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15 March, 2005

Dubai's Princess Di

This story, about the visit of Sheikh Mohammed's wife Princess Haya visiting a special needs centre, at first glance appears unremarkable. Royal visits to schools and charities are old news the world over.

But this is the first time a Dubai royal wife has ever had a public life, and even more significantly, she appears photographed and unveiled. In fact, Princess Haya - a half-sister of the King of Jordan - is the first Dubai royal wife ever to have been heard of, although the young daughters of Sheikhs appear at public events from time to time. No one knows the names, numbers or nationalities of any other sheikhly spouses.

By contrast in Abu Dhabi, Sheikha Fatima, wife of late UAE president Sheikh Zayed, has for many years led a very public life. In keeping with culture, she speaks through press statements and is not seen or heard directly in the media, but her views are always strong and progressive, supportive of women's progress in the Emirates. When we bear in mind that Sheikha Fatima is elderly, having grown up and born children long before the arrival of oil, hospitals, roads and schools, this is all the more remarkable.

Fatima is also publicly praised by male UAE politicians, which breaks a long-held cultural taboo of never mentioning another man's wife.

"The late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan had a wise maxim that women should take part in their nation’s development and a nation can be no good if women, who make up half of society, are held down," the Minister of Education said.

"Furthermore, Shaikha Fatima Bint Mubarak is a major force for development and progress in our country. Her energy, her vision and her commitment to comprehensive and sustained development have enabled all of us to appreciate the role of women as leaders in our society."

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