Saturday, 11 December 2010

Interview Transcript with Sheikha Mozah of Qatar

This past week I had the chance to attend the Doha Debates and World Innovation Summit on Education, and interview Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, the wife of the Amir of Qatar and Chairperson of Qatar Foundation. I wrote an article reflecting on the events in the Huffington Post that can be found by clicking here

Below is the full transcript of the interview with Her Highness. 

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Transcript of Interview with Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned
Wednesday, December 5, 2010 

Location: Office of Her Highness at Qatar Foundation, Doha, Qatar

Others Present: Ali Willis, Director of Media, Office of Her Highness

Trancript
(‘HHSM’ represents Sheikha Mozah; ‘TR’ represents the interviewer, Taufiq Rahim)

TR:  Congratulations on winning the World Cup bid for 2022. What do you think it means for Qatar and the region?

HHSM: We saw immediately on the faces of millions and millions of Arabs and not just in the Emirates or the Gulf or our direct neighbors, but also in Egypt, Algeria, and Syria, everywhere – Lebanon. It shows that you are correct when you say that it excited the region, and it did, and I hope it will continue for several years.

TR: So do you see the World Cup victory as a victory for the Middle East…

HH: Of course

TR: For the Muslim world as well?

HHSM: Well the Middle East is part of the Muslim world. But I think it is a victory for all parts because we – what happened in Zurich, is the success of a hard-working group of young people that represents all the Middle Eastern youth. And that success is a success of all youth in the Middle East.

TR: With the World Cup victory, it has brought a lot of attention on Qatar – for example the WISE conference, which has been fascinating in bringing together not just regional but global stakeholders. What do you see as Qatar Foundation’s role as a regional and global leader on the education agenda?

HHSM: Well I saw it really a long time before, 15 years ago. What happened 15 years ago - to understand the current vision you have to understand what inspired us to have this vision. It started from three issues or three convictions that I carry myself or that I deal with myself.  First of all I believe that we can reach a quality of global education without losing our identities, without losing our nationalities, because so far, 15 years ago, before we start our reforms, what happened before is that we used to import education from abroad. Importing education from abroad in a way resulted from our vision.

Education itself can transcend barriers and borders. Through education - education can also be used as a soft power as a soft force to transform societies. When I say transform societies it means we can tackle issues in political, social, cultural, economic areas. These are the most important things.

TR: It is interesting that you mention transforming societies. Yesterday [Former UN Envoy] Lakdar Brahimi was talking about education, and he was talking about the importance of values and he brought up the example of the Church in Baghdad [that was attacked recently]. Do you incorporate that kind of philosophy, of, not just the hardware of education, but also the values, tolerance, creating a more open-minded youth?

HHSM: Of course. Of course, this is it. One of the lessons that we learned on education, education is very, very, very living and organic. This living organ needs to always be flexible and needs to be filled with new ideas, with creative approaches. Once we have this in mind, we will build up the critical mind, the global mind, the tolerant mind to accept the other, to live with the others. This is why …one of the areas that we are trying to instill [this philosophy] is in the hearts and minds of every individual who lives here in Qatar.

TR: And what about beyond Qatar?

HHSM: We are – to be frank with you – I can’t say that 15 years ago when we started this I was thinking beyond Qatar.  No. And I don’t think that there is a vision that can incorporate such scope. We started this, we started focusing on Qatar. What we can achieve for our people, and what we need to build up our society. And to understand that if you want to enhance and develop our sector of the economy, culture, and the politics you need to start with education. If what we are doing here in Qatar Foundation or in Qatar can be emulated or adapted elsewhere we are very welcoming here to share our experience with others.

TR:  With the case of Al Jazeera and media, it was something here but it transformed the way people were doing media in the region. The World Cup itself will transform the nature of sports in the region. Do you feel that Qatar can also lead that vision in education? What is that kind of moment or breakthrough in education that could build similar excitement like a World Cup?

