A Very Modern Queen

updated 11/21/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

It is late afternoon, a.k.a. the Whining Hour—that time when children grow restless and tummies begin to growl. And so Queen Rania of Jordan—Her Majesty to her subjects, Mama to her four young children with King Abdullah—sets about preparing katayef, savory cheese-and-walnut-stuffed pancakes, with the help of her daughters, princesses Iman, 9, and Salma, 5. As the girls and their mom work, a nanny keeps an eye on 10-month-old Prince Hashem, while King Abdullah—dressed in his off-duty uniform of combat pants and a T-shirt—appears briefly in the family's newly built palace in Amman. Nearby, the couple's eldest son, 11-year-old Prince Hussein, plays a computer game. "I am influenced by my son," the queen says with a laugh. "I listen to everything from 50 Cent to Coldplay to Alicia Keys to Norah Jones."

Yes, Her Majesty Queen Rania—at 35, the world's youngest queen, who presides with her husband over a kingdom that dates back several thousand years—is a Coldplay fan. She's also a fashion designer's darling (Givenchy and Roland Mouret are favorites), a Desperate Housewives devotee and an outspoken advocate in her Muslim country for long-taboo causes like women's rights and victims of child abuse. Whether commanding attention at the 2004 World Economic Forum or plopping herself on the floor with a dozen children at a puppet show to highlight child safety, Rania, as she is called by friends and colleagues, "is the epitome of modern royalty," says her pal Katie Couric. "She is such a terrific spokesperson for her country and the whole region. I'm a full-out gusher when I talk about her."

Unlike her royal counterparts in the west, the Kuwaiti-born Rania—who kicks off a U.S. visit on Nov. 16 to promote Arab-American relations—faces the daunting task of straddling modern and ancient worlds. "She has to constantly be aware of not offending, not stepping too far beyond the bounds of tradition and yet pushing just enough to keep the dialogue going and progress moving forward," says her friend Pat Mitchell, president and CEO of PBS. Rania has used her Jordan River Foundation to establish the country's first-ever center for abused children and to promote small loans for women starting their own businesses—moves that might have ruffled more feathers among Jordan's male-dominated old guard were it not for her smooth political charms. Says Mitchell: "She has threaded the needle very carefully."

The balancing act extends to her 12-year marriage, itself a unique mix of traditional and modern mores. Rania praises Abdullah's ''really good" barbecue skills; he defers to her modern decorating sense in the hilltop palace they moved into last year. (The family also spends time in England and the Jordanian resort of Aqaba.) Yet in a region where women traditionally have had a limited voice, "she has a natural ability to reach out," says Abdullah, 43, who unexpectedly ascended the throne in 1999, when his cancer-stricken father, King Hussein, changed the line of succession shortly before he died. (His mother is Hussein's second wife, Princess Muna.) "We really work as a team," he says. "She covers areas that I am unable to dedicate much time to."

Rania says she relies on her own background to connect with her countrymen—and women. "I understand where they are coming from," she says. "I am a product of this society and I can relate to them." She was born the middle of three children to pediatrician Faisal Yasin, 71, and his homemaker wife, Ilham, who moved from their native West Bank to Kuwait just before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Younger brother Majdi, 34, calls their childhood "boring in its normalcy" and notes that the family frequently visited their grandparents in the West Bank—now occupied by Israel—an experience that helped shape the queen's current perspective. "She knows there is a middle ground to solve the problems," says Majdi, who runs an IT investment business in Amman. (Sister Dina, 38, is on the board of a school.)

After earning a business degree from the American University in Cairo and serving stints in marketing at Citibank and Apple, Rania's life changed forever in January 1993, when she attended a dinner party given by Abdullah's sister Princess Aisha. "The minute Rania walked in, I knew it right there and then," says Abdullah, who was an army officer at the time. "It was love at first sight." His wife is more circumspect. "I knew he was King Hussein's son, and I was a bit wary of that," she says. "But I think he was quite interested, and he pursued it and it kind of happened." Five months later the pair married. "It was quick," says Rania, speaking in flawless English. (Arabic is her first language.) She says her own commoner's background allowed the romance to blossom naturally: "Nobody knew who I was, which was good."

The anonymity was to be shortlived, particularly after King Hussein's 1999 death. Since then, Hussein's widow, the American-born Queen Noor, spends most of her time in the U.S. and London, telling PEOPLE in 2003, "I have the impression that it might give [Abdullah and Rania] a little bit more space and ease."

In the years following Abdullah's ascension, the royal couple say they have worked to remain as grounded as a couple of married monarchs can be. "We make sure to go to restaurants or go catch a movie somewhere, drive our own cars," says Rania, who often picks up her children from school behind the wheel of her Mercedes SUV (albeit with a security detail trailing her). Safety issues are always in the back of her mind-the late King Hussein, who faced opposition for his moderate views, survived several assassination attempts—but "it's not something I think about on a day-to-day basis," she says.

Instead, the multitasking queen—who missed the April wedding of friends Prince Charles and Camilla because she was still nursing Hashem—focuses on priorities: family and work. "It is a constant juggling act," she says. "Achieving that balance is about keeping some of the balls up in the air most of the time."

Michelle Tauber. Simon Perry in Amman

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