A Class Apart
Haya Bint Al-Hussein defies stereotype. The striking Jordanian princess lives with most of the trappings of royalty but none of its self-importance. It is obvious in the way she talks to horse handlers and riders alike at the Dubai Equestrian Club, accepting advice, sharing laughs and offering sincere thanks. Fresh from an effortless win in the six-bar contest at the Maktoum International Show jumping Challenge on Friday, she talked to Gulf News about her motivations and her life. After an international athletic career that began at 13, Princess Haya has represented the hopes of her country and the Middle East at the International Equestrian Federation, the Pan Arab Games and the Sydney Olympics.
At 27, she continues to work hard at propelling her own career as a horsewoman and charity worker, away from the pomp and protocol of royal life.
“I believe that people earn their right to be anything they want to be,” she said, responding to a question on the role of monarchy in an increasingly egalitarian and democratic world. “I’m very proud to be part of the state in Jordan, and I know that my family has had to work very hard to manage the country responsibly and be strong leaders to the people,” she said. “They were raised to be able to shoulder that responsibility, and they’ve earned it through all the work.” It’s a message she has taken to heart. She has chosen to earn her successes on her own, with toil and stress, rather than relying on the name and access her position brings.
Princess Haya left Jordan seven years ago for Ireland, hoping to carve a name and reputation for herself independent of the family connections. Since then, she has become one of the youngest show jumpers on the international circuit. She has cut her stable team down from 14 horses to five, which means more and better time to focus on each horse’s strengths and weaknesses. She has also moved her European stable operations three times, most recently to France where she is now based. Paris has also allowed her to cement her commitment to charity work, which had been relegated to a back burner in the past.
She is now a United Nations goodwill ambassador, and campaigns against child abuse on the Internet for the Innocence in Danger group. She is also chair of Sport and Solidarity – a group that raises money from sports events to help children around the world – and the international Olympic Aid. The causes that are closest to her heart, however, are back home in Jordan. She is honorary president of the Queen Alia Foundation for the Hearing and Speech Impaired, an appointment she prioritises because of its connection to her mother.
“It (the foundation) was something my mother thought of just before she died,” said Princess Haya. The foundation was set up by the Princess’ grandmother as both a memorial and a way of helping deal with the pain of her loss. “I’m very proud of that foundation and the work I do there because of my mother,” said Princess Haya, who has taught herself English and Arabic sign language.
Hearing Princess Haya talk about her family provides an insight into her softer side, the one that is normally hidden inside a tough shell. Memories of her mother, Queen Alia, reading fairytales to her as a little girl remain with her. When she is homesick or confused, Princess Haya said, she rereads one or two of those books – The Velveteen Rabbit and The Snow Goose, in particular – to help. The Princess was particularly close to her father, renowned. Statesman King Hussein and his death in 1999 left a huge void. It was also family pressure that made her withdraw from one of her favorite equestrian ventures – racing. During a stint as a flat jockey in Ireland, she fell from a horse, only to be trampled by another close behind. The severe accident resulted in many broken bones and a well-intentioned request from her father. “I would have loved to carry on racing if I could have,” Princess Haya said. “I think racing is the best thing horses do naturally – endurance may be the next best thing.”
Princess Haya does return to racing for charities or special events, but is best known as a world-class show jumper. She recently qualified for the World Equestrian Games to be held in Spain this summer. “If you get a good horse, it’s about being a pilot,” she said. Princess Haya is a role model for not only the Arab world, and young Arab women, but also for young people and parents the world over. Her views on education and her own experiences with it, are particularly refreshing. Princess Haya herself graduated in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford University, and admits to having had a tough time. “I knew I wasn’t a math or science-oriented person,” she said. “Economics was hard on me, but I had a great time wrestling with philosophy.” To this day, she enjoys arguing against Rene Descartes and indulging in Sufi philosophy. “The programme wasn’t easy by any means, but the breadth of the knowledge itself really appealed to me,” she said. It’s very unfortunate for children to be locked into a course of study that’s directly related to a career.” Princess Haya’s own career is looking bright. Last week marked the first time she competed in the Middle East. In the past, she has been a proud standard-bearer for Jordan and the Arab world in international circles, and she has brought that experience back with her. “There is quite a lot of pressure here in the Emirates,” she said. “Here it’s a newly emerging sport, so you can get away without having technical finesse.” As the bar set lower, more and more people are able to qualify. That, Princess Haya says, will only change as the UAE opens itself up to international competitions, competitors and standards.