Backstory: The royal couple that put Qatar on the map
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.