Sheikha Moza, matriarch of the modern Gulf (Financial Times, 28/06/2013)

With her son in office, the former first lady’s legacy is secure, write Simeon Kerr and Roula Khalaf

Her name was not mentioned in the passionate tribute that her son, the newly crowned emir of Qatar, delivered to his father in his first address to the nation. Nor did she appear in the rolling television coverage of thousands of Qataris lined up under outsized chandeliers to pledge allegiance to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and the newly entitled “father emir.”

But Moza bint Nasser al-Missned has been at the heart of a palace drama in Doha that reached a high point this week as her husband abdicated in favour of her son, an unprecedented moment in the modern history of Gulf monarchies.

The transition not only handed the throne to her son, one of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani’s 24 children from his three wives. It also culminated with the removal of her main rival in the Byzantine world of the Qatari court – Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, the powerful prime minister.

With her chiselled cheekbones, her glamorous floor-length gowns, and her unconventionally public role in the deeply conservative Gulf, 53-year-old Sheikha Moza has secured her legacy as the matriarch of modern Qatar. As one of her allies says: “This is her moment.”

The abdication also means she will have to get used to a lower profile after years as the region’s most recognisable woman. Sheikh Tamim, 33, will be naming one of his two wives as consort. “I am sure she will be more in the background domestically,” says Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Center. “But she will be, like her husband, a steadying influence on what’s going on.”

Some observers say the elegantly styled sheikha is behind the Qatari investment vehicle that bought Italian fashion label Valentino last year. On the global stage, she has vied for the attention of fashion journalists with first ladies such as Michelle Obama of the US and, formerly, France’s Carla Bruni.

Closer to home, she is a source of both fascination and irritation. In the Gulf, where first ladies are rarely visible, her appearance – she wears a headscarf but not a veil – and economic and social activism have shocked. She was rumoured to have interfered in government decisions, and at times to have suggested foreign investments, such as in Harrods, to Qatar’s $100bn-plus sovereign wealth fund.

She has also carved out a domestic power base through the Qatar Foundation, an education development and scientific research organisation. About 15 years ago, it launched Education City, a campus boasting branches of universities such as Georgetown and Weill Cornell, where a new generation of Arabs is seeking western knowledge in an Islamic setting.

The development drive has collided with the rigid confines of Qatar’s autocracy. In 2008 Sheikha Moza was behind the creation of a press-freedom organisation in Doha headed by Robert Ménard, former head of Reporters Without Borders. Less than a year into the job, Mr Ménard quit, slamming what he said was some Qatari officials’ resistance to the centre’s independence.

A hard worker who likes to stay fit – she is said to enjoy spinning exercise classes – the sheikha is considered forthcoming and loyal but also firm. People who have dealt with them describe her personal office and the Qatar Foundation as “snake pits” of petty politics.

In fact, she has never been a stranger to palace intrigue. Shortly after she was born in a coastal Qatari town in 1959 to a prominent merchant family, her father fell out with the emir and went into exile in Egypt and Kuwait. She is said by one source to have met the crown prince she married at 18 as he tried to broker the family’s return. It was sweet revenge for the family when he ousted his backward-looking father in a bloodless coup in 1995.

Although she is the emir’s second wife – and her allies say his third marriage was designed to stem grumbling about Sheikha Moza’s power – she has been unchallenged as first lady at a time when the tiny state has leveraged its natural gas wealth into financial and political influence in London and other cities.

Independent-minded like her husband, the sheikha went back to Qatar University to finish her sociology degree after their marriage. The partnership is said to be strong: people who meet the couple note their intellectual intimacy, as they finish each others’ sentences on matters from art to foreign affairs.

Sheikha Moza is believed to have helped persuade her husband to back Libyan rebels in 2011, when Muammer Gaddafi threatened to over-run Benghazi, a defining moment of Qatar’s more activist regional policy in recent years. Her affinity with the city was forged in exile when her father entered a business partnership with a prominent Benghazi family.

However, analysts say her son may adopt a different tone on regional conflagrations such as the Syrian war, following accusations of meddling by the Sunni-dominated state and quiet domestic concern about threats to the stability of one of the world’s richest nations.

Her greatest influence has been at home, where she and her husband led the elite that drove political, cultural and educational programmes while the nation struggled to absorb the pace of change. Some decisions associated with the sheikha have been reversed amid a popular backlash. For example, she brought in consultants who recommended making English the primary language at the country’s national university. Sheikh Tamim is credited with rolling back that decision; and, perhaps as part of preparations for the transition, he has developed a more traditional image.

Many Qataris expect the emir’s rule to stress the preservation of national identity and traditions in a country where expatriates make up 85 per cent of the population. With her victory sealed, Sheikha Moza must now adjust to the new realities as her public profile recedes. “She will have to be careful how she projects her domestic role,” says Brookings’ Mr Shaikh. “And she will be.”

The writers are the FT’s Gulf business correspondent and Middle East editor

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