HHSM: You know if you go back to history, and see what’s going on, what was going on, what’s still going on in Qatar Foundation, you can see that we have already made many breakthroughs. First of all, by transforming our education system, by creating this independence or semi-independence in the education system - we shifted away, moved from ministries and ministers. The Supreme Council [on Education] is the governance body of the overall education system – a governance body that takes decisions according to consensus of all board members, including members who came from high profiles from different parts of the world. We don’t have local members only but also have international members. This type of mixture gives us a broader view and perspective of our vision when it comes to education. The education system is transformed and in that on the concept of independent autonomy and accountability. This is one breakthrough.

The other breakthrough is bringing for the first time in the whole world Ivy League schools to this part of the world. The Ivy League was brought according to very tenacious studies and analyses of what we need and what we really require as a society and country. So we selected certain faculties to build up our own societies. This idea also requires us to adapt and be oriented toward research [on changing priorities]. We now – for us as well – for us it’s a great thing – we don’t mind - as long as [the change is] something good for the project cycle there.

The third breakthrough for me, I think it’s research. Our philosophy is that research is the core business for any advancement. Research should not be imported from abroad but should be built here through building capacity in our individuals, and open our environment and our institutions. This is what happened. Today we are giving 2.8% of our GDP to research. This is something again that is a breakthrough, as nobody was even thinking of research as a tool or component for advancement in this part of the world.

For me education is the key, education is the answer. In other parts of the world maybe they think it cannot be. For me, it is education. If you look at our population, 66% is the literacy rate in the Arab world. We have 58 million illiterate among adults in our part of the world. So can you imagine what education can achieve once you put it as a main priority for us? Education is the solution.

TR: I went to Harvard – and was also a teaching fellow there - and for sure I’m a fan of the Ivy League. However, a lot of the work in terms of fostering successful students happens before they even reach the institution.  These are great institutions [in Qatar Foundation] but do you feel the necessary groundwork is being done to prepare the students in primary and secondary...

HHSM: Of course because this is what our education reforms are about…

TR: Because you know the TIMMS scores [assessment tests for 4th and 8th grade students in math and science], they are for Qatar the lowest or second lowest in the world…

HHSM: I’ll tell you what, this is a question we were asking ourselves as a board: should we participate in those tests or not. And I was the one who held the devotion towards this. The others said there are risks because our experience is very, very immature until now as we are just two years of experience into our reforms, and that will reflect significantly on the results and people will miscalculate the results. I said it’s okay - don’t do it for us, at least we’ll have it as a benchmark from when we started. The results that you saw are the results that reflect our starting point, not our ending point. The ending point you will see it in three years time.  Not even then, it is a process that will continue. But you will see the results in three years – actually it’s happening today, every year results are better. Each year is better than the year before. So what you saw is a journey to me, very cautiously, because we wanted to see the results. We want to know our path ourselves. 

TR: Thank you so much for your time and best of luck.

HHSM: Thank you. 

Qatar and Sheikha Mozah's Vision Extends Further Than the World Cup

I recently had the opportunity to sit down in an exclusive interview with Sheikha Mozah, the transcript of which I have posted in another blog post. I wanted to share with you the article that I wrote in the Huffington Post on the interview, reflecting on the vision of Qatar and Sheikha Mozah and the direction of Qatar Foundation: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/taufiq-rahim/qatar-and-sheikha-mozahs-_b_794827.html?ref=fb&src=sp
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Qatar and Sheikha Mozah's Vision Extends Further Than the World Cup



