If I suddenly uttered “Arab Princess”, what would come to your mind? A raven hair beauty with kohl-rimmed eyes, lounging in a harem? A Thousand and one Nights? A posse of veiled women storming Harvey Nichols?
None of this applies to Her Royal Highness Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the eldest daughter of the former Emir of Qatar and sister to the current Emir. Rather, Sheikha al Mayassa, who received a liberal arts degree from Duke University, is putting her education to work in a part of the world where many women do not have opportunities or resources.
Currently on the board of the Qatar Museum Authority, Sheikha al Mayassa is trying, not only to place firmly Qatar on the arts map, but also to revolutionize the role the arts play in her country. Starting next Autumn, the arts curriculum throughout the school system is being revamped following guidelines she helped draw – this in a country where 70% of the population is under the age of 30. A whole new generation will grow up recognizing the importance of figurative arts in everyday life.
To such end, Sheikha al Mayassa had installed Damien Hirst’s “The Miraculous Journey” outside a women’s wellness clinic, a group of 14 sculptures depicting the gestation of a fetus. A move that wouldn’t be considered daring in London or Los Angeles but which drew some criticisms in the Arab world.
Often dubbed the “art world’s most powerful woman”, Sheikha al Mayassa has indeed deep pockets and she is using those funds for major acquisitions and to commission bold architectural projects, such as the National Museum of Qatar and the Orientalist Museum.
Although Qatar is not as restrictive as Saudi Arabia when it comes to the public roles women can play, this particular princess is setting an example in thinking outside the box on how to affect a whole (small) country.