Lunch with the FT: Sheikha Moza

Doha, Qatar, 10 July 2015

Over chicken and avocado salad in Qatar, its former first lady talks about her education empire, foreign ‘hypocrisy’ and Arab revolutions 

Moza bint Nasser al-Miss¬ned is famous for her style. The majestic floor-skimming gowns, the elegant turbans and the vivid west-meets-orient outfits have established this tall and imposing 56-year-old member of the Qatari royal family as one of the world’s most glamorous women.
Today, though, she enters the Club in Doha dressed all in black, save for the sparkle of a thick blue-grey eye shadow. As we shake hands, I notice a special Moza touch to the look: the abaya, traditional garb of the conservative Gulf, is slightly open and flows loosely; her headscarf is casually wrapped, liberating a strand of hair. “Here, this is how I dress,” she explains when I tell her I had hoped for a grander entrance. She jokes that we should have had lunch in London instead.

Sheikha Moza, as she is known in Qatar, has also made headlines for her power in the tiny oil state and her role in its big ambitions, from the breakneck development of Doha, fuelled by massive exports of liquefied natural gas, to its appetite for political intrigue and overseas investments. In London alone its portfolio includes Harrods and the Shard skyscraper. As the wife of the former emir, and through the work of her ever-expanding education empire, the Qatar Foundation, the Sheikha has embodied the country’s quest for global influence.
We are ushered to a window table picked by her aides, who sit several tables away. The Sheikha gets the view of the garden where the restaurant grows organic vegetables. Fair enough: the half-moon-shaped restaurant, a simple modern hall with wooden floors, is part of a 980,000 sq m equestrian centre that belongs to her foundation.

We glance at the menus, both opting for the chicken and avocado salad — hers without the pita bits because she’s on a gluten-free diet. Alcohol is served only in hotels in Qatar, so is not an option here. She orders a blackberry and lavender lemonade and I pick the (sparkling water) bellini.
Though it is two years since her husband, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, shocked his Arab peers by abdicating, handing power to his son Tamim, the Sheikha remains Qatar’s most recognisable face. At the time she was thought to have blessed the deliberate succession: Tamim is one of Moza’s seven children — the emir has children from three wives. But she has had to keep a lower profile since then, while there has been speculation that her husband, now known as “father emir”, still pulls the strings behind the scenes. She insists he’s enjoying his retirement. “He has an office and he pursues his own things,” she says. “He travels a lot now because he likes diving and swimming.”

Does she miss hobnobbing with world leaders and first ladies? Recently, the release of a cache of Hillary Clinton emails from 2009 offered a glimpse into Moza’s behind-the-scenes diplomatic manoeuvring. They revealed how Cherie Blair, the former UK prime minister’s wife, lobbied Clinton, then US secretary of state, for a “women to women” meeting with the Qatari royal. Moza’s aim, they suggested, was to improve relations with the US.

It is hard to believe but Moza claims not to miss her first-lady status, saying it never really existed in any official sense. “What changed is maybe going on official visits with my husband,” she continues. “I don’t see that as something I’m missing because what I enjoy mostly is my work as a social activist.”
The Sheikha’s activism impresses foreign diplomats who meet her and praise her as a formidable force; less so some Arabs, who are irritated by Qatar’s maverick projection of its power and Moza’s presumed involvement in the small state’s controversial policy making.

The Qatar Foundation, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary, has been central to her ambitions, importing campuses from institutions such as Georgetown University and Weill Cornell Medical College in the US and University College London in the hope of establishing Qatar as an education hub. She tells me her “obsession” with education was instilled by her father, a businessman who was sent to prison and then into exile after falling out with the ruler of the time — who, remarkably, was her husband’s grandfather.

“My father educated himself when he was in prison before exile, so we appreciate education, we cherished it,” she says. She attended school in Egypt and, before marrying the emir, wanted to become a doctor. She finished her first degree, in sociology, at Qatar University later on, and says the learning process should not stop at any stage of life.

Indeed, the night before our lunch, she had graduated with a master’s in public policy in Islam from Hamad bin Khalifa University. She shows me her graduation ring. “I thought it would be interesting to see how it worked on the other side, through the life of a student,” she says of her return to the classroom. She didn’t really attend classes and write papers, I say? “You can ask around,” she replies. “You had to choose either two or three days a week [of classes]. It took me three and a half years to finish the master’s.” What, I ask, does public policy in Islam consist of? One example, she explains, is that public places in Islamic countries might be designed differently to keep with tradition, but she admits she still hasn’t figured out exactly what it’s about.

Returning to the work of her foundation, I suggest it might have been much cheaper to send Qataris to be educated abroad, rather than spending billions of dollars bringing foreign university campuses to Doha. Is the foundation more than just a vanity project? It was never about educating “a few” individuals, she says. “The vision is really to build an infrastructure for a knowledge-based society.” She says I am not taking the bigger picture into account and lists a series of research projects that the western universities are involved in, with local hospitals and government agencies. “I’m creating an ecosystem [that] needs pillars, and the pillars are the academies and research institutions.”

I point out a recurring criticism of Qatar: that the pursuit of knowledge and promotion of critical thinking are bizarre contradictions in a country that remains an autocracy with a media that does little more than parrot the government line. While Qatar claims to promote democracy elsewhere in the Arab world, a press-freedom centre in Doha that Moza backed fell apart amid charges that Qatari officials had resisted its independence. A poet, meanwhile, is serving a 15-year sentence on charges of insulting the emir.

The Sheikha says the world should be patient with Qatar. “I agree the media is not developed as we want, but things are changing, maybe slowly but steadily. We know change is going to happen anyway. We’re trying to manage change, so when it happens our young people understand and know how to deal with it.”

I mention that I’m surprised she never took up the cause of women’s issues in the Arab world. Was that too sensitive? “You should not look to one segment of the society and focus on it,” she replies. “If you want to teach women you have to teach men as well. If you have educated men they will enable their women to be educated.” I tell her that when the FT wrote about her after her husband’s abdication, some readers’ comments were critical of our description of Qatar as a “modern” state because Moza is the second wife of a man married to three women at the same time.

She is visibly annoyed by the criticism but not particularly defensive. No one has the right to impose cultural concepts on others, she says. “I’m a person allowed to be educated and to have a public life. Wearing the hijab or being a second wife doesn’t prevent me from doing that; it doesn’t hinder my progress. I respect other wives, and their children are like my children.”

. . .

Whatever outsiders think, for many people in the Gulf it is hard to accept the Sheikha and her husband have not been on a very deliberate path to stand out. Qatar practically makes it its business to shock and annoy its neighbours, whether by forging conflicting policies — befriending radical Arab groups and Israel at the same time, for example — or using the power of Al Jazeera, the television network funded by the state, to take shots at other Arab states.

Moza insists there was never a grand plan to make waves or break taboos by acting like the first lady of a western state. “Everything was done in a natural way — it wasn’t a strategy to be breaking [norms]. My husband believes in me, in my work, in my ability to change things, to be a partner with him in his role . . . and he gave me the space to do that.”

It was also widely assumed the Sheikha shared, if not encouraged, her husband’s enthusiasm for the Arab revolutions of 2011, particularly his backing for Islamists in Egypt, where she grew up, and Libya where her father worked (she insists she had no say in his policies). This pitted him against Saudi Arabia and isolated him within the Gulf. When the uprisings unravelled, Moza became the main target of widespread Qatar-bashing by Egyptian supporters of the military coup that pushed out an Islamist government.

The problem of migrants in Europe is ‘of a bigger scale. Our migrants come and go but migrants [in Europe] are supposed to be part of their society, and areill-treated’

Though the hope for change in the Arab world has faded, replaced by an almost generalised state of chaos, Moza takes a sanguine view of the Middle East’s disintegration. “Of course it’s sad to see that. It’s very daunting, but at the same time I still have hope that things will change. There are setbacks but [the repercussions of the revolts are] not concluded,” she says. Sensing that I am puzzled by her optimism, she goes on: “What happened during this Arab spring I think is still vibrant in the minds and hearts of people.”

