As the world focuses on the conflict between Israel and Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, a quiet revolution to remove oppression and despair that often leads to terrorism is taking place in neighboring Qatar under the leadership of a dynamic and charismatic woman. Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned is the wife of the amir of Qatar, one of America’s strongest allies in the troubled Middle East. While President Bush believes that the removal of terrorism requires a major transformation of the Middle East through the promotion of liberty and democracy, the sheikha has focused on a new mission of statecraft: good governance.
For the sheikha, the three major pillars of good governance are education reform, religious tolerance and political pluralism, all of which she firmly believes can take root in the Middle East. Ultimately, good governance means serving the people-in her mind the most valuable asset of a nation.
She approaches her mission to transform the hearts and minds of the Arab Muslim world with a level of professionalism seldom seen in that part of the world. Her success to date can only be explained by her personality: Disciplined, focused, agenda-driven, and working according to a code of meritocracy. Armed with a degree in sociology from the University of Qatar that she received in 1986 and three doctorates from Virginia Commonwealth University, Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon, she has a clear vision to transform this energy-rich Sunni Arab state into the education hub of the Middle East.
The nerve center of her drive for education reform is the Qatar Foundation, a nonprofit enterprise dedicated to promoting the arts and sciences, and educating younger generations. The Qatar Foundation created Education City, a 24,000-acre multi-institutional campus, which is home to leading American institutions and think tanks. American universities — including Georgetown, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon and Cornell — have set up satellite campuses in Education City, thus enabling Qataris and other Arab Muslims to obtain a Western education. The Rand-Qatar Policy Institute is a new center for independent policy analysis staffed with local scholars. The Rand Corp. is also assisting in the development of a plan to revamp primary and secondary education in Qatar.
The sheikha believes that education is an anchor of good governance because it encourages free thinking and tolerance of other cultures and ideas. Inviting American companies and universities to set up campuses in Qatar demonstrates her commitment to transforming Qatar into a regional educational hub and an incubator of new ideas.
In recognition of her dedication to education reform, UNESCO appointed the sheikha as special envoy for Basic and Higher Education in 2003. As special envoy, she is actively promoting various international projects to improve the quality and accessibility of education worldwide. Her accomplishments include the International Fund for Higher Education in Iraq, which is dedicated to the reconstruction of institutions of advanced learning. The sheikha Mozah personally donated $15 million for training faculty members at Iraq’s top universities.
The underlying premise of this focus on education as an anchor of good governance is that education and its commitment to free thinking cannot be the sole domain of the Muslim clergy — whether they be in Tehran, Qom, Nafaj, Riyadh or Cairo. Rather, education will give individuals the wherewithal to decide for themselves and not be brainwashed by ignorant clerics in far off madrassas on the border of Pakistan-Afghanistan.
For the sheikha another aspect of good governance is religious pluralism. One of her seminars on Christian-Muslim understanding was attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury. She has promoted the building of non-Muslim public places of worship in Qatar and has given legal status to Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Coptic and Asian Christian denominations. Members of the Bahai faith, persecuted in Iran, enjoy freedom of expression in Qatar.
Working from her modestly decorated office in the outskirts of Doha, the capital of Qatar, the sheikha also focuses on the third pillar of good governance. She argues that a “free zone” of political tolerance will allow for the free flow of ideas and opinions between traditionalists and modernists, where change is enacted through the ballot box, not by resorting to terrorism.
As Washington struggles to contain the evil of global terrorism by promoting democracy in the Middle East, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned’s road map of transforming the hearts and minds through education is an excellent starting point.
S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting.