Sheikha Mozah of Qatar Much More Than Fashion Icon

Sheikha Mozah, the second wife of the emir of Qatar, is the principal benefactor behind a new foundation which aims to improve the lives of Arab Israeli students, writes Shlomi Eldar.

al-monitor Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, wife of Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, arrives at the Olympic Stadium during a state visit in east London Oct. 27, 2010. Photo by REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar


Topics covered

qatar, israel, fashion

Mar 26, 2013

Sheikha Mozah, the wife of the Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is more than just the most fashionable woman in the Arab world. She is also a social and political activist who personally funds a foundation that offers hundreds of scholarships to Israeli Arabs. Heading the foundation is Dr. Hanan Falah of Acre, a dentist and herself a remarkable innovator who likes flying light aircraft in her spare time. 

“It’s the first push,” said Falah. “We certainly hope to reach all the Arab students in Israel.” Falah then explained that there is no official organization to help these students with scholarships to cover tuition and living expenses while they are in school. Furthermore, the very fact that they do not serve in the military means that Jewish students have a head start over Arab students. Soldiers who complete their military service receive a stipend upon their release, which is intended to cover at least their first year of studies in one of Israel’s academic institutions. Arab students don’t have this advantage, and are, as the directors of the new foundation like to say, “orphaned.”

But there is another complaint that Arab students direct at the heads of the Arab local authorities. The students claim that these officials won’t lift a finger to help young Arabs as they set off on an academic course that is full of pitfalls. In their defense, the heads of the Arab local authorities argue that the situation they face is hard enough as it is — and they may well be right. Most of their towns and villages have difficulty collecting municipal taxes, while local welfare departments gobble up a significant portion of their budgets. Add in the fact that the conditions they start out with are also below par: Arab local councils suffer from clear budgetary discrimination when compared to Jewish local councils. Under these conditions, scholarship and tuition grants for local students simply aren’t an option.

That is why the foundation approached Mozah, the Sheikha of Qatar. The foundation’s directors avoid sharing details about how they managed to win her support, and rightly so. They are a brand-new organization, and the entire issue is potentially quite sensitive. Nevertheless, the fact is that the money has already been donated.

The Emir of Qatar himself visited the Gaza Strip in October 2012 with his wife. He was the first Arab leader to visit since the Hamas coup in 2007, and it was his visit that actually broke Israel’s seal on the Gaza Strip. At the time, the emir showered tens of millions of dollars for a long list of projects on his excited hosts, chief among them Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who volunteered to serve as the emir’s personal driver during his tour of Gaza. But Mozah is no miser, either. As it turns out, she backs huge foundations helping the needy throughout the Arab world, her philanthropic efforts even reaching the Arab population of Israel.

Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, the second wife of the Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is a woman who shatters conventions, especially when compared to other Muslim women. She has a degree in sociology, and not only does she not wear a veil, but she is a true fashion aficionado. In fact, she is even more of a fashion icon than Syrian first lady Asma Assad.

Not only does Mozah stand out in the Arab world, she gets quite a bit of attention in the West as well. A few years ago, when she was a guest at the Élysée Palace in France, Sheikha Mozah achieved the unbelievable by outshining even then-French first lady and former top model Carla Bruni. It was nothing less than remarkable. When these two first ladies, of France and Qatar, walked alongside each other in what one paper called “a minor arms race in the fashion world between these two women,” it was Mozah bint Nasser who turned more heads.

But Sheikha Mozah is more than just a fashion icon. She is considered to be the motivating force behind efforts for modernization and equality, not only in the tiny emirate of Qatar but throughout the entire Arab world. It was because of these activities that in 2007, Forbes magazine named her the 79th most powerful woman in the world, a title which increased her stature among Arab women everywhere. Her name was certainly uttered with deference by all the female Arab students who showed up last week to the ceremony launching the new foundation. After all, it was Sheikha Mozah who gave it that first, vital push.

The foundation will initially fund scholarships for 220 male and female students who meet criteria set by the group’s board. The chairman of the board, Nasser Muassi, says 22,000 Israeli Arabs are currently registered as students, but practically all of them have difficulty funding their studies. Of these students, 16,800 attend universities and colleges in Israel, while the remainder attends schools in Jordan and Europe.

The idea that the foundation is funded exclusively by Arab money could be interpreted somewhat less than positively by certain sectors of the Israeli public. In order to avoid creating that impression, the fund’s founders turned to several Israeli philanthropists, hoping that they will also agree to help these underprivileged students. Among the groups that they approached was Ted Arison’s family foundation.

“This is only the beginning,” Muassi promises. He still intends to make a big ruckus and take it as far as the prime minister’s office “so that Arab students have the same opportunity as Jewish students.”

Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, and has reported on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. He has published two books: Eyeless in Gaza (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and Getting to Know Hamas (2012).

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