After a spectacular rise, Qatar’s image has taken a battering recently. Allegations of corruption in its 2022 World Cup bid (strenuously denied by Moza) could yet strip Doha of the tournament. Charges of inhumane treatment of migrant workers have added to the pressures. The Sheikha has also been slammed in the British media for apparently trying to convert separate listed houses in London into one mansion — a project she tells me is her son Tamim’s and something she’s never set eyes on.

In any case, she says, when a French aristocrat bought an English palace, the media portrayed him as saving British heritage — but when it’s an Arab prince buying a listed building, he’s seen as damaging British culture. “For me this is hypocrisy,” she says.

The stereotype of dumb Arab money infuriates the Sheikha and the Doha royals. “We’re portrayed in the media as rich people who have a lot of money and don’t know what to do with it. We are blessed with our wealth but we know how to deal with this wealth,” she says.

Many Qataris see the hand of their Gulf neighbours in every controversy about their country. The Sheikha suggests I should know there has been an orchestrated campaign against her and Qatar, and that all the attacks are connected, whatever the subject. “Why were we all of a sudden under the spotlight? We understand that this has been done according to a certain agenda,” she says.

In May, Qatar was again condemned by human rights organisations for making little progress in its promise to end abuses of migrant labour. The Sheikha says the Qatar Foundation worked on a charter the government is now adopting for the whole country. But why single out Qatar, she asks, trying to shift the subject on to more comfortable ground. What about the way migrants are treated in Europe? Our lunch is taking place amid a fierce debate in Europe after hundreds of migrants drowned in the Mediterranean. And what, she asks, about the “sad, sad” treatment of Muslim minorities in Europe? “I see the problem is of a bigger scale than our problems here because our migrants, they come and go . . . but the migrants [in Europe] are supposed to be part of their society, and they are ill-treated.”

. . .

The Sheikha has been picking at her food and I have slowed down partly to give her more time but also because of a nagging fly that seems determined to share my salad. As she does often during our two hours together, she brings the conversation back to education. However, the Doha rumour mill has been spinning with tales of pressure on the Qatar Foundation, subjected by her son’s new government to the same budgetary discipline as other spendthrift institutions. Some have even speculated she is coming to the end of her tenure as chairwoman.

She has heard the whispers but says Tamim visited the campuses a few months ago to put an end to any suggestion of an erosion of support. It was her idea, she tells me, to rationalise the budget. “I’m trying to make everyone understand that it’s not an open account any more . . . We started without knowing how much it was going to cost us. Today we know.”

Our salad plates are cleared and the French chef tells us about a special dessert he’s prepared — a gluten-free raspberry and chocolate tart with gold leaf, which turns out to be excellent. I order an espresso and, 10 minutes later, the Sheikha decides she wants one too.

I still want to know more about fashion. Moza has launched the Qatar Luxury Group under the Qatar Foundation, and a local brand, Qela, to encourage fashion design graduates. She says she is her own stylist: she likes to sketch and sometimes works with top designers on her outfits. “It’s my mental treat. When I’m exhausted, I go to my dressing room and go through my closets and I try to mix things and fix things. I don’t have a stylist because I wouldn’t find anyone that would understand what I want.”

She won’t reveal her favourite designer, telling me she has a favourite style instead. “My style is to be in something that respects tradition and is at the same time modern and practical.”

What about shoes? I ask her to show me who her open-toe platforms are made by. She obliges, slipping her foot out of a pair by Gianvito Rossi. They’re very simple, she says, very practical, and she has them made specially for her. Being royalty, she was able to buy them in a range of different colours.

The FT would like to clarify that this lunch took place before the holy month of Ramadan

Roula Khalaf is the FT’s foreign editor