25 Sep 2004

Dubai: Some Arab royal families are giving their women a longer leash

The royal families of the Gulf are not renowned for empowering women. But Dubai’s ruling Maktoum family has taken some notable strides sown that path. No fewer than three of its women have recently made once-unthinkable public appearances in international sports events.

Princess Haya of Jordan, the beautiful new wife of Dubai’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammad, led the way with pictures of herself in Dubai’s newspapers after winning a horse race in Britain. The 30-year-old Oxford graduate was pictured in full riding gear receiving the trophy for the 160 km (100 mile) Thetford Forest endurance ride. This was a telling break from tradition: there is no known public image of the sheikh’s first official wife, Sheikha Hind.

Princess Haya is no stranger to publicity: she rode for Jordan in the Olympics in 2000. More interestingly, this new openness is being extended to blood members of the Maktoum family. A few days before Princess Haya’s victory, Sheikha Madiya bint Hasher al-Maktoum became the first woman from the United Arab Emirates (of which Dubai is one of seven) to compete in an endurance horse race when she finished 25th in an event in the American state of Idaho. In the same week, Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum won four gold medals at the Gulf karate championships.

Such appearances highlight the emergency of women in society, business and even politics in the long-conservative Gulf states. In the more liberal-such as Dubai, Bahrain and Kuwait-local and foreign women have been landing, big corporate jobs for several years. Female Arab executive from such companies as Hewlett-Packard and, significantly, Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s state oil company, are soon to attend a “Women in Leadership” conference in Dubai.

Arab women have won limited political rights in Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. Sheikha Moza, wife of Qatar’s emir, is a much-praised standard bearer of women’s rights. She is the force behind, among other projects, Qatar’s Carnegie Mellon University, which opened this month, unprecedentedly with mixed male and female classes. Three-quarters of the new intake are female.

But female emancipation still has its limits. Dubai newspapers published no pictures of Sheikhas Maitha and Madiya, despite their courage in the public arena. Women still cannot drive in neighboring Saudi Arabia, and are unlikely to be able to vote in the forth-coming local elections. The vote in Kuwait is also restricted to men. The United Arab Emirates steadfastly resists all moves towards democracy, and royal succession remains, so far, an entirely male affair.