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Backstory: Qatar reformed by a modern marriage

(Page 2 of 2)

"Qatar is too small a story. Not interesting," they explain at Al Jazeera headquarters here, insisting there is no censorship. Similarly many of those interviewed for this story refuse to go on record with personal views about the royal family, even while insisting there is full freedom of expression here. And, to be granted an interview with Mozah, the Monitor's questions had to be submitted in advance and a transcript of her responses shown to her office. (No changes were requested.)

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Nonetheless, there is a nascent, home-grown democracy sprouting here. Qatar's first elections – for a central municipal council – were held in 1999, and both women and men voted. The 2003 Constitution provides for a 45-seat governmental council – two-thirds of which is elected – and ensures individual freedoms and an independent judiciary.

"Any people that want to develop their countries ... have to practice democracy. That's what I believe," Hamad said, in a rare 2003 TV interview with CBS News's 60 Minutes. To Qataris and other regional Arabs watching TV at home, that 60 Minutes interview was a complete shock – and not because of the emir's ruminations on freedom and democracy. Qataris, rather, were focused on the woman sitting beside him. It was the first time the vast majority of them had seen any of their first ladies.

Beyond her concrete accomplishments and the reforms she has initiated, and despite constant deference to her husband, Mozah has since become a role model to many here as someone who has found a balance between modernity and fidelity to core values of Islam and Arab culture. It is, the sheikha will tell you, no big deal.

"People tend to believe that to be modern you have to disengage from your heritage, but it's not true. This is what we are trying to prove here," she explains. "We don't see the global citizen as someone with no identity, but rather someone who has confidence and is proud of his culture and history – and ... open to the modern world."

And how have the children of this unique couple turned out? Not bad at all, attests James Reardon-Anderson, dean of Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. "I know three of the kids and am impressed," he says. "They could be in the South of France smoking dope, but, far from it. I, as a parent, am impressed by how their parents have brought them up so well."

"We bring them up as normal individuals. When I go back to the house we talk about everything: What I did, what I have seen, what they think, and what their ambitions are," says Mozah. "It's refreshing to hear the point of view of young minds because this is what we are building here ... for them and for people like them."

Having passed over his two eldest sons as successors, Hamadreplaced his third son as crown prince in 2003 with his fourth – Sheikh Tamim, Mozah's child. The official reason for the change, which took Qataris by surprise, was not a story probed by Al Jazeera. The 24-year-old Tamim studied, like his father, at England's elite Sandhurst military academy. He's head of the Qatar Olympic Committee, deputy commander of the armed forces, and newly married.

Mozah encouraged her new daughter-in-law, she says, to continue her studies. "Nothing should hinder someone from learning or attaining knowledge," she says, smoothing her wrinkleless brow with her hand as she speaks and getting ready to end the interview. "I envy the youngsters.... They have so many opportunities ahead of them."

A woman clad in black silently slips in the sheikha's office with a tray of thimble-size porcelain cups and pours bitter Bedouin coffee.

Her Highness nods. The audience is over. There are meetings to chair, papers to look over, briefings, and a royal engagement or two where she must show up and nod demurely. The sun is blazing outside and Mozah wraps her veil around her head. She smiles kindly. There is a lot to be done today.

Part 1 – The royal couple that put Qatar on the map – appeared in Monday's Monitor.