The royals of Jordan are well-known and popular internationally, but face some serious criticism from within. While they look and talk like any other Western monarchs, their actual power and role in politics is significantly different.
Photo: World Economic Forum
They are young, good-looking and western-educated Arab monarchs who happened to speak English as fluently as Arabic. Members of royal family of Jordan, the Hashemites, are regular guests on American talk shows and well-known international celebrities in the domain of humanitarian work or philanthropy. The story of the life of the Hashemites is very much like other modern Western monarchies, except that it is taking place in an Arab country. Probably, many people around the world envy Jordan for its beautiful queen and well-spoken king. Yet, having cosmopolitan monarchs might not mean much for Jordanians, especially if the royal family’s job is far more than conveying a good image of the country.
The Western upbringing of the royal family is clearly noticeable for any observer. In fact, this is hardly surprising. The mother of Jordan’s King, King Abdullah II, is British by birth. She married the late King Hussein in 1961 until their divorce in 1971. Upon her marriage, she changed her name to Princess Muna al-Hussein and in 1962 gave birth to Abdullah II, the eldest son of the late King.
When the late King Hussein died in 1999, King Abdullah II ascended the throne. By then, he would have spent long periods in Britain and the US doing his military studies. During his first public speeches, an attentive listener could easily notice the bilingualism of the young king.
Jordan’s queen, Rania Al-Yassin, also speaks perfect English as she is a graduate of the American University in Cairo and has work experiences with Western multinationals such as Apple and Citibank. As a woman of Palestinian origins, many thought she would be able to move the royal family closer to common Jordanians, many of which are from Palestinian families themselves.
The Jordanian queen does not talk or look like any average Jordanian or Palestinian woman. She is considered to be an “international fashion icon”, as Oprah Winfrey once introduced the Queen to her show in 2007. In this show, Queen Rania mentioned that people misconceive her as being “not in touch with reality”, and that this was not true.
The point of comparison for the Jordanian monarchs is often different than the one for the Jordanian and Arab citizens. This has been the real problem when it comes to criticizing the royal family’s lifestyle.
Queen Rania for example has been internationally recognized for her with work to the cause of children and women through UNICEF or the Global Campaign for Education (GCE). Her work is much like that of any of her counterparts such as the first lady Michelle Obama or even late Princess Diana.
Besides, the Jordanian Queen tries to keep up with, and even beat, her Western benchmarks like Kate Middleton, Carla Bruni or Mette-Marit in terms of fashion and style. As a result, the price tag for the Queen’s expensive lifestyle and designer goods is relatively high for a poor country like Jordan.
On the other side, the people of Jordan rather compare their Queen to other Arab and Muslim first ladies, both current and ousted with their husbands during the Arab revolutions. That is why they do not really care whether their Queen’s dress was prettier than Kate’s, or how Qeen Rania is conceived in London’s society.
When an average Jordanian hears of news such as that of the Queen’s profligacy during her 40th birthday party, they are expectedly disappointed. In late 2010, the Queen invited hundreds of guests from all over the world to a lavish celebration in the Wadi Rum desert where giant 40-figures were beamed on surrounding hills and water was used to dampen down the sand. This is in a country where not everyone has electricity, and water shortage is a big problem.
Because of such extravagance, Jordanian people are reminded of the power misuse of other Arab first ladies such as the wife of the former Tunisian president Leila Ben Ali, who was famous for stealing from the country’s treasury and for her family’s involvement in running the country’s economy. In fact, such comparison of the two was conveyed to Jordan’s King in the beginnings of the Arab Spring in 2011 by a letter of 36 Jordanian tribal leaders who criticized the Queen and her family.
But it is not only the Queen that has a difficulty of reconciling two different realities; King Abdullah is also accused of double talk with Jordanians and the Western world. Internationally, he is widely respected as a genuine peace man. In his many interviews with Western media, he knows what people in the West want to hear. He usually talks about the importance of peace in the Arab world and the need to support Arab moderates in their struggle against extremists, as he argued in an interview in the Jon Stewart’s Daily Show months before the Arab spring. At home, the king plays into what Jordanians want to hear; he frequently criticizes Israel and often refers to it as the ‘Zionist regime’.
Not only in regard to Palestine, the King’s talk of democracy and freedoms in Western media does not match the reality of the Jordan’s political system. Beside the fact that Jordan is not a constitutional monarchy and the ability of the Jordanians to change their executive rulers is very limited, torture of political prisons or terrorism suspects remains widespread. This is according to the Freedom in the World Report in 2011 by Freedom House which gave Jordan a ‘not free’ status. Torture in Jordan’s prisons is now again a hot topic thanks to the debate in Britain about the extradition of the radical Muslim preacher Abu Qatada.
To be fair though, it is especially important for Jordan to have a King who is admired and respected by Western nations. The economy of resource-poor Jordan is dependent on billions of dollars in aid from Western and friendly Arab sources, tourism and worker remittances. According to the Jordanian Government, the country is expected to get around $2.8 billion in foreign aid (total government’s expenditure is around $9 billion). Out of this aid money, Saudi Arabia was to provide $1.2 billion, $184 million from the US and $120 million from the EU.
While it helps Jordan to have a modern royal family that tries to bridge the gulf between East and West, the Jordanian royals are not like any other Western ones. They are not merely the representatives of Jordan, but they also hold real powers. Thus, bearing this in mind, they need to act tactfully in order not anger the Jordanians who have not yet decided about the kind of change for which they will rise up.
It may not be a burden for King Abdullah II and Queen Rania to be smart and fashionably – not extravagant – in an open-minded society like Jordan’s. Yet, if the country’s monarchs do not make their promise true to curb corruption and ceding their executive powers to the parliament, it will not help them a lot being admired or envied abroad.
Written by Mohammad Al-Saidi