Middle East: First ladies in the Gulf make mark in public roles

AP via GulfNews
"The first lady of Qatar walked up to the podium in a luxury hotel banquet room and sized up the crowd of mostly wealthy businessmen. "Do not be afraid to take risks and to try," she told them. 'Think out of the box.'"
Shaikha Mouza Bint Nasser Al Missnad, wife of the Emir of Qatar, may have been wearing a traditional black headscarf and robe, but she took on a very untraditional role in rallying the men to support a $100 million (Dh367.5 million) initiative to tackle unemployment.
Like her counterpart in Dubai - Oxford-educated Princess Haya Bint Al Hussain, wife of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai - Shaikha Mouza is taking up the Western "first lady" model - activist, globe-trotting and involved in public affairs.

The emergence of high-ranking wives on the public stage is part of the booming Gulf states' efforts to appear more in sync with the West as they seek investment, political clout and even big-name sporting events like the Olympics.

It's also clearly a competition with other high-profile Middle East women, such as Jordan's Queen Rania.


In recent years, Qatar has transformed its desert landscape into a financial and media hub. High-rises and construction cranes now swarm the skyline of Doha, home to Al Jazeera, the groundbreaking Arabic language television station.

Shaikha Mouza has taken a starring role in the transformation. Her most prominent role is as chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation, which launched Education City, a 1,012-hectare campus outside Doha and home to branches of prominent American universities like Carnegie Mellon and Georgetown.

She is increasingly rivalling Queen Rania's globe-trotting, giving speeches at institutions in the US and Europe. Last year, she claimed one of the spots on Forbes magazine's list of the world's 100 most powerful women.

"No Gulf royalty stands out as [Shaikha] Mouza does," said Rima Sabban, a Dubai-based sociologist. "She broke all cultural barriers and shaped an image of a woman that is fully modern, fully confident and fearless of a backlash from the society... [Shaikha] Mouza's strategy is part of her husband's goal to put Qatar on the world map."

In Dubai, Princess Haya is making a big impact - giving speeches on public welfare, working on public projects, appearing in magazines, keeping up personal websites and travelling the world.

Like Shaikha Mouza, Princess Haya has taken on public roles, including chairing the Dubai International Humanitarian City, a cluster of Western and Islamic charities and the International Equestrian Federation.

Qatar and the UAE both have female Cabinet ministers, and the UAE recently appointed its first female judge. The UAE's minister of foreign trade is a woman, as is the founder of Amwal, a top investment company in Qatar.

Women make up 22.4 per cent of the UAE's work force and 32 per cent in Qatar, according to government statistics. Seventy-seven per cent of university students in the UAE are women, according to the Ministry of Education and Labour.

Three-quarters of students who graduated from Qatar University this year were women.

Kuwait recently gave women the right to vote and run for office, and it has several female Cabinet ministers, though no woman has been elected to parliament.

"It's a domino effect. Success in one country has spilled over into other countries in the region. When a Ruler in one country appoints a woman to a high-level post, others follow. It's a healthy competition because everyone wants to show that they are democratising," said Rola Dashti, a Kuwaiti economist who has run for parliament.

22 September 2008

Source: Associated Press