DOHA -- When Qatar was awarded the World Cup for 2022 it was viewed derisively in many Western capitals. Who was this small nation? Where was this country? Why Qatar? Even US President Barack Obama claimed afterwards, "The wrong decision was made." This country of 1.6 million residents and less than a quarter-million citizens had burst onto the world stage in the most spectacular of ways. Its victory, however, was not just its own, as Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, the Amir of Qatar's wife and an influential leader in her own right, explained to me this week, in an exclusive interview:
We saw [the excitement] immediately on the faces of millions and millions of Arabs and not just in the Emirates or the Gulf or our direct neighbors, but also in Egypt, Algeria, and Syria, everywhere -- Lebanon... what happened in Zurich, is the success of a hard-working group of young people that represents all the Middle Eastern youth.
2010-12-10-SheikhaMozaHuffingtonPost.jpg
Sheikha Mozah had made a related impassioned plea in her closing speech for Qatar's World Cup bid. Perhaps many in Western capitals were hearing her speak for the first time. Usually, it is her sense of fashion that precedes her anddominates media coverage. Qatar itself is viewed as an obscurity. Yet, that limited perception, especially in North America and Europe, really is suited only for those who've arrived late to the party. Qatar has the world's third largest natural gas reserves, one of the world's largest corporations (Qatar Petroleum), one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds (Qatar Investment Authority), and last but not least, one of the world's largest foundations (Qatar Foundation), chaired by Sheikha Mozah herself. This is not even to mention the awe-inspiring Museum of Islamic Art that was recently built, or Al Jazeera which has transformed news media in the Arab world and beyond.
At the heart of this integrated vision (QNV 2030), is the push for true social and cultural transformation, and for Qatar to be an example in this regard for the wider region. That effort is led primarily by Sheikha Mozah, one of the world's most influential women according to Forbes Magazine. In Qatar this has meant pushing for a more open society, that is thinking, that is tolerant, that is informed. Sheikha Mozah's Qatar Foundation for example, partnered with Tim Sebastian to found the Doha Debates, which tackles sensitive topics in the Middle East. This past week's fiery discussion, saw renowned Muslim philosopher from Europe, Tariq Ramadan claim to the delight of the local audience, "What we need today in Muslim countries is courage to challenge governments and policies."
The key for the Qataris, however, is education. "Education is the solution," Sheikha Mozah related in our conversation. "Education can also be used as a soft power and as a soft force to transform societies. When I say transform societies it means we can tackle issues in political, social, cultural, economic areas. These are the most important things." In this light, Qatar has played host to the World Innovation Summit on Education for the past two years, to try and push further collaboration and sharing of lessons, akin to a World Economic Forum-style event. It brings together, for example, education leaders from Ghana, Saudi Arabia and the UK, to share a stage on equal footing to learn from one another. At this year's event, Sheikha Mozah announced a new $500,000 International Prize for Education, the first of its kind in the world.
Domestically, Qatar has engaged in a series of reforms and built a number of new institutions of higher learning in a multi-billion dollar location appropriately named, 'Education City'. This was a concerted effort to bring "Ivy League" quality universities to Doha, and empower specific "faculties to build up our own societies." You can see satellite campuses of Cornell Medical, Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern, Georgetown and beyond seamlessly fitting into the Qatari landscape. Sheikha Mozah also emphasized that "Qatar is giving 2.8% of our GDP to research. This is something again that is a breakthrough, as nobody was even thinking of research as a tool or component for advancement in this part of the world."
Qatar's focus on education and empowerment is impressive in its own right. It's doubly important in the region where as Sheikha Mozah pointed out, "66% is the literacy rate in the Arab world. We have 58 million illiterate among adults in our part of the world." Moreover, Sheikha Mozah's own example as an impassioned social leader is inspirational to millions of women in the region and also for men. Yet, just as with the World Cup bid there are also a number of questions that need to be raised. Firstly, multi-billion dollar infrastructure cannot replace the 'software' needed for an educated, thinking society. When global assessments (TIMSS) were carried out in 2007 for 4th and 8th grade students across the maths and sciences, Qatar ranked at the bottom of the class. Sheikha Mozah insists that she "was the one who held the devotion towards this. The others said there are risks because our experience is very, very immature until now as we are just two years of experience into our reforms, and that will reflect significantly on the results and people will miscalculate the results. I said it's okay -- don't do it for us, at least we'll have it as a benchmark from when we started. The results that you saw are the results that reflect our starting point, not our ending point."
There are also similar questions around the suitability and sustainability of having branch campuses of universities, who are deeply influenced by revenue streams in moving to the Gulf and do not have the same sense of entrenched history that they do in their own countries. After all, world-class universities are as much (if not more) about the culture and identity of the institution, as the bricks and mortar. Qatar across a range of sectors has embarked on an ambitious national development programme, and it remains unclear if the tens of billions of dollars that are being spent and will continue to be spent, will generate the expected results. More importantly, as Lakdar Brahimi, the former UN Special Envoy mentioned during the WISE conference, countries such as Qatar need to do more in assisting the region around them, and improving the conditions in education for example in Afghanistan (Qatar Foundation has established Reach Out to Asia to this end).
It remains to be seen how exactly Qatar's vision will play itself out. Despite Sheikha Mozah's enthusiasm, there is of course reason to be skeptical about whether the results will follow good intentions. At the same time, there is tremendous reason to be optimistic. The institutions of the Qatar Foundation around social change are extensive and now well-rooted. Additionally, Sheikha Mozah has been providing strong leadership on changing attitudes locally, regionally, and even globally towards education. Winning the right to host the World Cup in 2022 truly inspired the Middle East, especially the youth. It was, however, only one step in Qatar's grand vision and certainly not the last.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Doha a Go-Go with the World Cup

