÂ Eric WidmerÂ to lead it, along with many other Deerfield staff.
In 1980, Abdullah attended theÂ Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was subsequently commissioned into theÂ British Army as a Second Lieutenant, serving for a year as a troop commander in theÂ 13th/18th Royal Hussars. In 1982, Abdullah enrolled atÂ Pembroke College,Â Oxford University, for a one-year Special Studies course in Middle Eastern Affairs. He returned to Jordan after that and joined theÂ Royal Jordanian Army, serving as an officer in the 40th Armored Brigade, and undergoing a parachuting and freefall course. In 1985, Abdullah attended the Armored Officerâ€™s Advanced Course atÂ Fort Knox, and in 1986, he was made a Captain and commander of a tank company in theÂ 91st Armored Brigade.Â He also served with theÂ Royal Jordanian Air ForceÂ in its Anti-Tank Wing, and was trained to flyÂ Cobra attack helicopters. Finally, in 1987, Abdullah attended theÂ Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service atÂ Georgetown UniversityÂ in Washington D.C.
Prince Abdullah had a reputation for being a real ladiesâ€™ man. A general in Jordanâ€™s Army, he was quite the daredevil, jumping out of planes, flying helicopters and driving fast cars, while Rania was a focused, bookish girl who wanted to have her own business. In January â€™93, a new colleague took 22 year old Rania to a dinner party hosted by Prince Abdullahâ€™s sister where their eyes met across a crowded room. Sparks flew and the connection was instant. â€œThe minute Rania walked in, I knew it right there and then,â€ said Abdullah in a 2005 interview to People magazine. â€œIt was love at first sight.â€
â€œRania was more circumspect. â€˜I knew he was King Husseinâ€™s son, and I was a bit wary of that,â€™â€ she said.
A whirlwind courtship began, the Prince took Rania on motorbike rides across the desert, waterskiing on the Red Sea and flying in hair-raising helicopter rides. Friends said that the soldier Prince seemed to bring Rania out of her shell and she seemed to tame his wild ways. In an interview to 60 Minutes, she said she was attracted to her husbandâ€™s sense of humor and down to earth nature despite him belonging to the Royal Hashemite family that can trace back its lineage 2000 years and has descended from the Prophetâ€™s (PBUH) line.
On 24th January 1999 just two weeks before his death, King Husseing named Abdullah Crown Prince (heir to the throne). Â Unlike in Europe where the law of primogeniture exists whereby a fiefdom, estate or kingdom is passed from father to son, in Jordan the monarch appoints his own heir apparent….This was an unexpected turn of events that nobody had foreseen. Abdullah and Rania had been living in an apartment gifted to them by the King on their wedding and no thought of the throne had crossed their mind
â€œI think he was quite interested, pursued it and it happened,â€ recalled Rania. She says her own commonerâ€™s background allowed the romance to blossom naturally: â€œNobody knew who I was, which was good.â€ King Hussein himself reportedly drove the 31 year old Prince to the home of Raniaâ€™s parents so he could propose just two months after their first meeting. With the King and her family looking on, she accepted. Three months later the pair married on June 10. â€œIt was quick,â€ said Rania.
Their wedding was a glittering affair with royalty flying in from around the world to attend. Rania chose British designer Bruce Oldfield to make her two wedding gowns. Reportedly inspired from the embellishments on Syrian formal dresses exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Oldfield added heavy gold detailing to the gown, made a matching hair band and gloves that she wore to the ceremony. The 80s power suit style dress, reminiscent of the American TV show Dynasty, had exaggerated gold embroidered lapels, short sleeves, and a large belt. The skirt was voluminous and ended in a train at the back. A long veil covered her face during the Nikah ceremony. Her towering hairdo was so tall that she had difficulty getting in and out of the car. On top of that, she wore a crystal headband rather than a borrowed tiara. For the reception, Rania changed into a sleeveless v-neck, low back gown that was also embellished and made another elaborated up-do. The Prince wore his Army ceremonial uniform.
Content to serve in the Army, Abdullah assumed command ofÂ Jordanâ€™s Special Forces the same year as his wedding and became aÂ Major GeneralÂ in â€™98. King Hussein had occupied the throne since his 21st birthday in â€™53 for nearly half a centuryÂ before dying of cancer in 1999.Â On 24th January that year just two weeks before his death, he named Abdullah Crown Prince (heir to the throne).Â Unlike in Europe where the law of primogeniture exists whereby a fiefdom, estate or kingdom is passed from father to son, in Jordan the monarch appoints his own heir apparent. Until then, Husseinâ€™s brother Prince Hassan had been next in line, but the latterâ€™s Pakistani born wife Princess Sarwat (see older issue of GT: volume 12, issue 4, February 16th 2016) went about redecorating the Palace in anticipation of the Kingâ€™s death while he lay in hospital in the U.S. much to the ailing monarchâ€™s disgust. She also didnâ€™t get along with the Kingâ€™s American born wife Queen Noor, who wanted her son Prince Hamzah to eventually succeed to the throne. The King thereby asked Abdullah to name his half brother Prince Hamzah as his heir. This was an unexpected turn of events that nobody had foreseen. The couple had been living in an apartment gifted to them by King Hussein on their wedding and no thought of the throne had crossed their mind.
