Abroad, they are celebrated for taking progressive positions on women’s rights, raising funds for good causes, and for their self-assured and sophisticated style – indeed, often representing the mirror opposite of their husbands’ grey and dour image. Many were brought up and educated abroad.
But, as a wave of anti-regime protest sweeps across the Middle East, the wives of the region’s potentates – whether they are queens or first ladies –have emerged as symbols of corruption and nepotism. Indeed, the Westernized glamour of the Middle East’s first ladies is proving to be a liability.
“Their image is seen by many as part of a strategy by the leadership to curry favor with the U.S. … that the state is undergoing reform. But they are perceived by the broader population as the veiling of reality on the ground,” Claire Spencer, head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House in London, told The Media Line. “They are the acceptable face of a less acceptable reality.”
The leaders’ wives have struggled to remain aloof from the anger and resentment that have brought down Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian leader Husni Mubarak in the past month. But Leila Ben Ali emerged as the focus of popular resentment and her proverbial sisters at presidential and princely palaces around the region have figured large in opposition grievances.
The latest target is Jordan’s Queen Rania, the 40-year-old wife of King Abdullah. A modern queen by any measure, she has her own Facebook page, has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, writes children’s books and campaigns for education and Palestinian rights. Her personal website greets readers with the slogan “Education = Opportunity.” Forbes magazine ranked her the world’s 79th most powerful woman in 2009.
But last week, a group of 36 tribal leaders broke a major taboo and risked a jail sentence by publicly accusing her of helping members of her family, the Yassins, to acquire land for free and of aiding some 78,000 Palestinians to obtain Jordanian nationality over the past five years.
"We call on the king to return to the Treasury land and farms given to the Yassin family. The land belongs to the Jordanian people," the statement, published by Agence France Presse (AFP) said.
The charge she aided Palestinians to get citizenships reflects a sensitive divide in Jordan between the East Bank Bedouin tribes, which are loyal to the king’s Hashemite family, and the Palestinians that arrived in the country as refugees after the creation of Israel. Although she was born in Kuwait, Rania’s parents are Palestinians who hail from the town of Tulkarm in the West Bank.
The accusations were so serious that the royal court instructed Jordan’s ambassador to France to protest to AFP’s chairman and chief executive. The court said it reserved the right to pursue legal action against AFP and its Amman bureau chief. But the charges, even if they aren’t true, as the palace insisted, struck a chord with many in Jordan, where mass protests have erupted over the last two months in protest.
“The king must not forget that Jordanians pledged allegiance to the Hashemites and not to the Yassin family,” a blogger going by the name of Maha said in an on-line debate following the AFP report.
Rulers’ wives maintain a carefully honed image, created through foundations devoted to popular, uncontroversial causes like education and the handicapped, frequent photo opportunities and, if all else fails, by press censorship. In Jordan, criticism of the royal family can result in prison time of up to three years.
But for Leila Ben Ali, the wife of the deposed Tunisian President Ben Ali, and Suzanne Mubarak, whose husband Husni Mubarak stepped down as Egypt’s leader last Friday, their images have been punctured over the last several weeks by the Wikileaks release of U.S. State Department cables.
Leila Ben Ali, a former hairdresser who married Tunisia’s leader in 1992, was active in charitable work and women’s rights. She founded the Basma Association in 2000 to help find jobs for the disabled, and was president of the Arab Women Organization (AWO), until January 15, a day after she and her husband were forced to flee the country.
The AWO, which promotes women’s “empowerment,” is a favorite of leaders’ spouses. It was founded at the behest of Suzanne Mubarak. Queen Rania chaired it from 2003 to 2005; Shaikha Sabeeka bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the wife of the king of Bahrain took over for the next two years; followed by Sheikha Fatima bint Moubarak, the third wife of the founder and first president of United Arab Emirates.
But in Tunisia, Leila Ben Ali was better known for self-dealing and nepotism, according to Wikileaks dispatches by Robert Godec, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia from 2006 to 2009. She was said to be disliked more than her husband.
“Ben Ali’s wife, Leila Ben Ali, and her extended family – the Trabelsis – provoke the great ire from Tunisians,” Godec wrote in 2008. “The president is often given a pass, with many Tunisians arguing that he is being used by the Trabelis clan and is unaware of their shady dealings.”
In addition to founding the AWO, Suzanne Mubarak oversaw a host of good
works in Egypt. She founded and chaired Integrated Care Society, which
builds school libraries, and the Egyptian Society for Childhood and
Development. She has been showered with awards and honorary degrees.
But, after 30 years as Egypt’s first lady, any goodwill she had earned
was overshadowed by her “very regal [style], as if she was a queen,”
Maye Kassem, an associate professor of political science at the American
University of Cairo, told The Media Line. “People were fed up with
While Suzanne Mubarak wasn’t personally accused of corruption, the
Mubarak family is widely believed to have amassed a multi-billion-dollar
fortune. Wikileaks revealed that U.S. diplomats viewed her as so
politically powerful that they felt they needed to establish a private
channel to her. A March 2006 dispatch named her as one of the five most
influential figures in the government and a “shrewd political player.”
But the sharp edge of popular anger was principally for her efforts to
maneuver her younger son, Gamal, into the presidency after her husband
retired, said Kassem.
“Many people believe she was the force behind this attempt to have Gamal
become the next president,” Kassem said. “People resented him because
everything – the constitutional reforms, the elections – was being
tailored for him. That made him even more unpopular because he had an
unfair advantage that he didn’t deserve.”
Spencer of Chatham House said Suzanne Mubarak, like other first ladies,
was also a magnet for popular anger for playing politics without being
elected or formally appointed to office. The charitable works undertaken
by leaders’ spouses, like Mubarak’s, has often been seen by the public
as addressing spot problems rather than the core issues their countries
Their close connections to the West also make them suspect in many
circles. Suzanne Mubarak was born to an Egyptian father and Welsh
mother, and studied at the English-speaking American University of Cairo
(AUC). Queen Rania was educated at the New English School in Kuwait and
the AUC, and worked for Apple Computer in Amman. Asma Assad, who plays
first lady to Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, was born in Britain to
Syrian parents and graduated from Kings College of the University of
But Asma Assad is one notable exception to the bad rep many leaders’
wives have. Like her peers, Syria’s first lady cultivates an image of
progressive, Western modernity. She has several of her own Facebook
pages, even though the social networking site had been banned in her
country until last week. It contains postings about how she inspired a
class of visiting students from America’s George Mason University and
photographs of her at dinner with her husband in a Paris restaurant.
France’s Elle magazine named her among the best-dressed women in
politics for 2008, but Asma Assad has successfully cultivated an image
as an ordinary Syrian woman and is often seen around and about in
“We lead the life of an ordinary couple, who go out to dinner and to the
theatre with friends, and to the playground with our children, who live
in an apartment in a normal city district, with our children playing in
the street with our neighbors’ children,” she told the Italian
newspaper La Repubblica in a 2008 interview.