For Jordanian royal, a throne with a view

Change: A vocal supporter of many causes, Queen Rania joins the board of a Baltimore-based international youth advocacy group.

March 24, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Close by Jordan's borders, the violence between Israelis and Palestinians erupts nearly daily with young casualties. Yet here in the pastel meeting room at the International Youth Foundation in Baltimore, Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan spoke of progress for the youth of her country - and hope.

After attending a United Nations summit on world poverty in Mexico, and on her way home to her three children waiting in Amman, the queen alighted yesterday in Baltimore to join the board of IYF - the latest in a series of initiatives to use her star power to bring world attention to the young.

"Obviously, it's very important for us to be able to have a peaceful solution, a peaceful atmosphere in our part of the world," Queen Rania said. "But having said that, we're very committed to continuously moving forward. In the past, Jordan has always had these interruptions, ... but now we are really very focused on making progress, regardless of whether that progress is going slowly or moving fast."

For Baltimore-based International Youth Foundation, a $60 million organization that teams with businesses and nongovernmental organizations around the world to create programs for young people, Queen Rania brings youth - at 31, she is the world's youngest queen - along with high visibility.

"She's smart, and she cares about the issues," said IYF President Rick R. Little. "She has a platform and is a real voice for young people."

Queen Rania's predecessor, Queen Noor, has been active in promoting IYF programs, such as a campaign that encouraged workers around the world to donate their last salaried hour of the millennium.

Queen Rania has pursued her causes with vigor lately - despite the uncertainty cast over her corner of the world by the Sept. 11 attacks and the Palestinian intifada.

During a visit to Hollywood and at the Monterrey poverty summit with her husband, King Abdullah II, she unveiled a campaign, the Global Endowment for the Poor, to raise money for microcredit programs to create new businesses similar to those run by the Jordan River Foundation, an organization she founded in 1995.

Those programs, which lend money mostly to women, have an exceptionally high repayment rate in Jordan, the queen said.

After those stops, Queen Rania went to Mexico City to visit a program sponsored by IYF and Nokia called "Make a Connection," in which young people use donated video equipment to create projects about their communities.

Since King Abdullah's ascension to the Hashemite throne after the death of his father, King Hussein, in February 1999, the couple have been seen as symbols of hope in Jordan, modern leaders whose Western educations might bring progress and development to the nation of 5 million people.

Despite some strides, 27 percent of Jordanians live in poverty. A United Nations Human Development Programme report about Jordan published last year found disproportionately high unemployment among the country's young.

Lester M. Salamon, director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at the Johns Hopkins University and an expert on nongovernmental organizations, said Queen Rania's work with IYF could give needed visibility - at a vulnerable time - to a nascent network of groups working on human rights and development in the Arab world.

Those groups have flourished in the past few years, Salamon said. But the terrorist attacks and the intifada have made the rest of the world wary of supporting them.

"Any time they can associate leading figures with modern nonprofits, it's an asset," Salamon said. "These [organizations] are sort of young shoots that are appearing above the ground, and this is the time when they need to be nurtured and not ignored."

Some in the Muslim world have criticized Queen Rania's outspokenness on issues such as the Taliban's oppression of women, and her condemnation of so-called "honor" killings in her country, in which relatives kill adulterous wives.

But Queen Rania has not changed her style. And her opinions about what will improve life for young people are equally strong.

A former employee of Apple Computer Inc., she's unapologetic about her belief that information technology is the key to advancement, even as skeptics contend that poverty-stricken people in her region desperately need basics.

Computers, which are being introduced in schools in Jordan, can bring up-to-date curricula to remote places and competent instruction to schools with less-skilled teachers, Queen Rania said.

Information technology "has become a basic need," she said. "The impact is far-reaching and long-term."

IYF is expanding an information technology program into Jordan, with career centers where young people can use computers for job training, Little said.

Queen Rania said that such programs also build hope for young people who otherwise might be moved to "desperate acts" of violence.

"We need to look at money given to organizations like IYF as an investment in security," she said. "Leaving these problems unsolved could actually be dangerous for us."

She doesn't see a contradiction between her contemporary vision and the ancient conflicts that continue to fracture the Middle East.

"Our vision for Jordan is a country that is modern and open and free, at the same time that it has a very strong sense of identity and culture and tradition," the queen said. "And [a country] where these two things don't clash with each other, but complement one another."

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