Doha’s leading stateswoman

01 March 2011

Sheikha Mozah’s growing role as the face of modern Qatar is a key part of the emir’s vision to project the country as a progressive state in the Middle East


2003: The first time Sheikha Mozah was interviewed on television with Sheikh Hamad

18: Sheikha Mozah’s age when she married Sheikh Hamad

Source: MEED

On 2 December 2010, when Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup football event, it was the jubilant figure of Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, consort of Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani that was beamed across the globe by the world’s media. The moment marked her emergence as the face of modern Qatar.

Since [Sheikha Mozah] has become a public figure, her work has gathered a pace and life of its own

Doha-based observer

She has long been championed as a symbol of Islamic feminism, acting as a highly visible spokeswoman for family and female causes around the world. But to what extent is Sheikha Mozah’s influence in the state won purely because of who her husband is or because she holds genuine power?

Sheikha Mozah’s public profile

She certainly entered public life because of her status. Sheikha Mozah is the second of Sheikh Hamad’s wives, having married in 1977, and is mother to the heir apparent, Sheikh Tamim. Little is known about the emir’s other two wives and they are never seen in public.

The sheikha has built a profile and role for herself that has set a new benchmark for Gulf stateswomen

Analyst, Doha-based think-tank

As her husband settled into his role as emir (he seized the throne from his father Sheikh Khalifa in 1995), Sheikha Mozah  – educated, confident and ambitious – was identified as a crucial asset to the emir’s rule. What better way to symbolise the modern, reformist Qatar that he wanted to build than to be the first emir to have a wife with a public role? 

A key feature of modern Qatar has been its leaders’ wise choice of counsel. Doha hired the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Woolf, to be the senior judge for the Qatar Financial Centre. It signed up Lord Ara Darzi, professor of surgery at Imperial College London, to coordinate Qatar’s bid to carve out a reputation as a centre for cutting-edge surgery. And whoever counselled the emir that in his second wife he had an ally who could help to build Qatar according to his vision, gave sound advice. It could not have been a given that the emir would allow his wife, born into a conservative society in 1959, to become a public face in Qatar.

“It may have been that she was permitted to enter public life only with the emir’s approval, but since she has become a public figure, her work has gathered a pace and life of its own,” says a Doha-based observer. 

The decision was made in 2003 to allow Sheikha Mozah to have a public profile and she first appeared beside the emir in an interview with the US’ CBS News that he used to signal his plans for reform. Since then, she and her advisers have carved out a role that consciously mirrors the emir’s priorities for the country.

Over the past 16 years, Qatar has built itself a brand, as well as becoming a modernised Gulf state. Its wealth – gross domestic product was $122bn in 2010 – has been ploughed back into basic infrastructure, as well as ambitious projects including new schools, universities and a finance centre. A new, written constitution aims to give investors the confidence to do business in the Gulf state. As part of a modest package of reforms, in 2003, a 45-member parliament was set up. It is highly likely that Sheikha Mozah has encouraged the emir to pursue a reformist agenda.

Her father was jailed by the former emir, Sheikha Mozah’s father-in-law, for openly calling for the even distribution of wealth in Qatar. In an interview with Doha-based satellite news channel Al-Jazeera in December 2010, Sheikha Mozah named her father as a major role model in her life. “My father’s ideas, values and principles have inspired me,” she said.

Diplomatic role

The emir’s focus on forging a role for Qatar on the global stage has raised the country’s profile from obscurity to widespread recognition. Sheikha Mozah’s international work has also received weighty recognition, which must have buoyed Sheikh Hamad’s own diplomatic agenda.

In 2005, she was invited to be a member of the UN Alliance of Civilisations’ High Level Group, a committee led by the UN Secretary-General to develop ways of combating extremism. She is also a UN special envoy for basic and higher education, a role that she has used to denounce “crimes against humanity” – her reference to the bombing of Gaza in early 2009.

“As a special envoy, I have tried to build a global response to what is happening in Gaza and to shed light on what is taking place there, especially in education,” she told Al-Jazeera.

While it may be more for the pages of fashion magazines to analyse her bold clothing style, that she dresses without a hijab or abaya when representing Qatar overseas suggests the emir’s tacit approval of her behaviour on the international stage.