Somewhere out there, two Qataris were sitting in Souq Waqif debating what was meant by the alleged quotes by their leaders, which appeared in the cables posted on Wikileaks.org. Did the Qatari Emir really authorize the use of American bases in the country for a potential attack on Iran? Would the Prime Minister of Qatar really be double-dealing the Iranians? Amidst the quiet conversations, like a phoenix rising from the desert, FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced that the micro-Gulf state of Qatar would be awarded the 2022 World Cup. A quarter of a million citizens and the overall 1.6 million residents were told they would host what is arguably the globe's largest sporting event, if not its most significant spectacle. Wikileaks who?

The successful bid for the World Cup, of course, has resonance beyond sport. The impact was felt in the audible gasp throughout the entire Middle East in light of the announcement. This is the first time that the event will be hosted not only in the Gulf, or in the Arab world, or in the Middle East but in fact in any Muslim-majority country. In Qatar's sandy dust, lies the U.S., no competition for the apparently carbon neutral event to be held in 50 degree weather (celsius for your Americanos). The UAE, which recently trumpeted its world-class F1 track, is left to scratch its head; even sizzling Dubai at its peak could not land a marquee event to match what Qatar has now done. Yet, perhaps, in a positive development for the region, other Arab countries will seize on this as a moment to come together. As Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai, said on his Facebook page of all places, "I would like to congratulate Qatar on their win to host the World Cup in 2022. This victory is an achievement for all Arab countries."

Why Qatar? Of course, there will be the nefarious rumors that there were financial incentives that secured the 14 to 8 vote by the 22-member executive body in FIFA. George Vecsey aptly writes in the New York Times: You say bribes. They say vision. Split the difference." The critics, however, are out in full force, beginning with President Obama, who claimed the wrong decision had been made. America's leading sports channel ESPN led with a headline, 'World Cup decisions defy logic.' The Boston Globe had a piece stating that there were a trillion reasons not to host the World Cup in Qatar, including that somehow Qatar's record on women's rights (which to be honest is a really an uninformed comment and you just have to ask Sheikha Mozah about that) should be an issue (should US Foreign policy also be a barometer for awarding the World Cup?).

For just one second, forget about the drawbacks, or why a nation that has less than two million residents (although possessing a natural-gas driven GDP of $100 billion) was awarded the World Cup. This is a country that successfully pulled off the Asian Games in 2006. This is the country that hosts every year a world-class Golf tournament and tennis tournament (I myself was witness to Nadal and Federer last year in Doha). This is a country that has created a deep national commitment to sport with the Aspire Academy. This is a country that made an amazing proposal. So if Qatar wants to dream, let them dream. If they can commit the tens of billions of dollars to build the requisite infrastructure for the World Cup, let them realize their dream. Because it is not just their dream. It is a dream for the millions of youth today and the millions of youth tomorrow in the Arab world. When there are 113 million youth (or one third of the entire population) should they not look to the future with excitement? Just look at the vision of the Qatari bid:



This is the country that revolutionized media with Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera International, not just in the Arab world, but worldwide. They are flush with cash and committed to making this event not just happen but to organize something amazing for the world to see. Qatar against improbable odds - and counter to many predictions, my own included - captured a coup as a country. They deserved it. The region deserves it. Quite frankly, wither the naysayers, I'm excited. See you in 2022 in Doha.