On 7th February 1999, upon the death of his father King Hussein,Â a few hours after the announcement of his fatherâ€™s death, Abdullah went before an emergency session of theÂ Jordanian National Assembly wearing a red-and-white keffiyeh and the reign of King Abdullah II began. Abdullah is not merely a figurehead as many European monarchs, but is the head of a constitutional monarchy, wielding substantial power. In 2016, he was chosen as the most influential Muslim in the world by Muslims Top 500 listing.
The accession was formally celebrated on June 9th â€˜99. The new King and Queen rode through the streets of Amman in the same vintage limo that they drove in on their wedding day (and had also carried the Kingâ€™s parents on their wedding day) to arrive at Raghadan Palace where the rest of the royal family was waiting. The King, resplendent in his ceremonial military uniform, reviewed a Guard of Honor outside, before greeting dignitaries in front of his throne. He awarded Rania the Al Hussein Ben Ali Medal, the most prestigious medal in Jordan. For the occasion, she wore an embellished gold gown by Elie Saab andÂ Queen Aliaâ€™s (King Husseinâ€™s third wife) Cartier tiara on top of a back combed up-do that had her towering over the diminutive King. Because half of Jordanâ€™s population is of Palestinian descent, while the other half have descended from Bedouin tribes, the new couple was seen to consolidate the two cultures and unite the country, and the people rejoiced.
The new King made it his priority to embark the country on an aggressive economic liberalization program to stimulate the economy and raise the standard of living. He successfully increased foreign investment from the West and Persian Gulf countries, improved public-private partnerships, and established five free trade zones and Jordanâ€™s flourishing ICT (Information Communications Technology) sector. Incidentally, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, is married to Abdullahâ€™s sisterÂ Haya bint Al Hussein. In the next decade, Jordanâ€™s economic growth doubled to 6 per cent annually. King Abdullah II also negotiated a free trade agreement with the U.S., the first for an Arab country. Jordanâ€™s foreign debt to GDP percentage fell from more than 210 per cent in 1990 to 83 per cent by the end of 2005, a substantial decrease that was described as an â€œextraordinary achievementâ€ by theÂ International Monetary Fund (IMF). In 2008, Abdullah launched his Decent Housing for Decent Living campaign to provide housing with amenities like health, education and recreation for all citizens. However, despite his best efforts, Jordan is still heavily reliant on foreign aid.
The Queen in her turn has set up child abuse counseling centres under the Jordan River Foundation banner, worked for eradicating honor killings in the country, pushed for better school facilities and mandatory English classes as well as promoted micro-funds for small scale entrepreneurs. In 2000, in recognition of her commitment to the cause of children and youth, theÂ United Nations Childrenâ€™s Fund (UNICEF) invited Queen Rania to join its Global Leadership Initiative and work alongside other world leaders, including former South African President Nelson Mandela, to improve the welfare of children.Â In 2007, she was named UNICEFâ€™s first Eminent Advocate for Children and inÂ 2009, she became Honorary Global Chair of theÂ United Nations Girlsâ€™ Education InitiativeÂ (UNGEI). Moreover, she has also travelled the world to promote cross cultural and interfaith dialogue to foster greater understanding, tolerance and acceptance. She has used her status to foster understanding in the WestÂ about theÂ Arab world, speaking at such high profile forums as the Jeddah Economic Forum,Â theÂ Kennedy School of GovernmentÂ atÂ Harvard University, and theÂ Skoll Foundation, UK. For this, she received theÂ North-South PrizeÂ from theÂ Council of EuropeÂ in 2009. Forbes magazine ranked her as one of the Worldâ€™s 100 Most Powerful Women in 2011.
At the coronation, Rania became the worldâ€™s youngest Queen at only 28. A smart, savvy woman, she quickly invested in herself, upping her style quotient to keep up with her high profile position. As a Princess, she looked very typical â€˜Arabâ€™, but as Queen she came into her own, toned down her makeup, opted for simple, youthful blow dried hair and a killer designer wardrobe and looks similar now in style to Queen Letizia of Spain. Queen Raniaâ€™s daytime style has transformed from business casual to elegant and proper. Following the â€˜less is moreâ€™ sartorial philosophy, she looks like an affluent European professional mother. In the evenings, she dons only couture by designers, such asÂ Giorgio Armani and Elie Saab with a bit of Hollywood flair thrown in. Her wardrobe has even gotten her a special spot in Vanity Fair magazineâ€™s Top 10 Most Fashionable First Ladies list. Queen Rania was also ranked as the Most Beautiful Consort (orÂ First Lady) byÂ Harpers and QueenÂ magazine in 2011. This helped her gain an audience in the West when she speaks as she is seen as being enlightened and modern. When Queen Rania re-wore her accesion gown ten years later to celebrate the anniversary, the change in her personal style was marked. Not only had she toned down the hair and makeup, but also scaled down the pomp and glitz. Instead of an order and tiara, she wore a crystal belt and pretty headband. She looked approachable, fresh and modern.
