Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan drew a capacity crowd of nearly 200 people to the Brookings Institution's good gray auditorium yesterday to hear her remarks on "Humanitarian Consequences of the Gulf Crisis." The gorgeous, American-born Princeton graduate who became King Hussein's fourth wife after a fairy-tale, Grace Kelly-esque courtship drew "more cameras than we've ever seen in this room," said Brookings Guest Scholar Judith Kipper, who introduced Her Majesty and moderated the event. Eight TV cameras in all, including a crew and a reporter from each of the three local network news affiliates.
She did not attract any of Brookings's own Middle East scholars other than Kipper. But Vanity Fair sent its most high-profile chronicler of the high-profile, Dominick Dunne.
"I'm very pleased," said Kipper blandly, assuming only the best of her audience, "that so many of you are interested today to have this dialogue and discussion."
The queen is, at 39, improbably beautiful, a golden blonde with sleepy blue eyes. She came dressed for diplomacy -- no, for success: simple pumps and slate-blue suit, her one extravagance a bright azure blouse with matching kerchief peeking from her breast pocket. Her hair was swept up at the forehead, then held simply back in a headband of some braided navy cloth, to hang straight down to her shoulder blades.
If you are a woman who went to high school in the '60s or '70s, you probably spent some of your time wishing plagues, or pimples at least, on a classmate who had hair like Lisa Halaby's. But such rivalry is edged out, through time and fame, by simple fascination -- not to mention vulgar curiosity.
From the point of view of Jordan's embattled king, it may not matter why his wife draws such fond and eager audiences, for she is a well-spoken, articulate apologist for his controversial conduct of the present crisis in the Middle East.
Her remarks, which Brookings was asked to sponsor "about two or three weeks ago," said Kipper, began with a summary of the crushing refugee problem that has confronted Jordan since Iraq's August invasion of Kuwait. Roughly three-quarters of a million displaced foreigners have fled Iraq and Kuwait, 80 percent of them to Jordan, where many remain stranded.
She speaks easily of the bland diplomatic language of "challenges" and "responsibilities," and almost as easily of the dry social engineering argot of economic development and "resource integration."
"We in Jordan," she said, "are paying a terrible price" for the crisis: The price of complying with international sanctions against Iraq's Saddam Hussein may eventually total $4.1 billion; Jordan's gross domestic product may fall as much as $50 million this year, she said.
The message: Jordan will need more U.S. and international aid if it is to continue its role in the sanctions policy.
She went on to condemn -- diplomatically -- the presence of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. Jordan, she assured her listeners, never condoned the annexation of Kuwait, has called for Saddam's withdrawal from the outset and opposes the taking of hostages. But "we do not support the presence of foreign troops in the region, " she said, in the round, correct tones learned at the National Cathedral School and Concord Academy. "Jordan is seeking an Arab solution to what is basically an Arab problem."
She described, too, Arab resentments at the long-festering Arab-Israeli dispute and the history of U.S. intervention in the region. "The message of the Arab world," she said, "is that we wish to be members of the new world order of peace and stability, rather than the last victims of the old order of confrontation and conflict."
Beyond the scrambling photographers her audience was diverse, at least according to the hairsplitting taxonomies of Washington: A large sprinkling of Council on Foreign Relations types, those guys with the burnished look of retired foreign service officers and the gait of the spry squash player. The Jordanian ambassador and his daughter, and staff members from the embassies of Morocco, Sudan, Egypt and Algeria; a trio from the State Department; representatives from rival think tanks and from corporations (Aramco, Bechtel) with a major stake in the Middle East; aides to congressmen with an interest in the area; activists from Jewish organizations and peace groups.
Even the harder questions of her audience were posed deferentially, but she showed a certain toughness of response. Washington Times Editor Arnaud de Borchgrave asked her to amplify the connection she had made between the current crisis and the long-festering Arab-Israeli dispute. "For 23 years," she said, "just to be simple and direct, the Arab world has looked for implementation of United Nations Resolution 242, which calls for Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories."
As she made her careful way around the rhetorical potholes of Middle Eastern affairs, the more knowledgeable members of the audience well understood all of Queen Noor's messages, for they understood the perilous acrobatics that Jordan's king has performed since the invasion of Kuwait. On the one hand, he rules a people -- the majority of them Palestinian exiles -- who strongly support Saddam Hussein's actions. On the other hand, he risks jeopardizing Jordan's close relationship with the United States, which has long cultivated and rewarded Jordan as the necessary moderate in the Middle East.
As for those who had come to gawk, they wanted to know, in whispered conference with Brookings staff after the meeting, "So can we call her Lisa Noor, or what? I mean, we can't just call her Queen Noor, can we?"
We can. Upon marrying her in 1978, Hussein conferred on Lisa Halaby the name Noor-al-Hussein, meaning "Light of Hussein." They were introduced by her father, Najeeb Halaby, an American of Arab descent and former chairman of Pan Am. Noor converted to Islam, and since her marriage has spoken always as a representative of Jordan.
Invited by a questioner to describe any torn feelings she may have, coming to her native Washington at a time of tension between her two countries, she declined, saying, "I don't feel it as a source of conflict. ... I feel privileged that my husband, with his support and encouragement, has given me an extraordinary opportunity, in my own humble way, to contribute to clear up some of these differences, to try to work through some of the differences of opinion we have."