Her appearance barely hints at the conservative bedouin society into which she was born. While little is known about her childhood, she was 18 when she met and married Sheikh Hamad, then crown prince. After the marriage, she pursued her education at Qatar University and holds a degree in sociology, a topic that she says is “very close to my heart”.  Her patronage of numerous institutions, charities and public bodies is arguably less bold in a regional context. Powerful women in the Levant have a stronger tradition of giving their support to public projects, such as schools. But crucially, the projects that she has backed, since her husband came to power, have been neatly aligned with the stated priorities of the government. From the mid-1990s, Qatar began its forays onto the international stage with announcements on its vision for education, and in its bid to be a diplomatic player in the region, hosting peace talks, notably in Lebanon in 2008. 

Backing education in Qatar

For Sheikha Mozah, education, health and international humanitarian and diplomatic initiatives are the dominant themes of the projects she backs and the groups she chairs.

“My father was a self-taught man, and always looked to education as a way to empower. I was inspired by this and he gave me the notion of the importance of education,” she told Al-Jazeera.

She is chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science & Community Development, which was set up in 1995 to lead the country’s transformation into a modern, knowledge-based economy. This role is perhaps Sheikha Mozah’s most significant because of the scope and scale of the foundation’s plans. It includes the vast Education City complex that has brought some of the world’s most respected schools and universities to Doha, and the Qatar Science and Technology Park, an incubation centre for new technology firms. Her other roles include being president of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs, vice-chair of the Supreme Education Council, which sets the national education policy, and vice-chair of the Supreme Health Council. In line with the emir’s aim of positioning Qatar as a leading centre for health research, Sheikha Mozah is close to the Sidra Medical and Research Centre project. Through the Qatar Foundation, she donated $7.9bn to the centre, which will specialise in care for women and children.

Such high-profile engagements have afforded Sheikha Mozah a unique status. She is not the sole embodiment of Qatari women in power. Sheikha Ahmad al-Mahmoud was the first woman to become a minister, when the emir appointed her education minister in 2003. But Sheikha Mozah is Qatar’s de facto first lady, and for a conservative Gulf state to have such a high-profile women is unique.

“The sheikha has built a profile and role for herself that has set a new benchmark for Gulf stateswomen,” says an analyst at a Doha-based think-tank.

Sheikha Mozah has set a precedent for future first ladies in Qatar. Sheikh Tamim’s wife, Sheikha Jawaher bint Hamad bint Suheim al-Thani, made her public debut in 2005, during a graduation ceremony at Virgina Commonwealth University Qatar, the same year she married the crown prince. She has since made a number of public appearances, but has since kept her profile relatively discreet. Whether or not Sheikh Tamim’s wife follows Sheikha Mozah’s lead, her stamp on the future Qatar is already sealed because of her husband’s status as heir apparent. The choice of Sheikh Tamim is highly unconventional and perhaps illustrates the power Sheikha Mozah holds over the emir. Not only did the emir pass over the sons by his first wife, who are older, he has also chosen Sheikha Mozah’s second son, not her eldest, Sheikh Jaseem. Sheikh Jassem was crown prince until 2003 when the emir announced a change in heir.

Future leadership in Qatar

Like his mother, Sheikh Tamim has proved to be an engaging speaker. In a 2007 address to the Arab Forum on Democracy and Political Reform in the Arab world held in Doha, he signalled his interest in pursuing an agenda of reform. “Nothing is more needed for the success of reform than opening the doors for the participation in this [Arab] nation to the youth, who have already paid a high price as victims of frustration and extremism,” he said.

In the same speech, he went on to make a reference to Arab women that belies his mother’s influence: “The participation of youth in development and the building of a democratic society must be given attention. By youth, I mean both males and females.”

Until Sheikh Tamim takes the throne, the signs are that Sheikha Mozah will continue to play a major role in shaping Qatar. The world will be watching in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup and Sheikha Mozah is likely to play a highly visible role in the plans and events that precede it. Although Sheikh Tamim is president of Qatar’s Olympic Committee, it was Sheikha Mozah who gave the crucial closing speech in the final presentation to Fifa Executive Committee members in December 2010. 

Qatar’s National Vision, a policy document that outlines the state’s plans to 2030, cites human development as a priority, calling for the “development of all its people to enable them to sustain a prosperous society”.

Inspired by the value her father placed in education, Sheikha Mozah sits at the heart of her husband’s vision for a modern, diversified society.

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