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Backstory: Qatar reformed by a modern marriage

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 2007


Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned leans forward, pushes her laptop computer aside and adjusts the wire-rimmed glasses that sit askew on her unveiled face. It's mid-morning, and she has just come out of a staff meeting. She is off to Africa next week, and documents relating to the royal visit are piled high beside a vase of yellow roses on her desk, waiting to be read. A copy of Fortune magazine lies, open, on a side table nearby, a plate of small sweet dates upon it serving as a paperweight.

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The pretty Qatari commoner who caught the crown prince's eye all those years ago has transformed herself over time into a royal wife the likes of which the conservative Arab region has never seen before.

To begin with, she is seen. The second of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani's three wives, Sheikha Mozah is the first and only ruling spouse here to show herself in public. But that is just the start of it.

Mozah seems to be doing everything all at once – from improving public transportation for foreign workers to the establishing the region's first battered women's shelter to reforming the higher education system, building non-Muslim public places of worship, sponsoring public debates, and serving as a UNESCO special envoy. Focused, energetic, and hardworking, the glamorous mother of seven of the emir's 27 children rivals her husband in terms of influence in this land.

"Her Highness is the best thing that ever happened to Qatar," states Esra al-Ibrahim, a young Qatari student, matter-of-factly. "She totally inspires us. Since she came to power, Qatar has changed 100 percent."

The sheikha laughs at that. It's the emir, she says, who inspires her. "I have lived with my husband more than I have with my parents ... I live beside him, and know his worries, his hopes, and his dreams for his nation," she says in an interview with the Monitor. "We believe that things happen by design, not in an arbitrary way. And we believe it is our duty to make things happen."

Making things happen has been top of the agenda for Sheikh Hamad ever since he deposed his father in a bloodless coup in 1995. He began with a new family tradition – coming to work. Dispensing with the pomp of the old Qatari court, and forgoing his father's trademark long, foreign sojourns, Hamad has encouraged participation, built relationships with staff, turned government institutions over to the private sector for reform, and has taken an active interest in day-to-day affairs, often driving himself around town and ringing a minister if he sees a problem that needs fixing.

Qatar under Hamad's watch seems to have become involved in everything, everywhere: from taking a seat on the UN Security Council, to hosting endless international conferences. It has presided over Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, is bidding for the Olympics, and bankrolls Al Jazeera, the in-your-face 24-hour satellite TV station so provocative that almost every country in the Middle East has, at some point, banned it.

"We believe," explains Mozah, always using "we," "... that by encouraging critical thinking and processing of knowledge we are creating full, well-rounded human beings ... that will enable Qatar to build up its society.

"You cannot build a healthy society without giving your citizens a sense of ownership," continues the first lady in lightly accented English. "Otherwise, they will not share with you the responsibilities."

Indeed, the sheikha created the Doha Debates – a monthly, high profile public town-hall meeting modeled after political debates at England's Oxford Union – to encourage the culture of both discussion and voting.

The sheikha doesn't seem worried that such freedom might inspire change that could usher her and the emir out of power. "It's a healthy challenge," she insists, playing with her unmanicured hands, decorated with fading henna tattoos from her daughter Mayasah's recent marriage. "Such ownership is not for us to give – it is the citizens' right. It's their right to share and be part of this enterprise."

Still, Hamad's Qatar isn't a democracy in the usual sense. Indeed, the last US report on Human Rights Practices here mentions improvements, but talks about limits on freedom of movement of women and restrictions on speech and press. The Economist Intelligence Unit's index of democracy calls Qatar an "authoritarian regime." Qatar remains the personal fiefdom of the al-Thani family, with the emir's rule absolute. Moreover, for all the criticism doled out by the emir's Al Jazeera to other rulers in the region, criticism of the emir or his policies is conspicuously absent on air.