Backstory: Qatar reformed by a modern marriage

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.

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.

"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.)

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.

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