The royal couple said that they have worked to remain as grounded as monarchs can be. Abdullah and Rania have become ambassadors forÂ a war torn and battle weary Middle EastÂ and advocates for peace and for promoting a progressive social and economic agenda. Her carefully crafted image reflects that. She has received criticism though for trying to fight poverty while wearing designer clothes and boasting a jet-set lifestyle.Â Queen Rania has stated that she is not opposed to women choosing to wear the hijabÂ of their own volition as long as it is not compulsory and they have not been pressured by other orthodox Muslims. She said, â€œwe should judge women according to whatâ€™s going on in their heads rather than whatâ€™s on top of their heads!â€
Additionally, Rania is warm and connects well not only with Jordanians but all types of people the world over. The Queen was one on the first royals to use social media to connect with the people.â€œShe has a natural ability to reach out,â€ said Abdullah in an interview, â€œWe really work as a team. She covers areas to which I am unable to dedicate much time.â€
Rania said she relies on her background to connect to common Jordanians. â€œI understand where they are coming from,â€ she said. â€œI am a product of this society and I can relate to them.â€
â€œThe King chose as a bride someone he considers an equal,â€ said Prince Zeid bin Raad, a childhood friend of Abdullahâ€™s to a People magazine interveiwer. â€œHe listens to her ideas. They feed each otherâ€™s intellectual curiosity. Theyâ€™re a perfect match, two people that are very comfortable together, who think along the same wavelength.â€
In an interview to Caroline Laurent for Elle magazine, Rania said, â€œThe King has the executive and the political and economic power. I work mostly through civil society organizations. But, like in any partnership, in any marriage, you sit over dinner and you talk about your day, and he tells me what he has done and is doing, and sometimes I show him a speech that I have. We always say that weâ€™re each otherâ€™s biggest fans and also biggest critics, which is a good partnership!â€
She also spends plenty of quality time with her four children: Prince Hussein who has replaced Hamzah as Crown Prince and has just graduated from Georgetown University in the U.S., Princess Iman, who is currently studying at the same University and who travels with her mother to royal weddings and other high profile events, Princess Salma and Prince Hashem, who are both still in school. â€œI make it a point and find comfort in tucking them into bed at night, reading them their favourite bedtime stories and reciting verses from the Koran to them as they sleep,â€ she said in the same interview. Though she has a full time nanny and tutor for helping the kids with their homework, Rania likes to prepare simple meals for her children herself with the girls helping her, while Abdullah barbecues. Having given the old Palace to Queen Noor for her use, though she mostly lives abroad now, the couple have made a new Palace for themselves, which Rania has had done up in a contemporary style. The family favourite holiday destinations are London and the Jordanian resort of Aqaba, but her priorities are family and work. â€œIt is a constant juggling act. Achieving that balance is about keeping some of the balls up in the air most of the time,â€ she said.
â€œWe make sure to go to restaurants or go catch a movie somewhere and drive our own cars,â€™ said Rania, who often picks up her children from school driving a Mercedes SUV with a security detail trailing her. Safety issues are always a concern as the late King Hussein, who faced opposition for his moderate views, survived several assassination attempts but â€œitâ€™s not something I think about on a day-to-day basis,â€ she said.
â€œI definitely make a point of having a relationship with my children, and building trust. Especially as they get older, itâ€™s important that they feel that they can come back to me if they have any issues; I really want to have that bond, not lose it. For me, itâ€™s a top priority, because even if I succeed in everything else, and I fail at raising my children, then I feel that Iâ€™ve failed, you know? So, at the end of the day, my children are my top priority, and thatâ€™s why I try to make it, as much as I can, a natural upbringing. For the most part, at least, I try to keep our home a sanctuary. And thatâ€™s where I can sort of make sure the environment is as normal as can be.
â€œI always say about the veil: when I choose something to wear, I realize that Iâ€™m not just dressing for myself, especially when I am abroad, Iâ€™m representing my country, Iâ€™m representing my people, so I have to always make sure that, Iâ€™m representing them the best way I possibly can. And also, sometimes Iâ€™m also representing a cause or Iâ€™m going for a particular purpose so I have to be dressed appropriately for that purpose. Whether I am going to visit a Bedouin village or whether Iâ€™m attending a speech and a conference in France you always have to think of the purpose.
â€œâ€™We have the culture of protectiveness of womenâ€” that you always have to protect the women, and sometimes this leads to dependency, so we have to basically encourage our children, our girls especially, to be more confident, more courageous, you know, to take strides. We should not only encourage it, we should expect it from them. Thereâ€™s a saying that â€˜A ship in the harbor is safe, but thatâ€™s not what ships are built for.â€™ You have educated women, but theyâ€™re not working. You invest so much in educating them and you donâ€™t reap the benefits of your investment,â€™â€ advises wise and intelligent Queen Rania. Who would not like to emulate this beautiful, stylish, intelligent, savvy and wonderful wife, mother and Queen!