- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2003

DOHA, Qatar — The recent inauguration of the Education City complex of U.S. and other foreign campuses in the desert has thrust Sheika Mozah Nasser al-Misnad into the international spotlight.

In a region where women customarily maintain a low profile, the wife of Qatar’s ruler has emerged as the leading force behind one of the most ambitious recent projects in the Middle East.

Western sources say it was Sheika Mozah’s idea to set up and finance Education City on the outskirts of the capital, Doha, and that she was responsible for every phase of the project — from making the initial approach to the universities to approving building plans.

In the autumn, the sheika opened the Doha campus of two of her choices — Cornell University’s Weill Medical College and a Texas A&M; University petrochemical college. A school of design from Virginia Commonwealth University already was up and running.

That’s just the beginning. “The journey of selection led us to assess institutions all over the world,” she said in fluent English, “and it is still ongoing.” Sources in Qatar say she plans to invite several other institutions to establish campuses in Doha, including INSEA, the French national business school at Fontainebleau, and a leading London music school.

Arab journalists covering the opening said other U.S.-linked institutions of higher learning in the region were nervous about the Doha project. A reporter for An-Nahar, a leading Lebanese daily, said officials at the long-established American University in Beirut were concerned about competition from Education City.

Sheika Mozah’s personal drift toward emancipation also causes anxiety in some Gulf countries. “Qatar drives its neighbors up the wall,” a well-informed U.S. official said in the small Gulf state recently. “The Saudis are really nervous about what’s happening here.”

Women in Saudi Arabia, Qatar’s powerful neighbor, live under tight constraints. They are segregated in public places, not allowed to drive cars, and have to wear a head covering and the abaaya, a long robe that covers them from neck to toe.

In Qatar, the abaaya is optional — worn rarely by teens, but frequently by older women. Qatari women mix freely with men and can be seen behind the wheel of their own cars.

But Sheika Mozah represents change on another front.

The Saudis probably are more concerned about the idea behind Education City, which is to open the region to Western knowledge and thought. As the custodians of Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad, the Saudis see themselves as the protectors of Islamic values and traditions.

A native Qatari said to be in her mid-40s, Sheika Mozah is not the only wife of 53-year-old emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, but she is officially described as his consort. She attended Qatar University, where she studied sociology.

A source in Doha said that the first time Qataris were able to see what she looked like was two years ago, when she broke with custom and appeared without her veil at the signing of the agreement with Cornell University to establish the medical school.

Since then, photos of her unveiled face have been published in the Qatari press several times, and she has appeared on television. In other respects she adheres to tradition by wearing the long, black robe gathered at the waist, with a black veil on her head. But at a recent state dinner in Doha, she made a grand entrance in a red robe and veil, with a large ruby pendant round her neck.

To develop Education City, she set up the Qatar Foundation, led by herself. Several sources emphasized that she is no figurehead, and hinted at a driven personality.

At a recent meeting with senior staffers from the Rand Corp., the California think tank that is advising her on restructuring Qatar’s school system, Sheika Mozah seemed tired and subdued at first.

“She had been working very hard,” one of the participants recalled, “but when we started discussing the project she suddenly came alive.”

Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corp., a leading philanthropy, calls her “one of the most imaginatively forceful, honest, determined people I’ve ever met.” He said she recruited him for the Qatar Foundation board of trustees after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan introduced them.

The sheika’s primary aim, sources close to her say, is to elevate Qatari talent to meet the responsibility of the emirate’s wealth. Thanks to its huge liquid gas reserves, Qatar is well on the road to becoming the richest country in the world, analysts say.

But Qataris make up less than 50 percent of the country’s half-million people, with immigrants from other Arab nations making up most of the rest. Given the population’s size, the scope of Education City indicates a larger ambition.

Sheika Mozah’s aunt is candid about that broader vision. “We hope to reshape the whole region,” she told reporters in Doha. “This is a sincere, solid, quality project.”

The aunt is president of Qatar University and is said to be one of Sheika Mozah’s closest advisers. The sheika also has the support of her husband, the emir, whose progressive views have led to Qatar becoming the first Gulf country to allow women to vote and hold public office.

The executive in charge of the Kuwaiti company that coordinates the construction operations said she was unable to give the precise size of Education City because “the sheika keeps adding new projects.”

There’s no accurate cost figure, either. A Qatar Foundation official privately said the cost is enormous.

When she opened the Weill Medical College branch here, Sheika Mozah said Qatar will “dedicate a significant portion of its gross domestic product to research and development.”

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