DOHA, QATAR — The bride, they whisper here, didn't look happy on her wedding day. Yes, she was marrying into royalty. And, true, she looked stunning. And, indeed, the buffet was sumptuous, and all the who's who on the guest list were wowed by the grand affair. But there was bad blood in the air.
"Shhhh," warn the storytellers, glancing around – "this is not something we discuss."
This is a modern land now, and reform-minded. But it's still Arabia, and for all the WiFi cafes and celebrations of debate and democracy, Qataris have a hang-up when it comes to speaking freely about their royal family. But then, who – let's be real, even in this People magazine-shunning desert nation – can resist speculating? Qataris cautiously will add: The source of Mozah bint Nasser al Missned's sadness that wedding day back in 1977, according to the tale, was her father-in-law, the former Emir Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani.
That emir had jailed Mozah's father, a commoner, after the latter had made a public call for the fair distribution of wealth in the country. Ideas like that didn't sit well with the old emir – who sometimes seemed more interested in the accumulation of wealth than the redistribution of it – and so, behind bars the commoner went, forcing his Missned clan into exile in Kuwait, and leaving the future Sheikha Mozah growing up with a father-sized hole in her life and a spirited determination to fight her father's fight for reform.
And yet, what could she do? The pretty, young Qatar University sociology student had caught the eye of the emir's son. He wanted Mozah for his second wife. And she married him – of course. Proposals from crown princes, even where women choose their own spouses, are typically hard to refuse. And this was no mecca of women's liberation.
Qatar was a land of tradition: 4,500 square miles of sand and salt flats filled with nomadic Bedouins in flowing robes who'd long survived on pearl fishing and entertained themselves with falconry and camel races – and who had yet to reap the full scope of their oil and natural-gas riches. It had been this way for centuries, and probably would be for millenniums more. A young lady committed to reform didn't really fit the picture.
Or did she? Squint into the desert sun – because something new and noteworthy has happened here. It isn't the natural gas that was discovered in the 1970s, or any of the subsequent trappings of sudden, new-rich chic so common in the Gulf neighborhood that is different. It isn't the gleaming over-air-conditioned shopping malls, or the luxury hotels with dazzling foyers, or even the foreign workers scuttling every which way to drive, clean, serve, manage, and construct the whole project. It is something else.
There's a whiff of purpose in Qatar. A confidence – cockiness even – rides the breeze. Relevance seems just around the next dune. There is true reform and leadership: An emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and his sheikha, Mozah, have made things happen. In love, beloved, daring, traditional, and original all at once, the couple has bucked all that was expected of them.
The story begins with Sheikh Hamad, a different sort of royal. Born in 1950, he was brought up, after his young mother's death, by his maternal uncle and then went, like many wealthy Gulf Arabs, to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England. He graduated in 1971, the year Qatar received independence from Britain and the year major gas deposits were found in shallow Qatari waters. A year later, his father, Sheikh Khalifa, seized power from an uncle and became emir of the young nation.
Hamad, the eldest of the emir's five sons, returned home and was commissioned as lieutenant colonel in the Qatari armed forces, quickly rising to commander in chief of the forces, overseeing modernization of the military. He married a cousin, which cemented a problematic political alliance. He married Sheikha Mozah, because she caught his fancy. And he married yet again, solidifying another alliance with another cousin.
Everything one might expect. Nothing really new in the desert. Yet.
During these years, Sheikh Khalifa was busy creating a benevolent welfare state, complete with free healthcare for the people – and, reportedly, Swiss bank accounts for himself. By the end of his 23-year rule, the emir had cultivated a taste for the extravagant, and spent significant time out of the country, often on the French Riviera, leaving the day-to-day rule to Hamad. "Don't make any changes" seemed to be the fatherly advice offered from the luxury hotel suites across Europe to the earnest young man in charge back home.
Why, indeed, make any changes? The nation's riches endowed its 200,000 citizens with free education, healthcare, housing, utilities, and one of the highest per capita incomes in the world: between $20,000 and $30,000 today.
But Hamad – young, intelligent, well educated, and by the mid-1990s heading a fast-growing family of new-generation al-Thanis – was restless.
"Think Spain in the 16th century," suggests James Reardon Anderson, dean of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service outpost in Qatar. "That country, too, had a huge windfall, but all they did was reinforce the feudal system – and so eventually went into receivership. Qatar was at a similar moment in history and ... [Hamad] recognized it and did not want to squander it. He is savvy."
In the summer of 1995, after getting the blessings of the various al-Thani factions, Sheikh Hamad staged a bloodless coup, calling his father at a Zurich hotel, according to local legend, to inform him of the change. His father, so it is told, hung up.
Determined to cling to power, the elder sheikh disowned his son and returned to the Gulf to gather support among the tribes for a countercoup. Sheikh Hamad responded in typically modern fashion – by hiring a big US law firm to help freeze money, reported to be in the billions, that his father had in bank accounts around the world.
Sheikh Hamad was in his mid-40s when he took Qatar's reins of power, in a region where the median age of rulers at the time was 60. He was of a new generation, open to the sorts of social, technological, economic, and political ideas from outside that his elders had never known. And, surrounding himself with young, Western-educated advisers, the new emir got right down to the business of remaking the national agenda of this traditional Wahhabi land. Since then, Qatar has not only reformed and redefined itself, it has begun to play an international role, both on TV, via the emir's Al Jazeera but also as a US ally in the Middle East.
Sheikha Mozah need not have been sad on that wedding day long ago – for nothing was going to turn out as expected. And she would get that chance to fight her father's fight for reform after all.
• Next: Part 2 – a modern marriage reforms a traditional nation.