The Power Behind the Throne?

Wherever she appears, Sheikha Mozah of Qatar, the emir's wife, makes a splash. That includes helping persuade FIFA to award the 2022 World Cup to the tiny Gulf state

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

"The sheikha is the winning card of the 2022 World Cup," wrote the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat about the wife of the emir of Qatar, who was presenting Qatar's case for hosting the international soccer competition 12 years down the line. And the card indeed brought victory to the Gulf emirate.

Queen Elizabeth II of Britain with Sheikha Mozah, at Windsor Castle in October. Credit: Reuters

Announced earlier this month, FIFA's decision to stage the prestigious event in Qatar raised many eyebrows among competitors for the honor, and angered its neighbors in the Middle East. Qatar's victory was aided by its agreement to assume the costs of sponsoring the Spanish champion, Barcelona, to the tune of 125 million pounds sterling; to sponsor the congress of the African Soccer Federation (thus neutralizing the lobbying of its competitors, Australia, Japan and Korea, over African votes ); and apparently also to make "donations" to other soccer teams whose managements' decision were critical to the FIFA decision.

Qatar succeeded especially in impressing the president of FIFA, who visited there in April, with its tremendous rate of growth and construction. It also gave the federation's heads a number of commitments to allay concern about its ability to host the teams and some half-a-million fans who are expected to come to watch the games. It will up the number of hotel rooms in the emirate from 50,000 to 90,000, connect 12 stadiums via a new railway network (at a cost of some $25 billion ), and invest $11 billion in construction of a new airport and another $20 billion in roads.

With such commitments, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser al Missned, the second wife of the emir of Qatar, could appear together with her husband before the members of the FIFA executive in order to display to them the charm of Qatar - her personal charm.

"When will it be the turn of the Middle East to receive this honor?" she asked the executive board, and supplied her own answer: "This is the appropriate time to receive our right to host the 2022 World Cup."

One can venture a guess that the board members were less impressed by the presentation the sheikha brought with her than by the elegant appearance of the princess, who spoke in the name of "bringing people together in the Middle East through soccer."

Sheikha Mozah is one of the most impressive and influential women in the Middle East. Her name appears on the Forbes magazine list of the world's 100 most powerful women, and the British newspaper Guardian quoted a top fashion designer who said that "not since Jackie O has any first lady had such global resonance in terms of fashion." Her web site, which is in Arabic and English, is full of details about her public activity in the small emirate that is controlled by the Al-Thani family, and led by her husband, Sheikh Hamad, who deposed and replaced his father in a bloodless coup in 1995.

Mozah has headed the Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development since its establishment in the same year as the coup. In 2003 the foundation (which is financed by her husband ) initiated Education City - a project that brought to Qatar branches of major foreign universities, as well as teachers from them. She served as the head of a "supreme council" that dealt with the empowerment of women in the emirate, was the UNESCO special envoy for Basic and Higher Education, and was also active as a member of the group of the UN Alliance of Civilizations founded by former Secretary General Kofi Annan. She started a planning group for educational strategies in crisis areas, and in 2009 became a member of the French Academie des Beaux Arts. It seems there isn't a single public institution in Qatar or international organization involved in education in which she doesn't play a role.

But the modern appearance cut by Mozah, her diverse public activity and her trips abroad (without the customary male escort ) were all spurred by a "business" deal. Mozah, 50, is the daughter of Nasser Al Missned - the strong political rival of Sheikh Hamad, the current emir's father - who, in a move designed to neutralize the competition, "decided" with Nasser that his daughter would marry the sheikh's son.

The arranged marriage, which took place in 1977 eventually cost the groom's father his throne. According to scholar Osama Fauzy, who wrote the book "Rulers and Women," Mozah was in on the secret of the "velvet revolution" planned by her husband, and may even have been among its planners. Fauzy claims in his book that Mozah was also behind the political purge conducted by the new leader among his brothers and their sons, using the claim that they had tried to oust him - in order to promote her own children to senior positions.

The sheikha has seven children, one of whom, Sheikh Jassim, was appointed the emir's personal representative, which means he is received with royal honor at international meetings. Jassim, according to Arab commentators, is also the son the emir is grooming to take his place when the time comes (the emir suffers from a serious kidney disease ), and he also frequently presents him to foreign leaders, in order to encourage international recognition of him.

The stories of the intrigues in the court of the small emirate, that an Egyptian commentator once dubbed "a country whose entire population fits into one hotel," may fire the imagination, but the public influence of Mozah extends far beyond her emirate.

"We in Qatar are working to emphasize the highly influential historic role of women in the Arab peninsula. This role is not known in the Arab and Western world and is neglected by public opinion, the media and the intellectuals," she said in an interview with the Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh, after completing a historic three-day visit to the kingdom last March.

The "historic" value of that visit lies not only in the fact that it took place in the kingdom itself, but also in the fact that she met with and appeared publicly alongside the Saudi king, Abdullah. That's a sight to which the women of the Saudi kingdom are unaccustomed, since even the wives of the king and his brothers, the other princes, are not customarily displayed in public. This sight made such a strong impression that Saudi girls began to hang the picture of Mozah in their rooms, and Saudi female bloggers filled their home pages with descriptions of the visitor's charm, no less than descriptions of her clothing and her manner of speech.

In a kingdom like Saudi Arabia, where a woman is not permitted to drive and is banned from a large number of professions for fear of undermining morality, the appearance of a Qatari princess, well dressed and without a hijab to conceal her face, can be compared to Madonna appearing in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea She'arim neighborhood. Apparently, even the Saudi king, who is not a big fan of the emir of Qatar, was captivated by Mozah.

After the impressive visit in Saudi Arabia and the successful appearance before the FIFA executive, the sheikha can chalk up not only an achievement for her country, but an important personal achievement as well: She is becoming fixed in people's awareness as the real leader of the emirate of Qatar.



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