International Business Daily
As a young girl you could have been content just riding horses but instead you wanted to build on the legacy of your mother, Queen Alia of Jordan’s, humanitarian vision. What were the driving forces behind that direction in your life?
I don’t think in my life they were ever two separate issues. One thing that led me to riding horses was in a way that they were a crutch for the loss of my mother. At the same time, I found a lot of warmth , companionship and friendship from horses. The first horse that I was given by my father was for my sixth birthday, a young horse whose mother had died so she had to be hand reared. In a way, I felt as if I had some kind of link with horses because of my mother. Something I did when I was very small because I was only three when she passed away was to always try to remember her. When someone passes away that young and is so beautiful, everyone around always tells you stories about how they were. I struggled because I found that I couldn’t remember her and I was reliant on other people. Therefore, my mother was a very strong influence throughout my childhood so to aspire to be like her and to find out what she did was always something that was with me from as far back as I can remember. Horses ran parallel to that - they were almost the facilitator because they taught me a business structure, they taught me motivation, and they taught me the steps to get to an end point such as to go through a competition. They taught me really how to actually get to what I had understood she had done since I was young, so they have really been parallel throughout my life
I have always had a deep desire to fulfill my mother’s humanitarian vision. She thought of so many wonderful projects for the people of Jordan but one I am particularly proud of bringing to life in her memory is ‘Tkiyet Um Ali’. It was one of the ideas that she was looking to establish herself in Jordan 25 years ago. Her objective was to make sure that all Jordanians were provided with the basics for survival, and based on this vision, I established ‘Tkiyet Um Ali’ in 2003, and now it provides food and social services to the less privileged segments of Jordanian society from its central location at the heart of the less privileged areas in Amman.
What has been your proudest accomplishment along the way? Was it being the Jordanian flag bearer in the 2000 Sydney Olympics or something else that we might not expect?
I think the proudest moment for me was when my father, King Hussein of Jordan, was most proud of me. Shortly before he passed away he introduced me to one of the doctors in the Mayo Clinic as his “Olympic daughter.” I hadn’t gone yet, the Olympics were the following year, yet he was the only one that recognized that the Olympics weren’t just those six minutes of actually competing. He realized that it was actually the ten years of professional training that made me what I was when I got there.
You moved from Jordan to the United Arab Emirates in April of 2003. Although they are both Arab countries, you still must have gone through a culture shock of sorts. What were your first impressions of Dubai and what aspects of life here have required the most getting used to?
The speed at which the city and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, my husband, moved was the biggest shock especially as I transitioned from the life of a professional athlete to that of a married woman. My life was just put into fast forward through the work that His Highness wanted me to do. Just keeping up with him has been a challenge since I don’t think anyone has ever lived in a city that moves at this speed and grows at this rate. That was probably the biggest transition for me. In a way though, it wasn’t such a culture shock because in the end of the 70’s and 80’s, which were my formative years, Jordan was going through its own economic boom and my father went through a very similar time. There were new influences where people were investing in the country, where they became interested in Jordan, where it became the geo-strategic business point in our part of the world. Definitely, Amman was the newest growing city in the Middle East and in a way, the peaceful rock of the region. So I feel somewhat as though I have lived this before. I see the way in which people are trying to react to and cope with change and in a way it makes me feel a bit like an old soul because it is a different setting yet the same idea.
How do you bring in a sense of humanity into Dubai’s business-driven success story? Do you find that it is a challenge to get the proper attention for your primary interests, education, healthcare, youth, and sports, when everything here seems to revolve around infrastructure and construction?
While my father promoted peace and stability in the region through dialogue, Sheikh Mohammed has a vision of peace through economic prosperity. This is a very fresh approach for the region and I think that it is one that is definitely going to be a way of the future. It is as cutting edge as my father’s use of dialogue during the time that I was growing up. I see that similarity; however, for me personally, growing up in Jordan was quite different. My late mother and my father worked very hard on education and healthcare throughout the nation and that was really what they used to benchmark the nation’s development. They felt very strongly that those were the key infrastructures that had to be put in place and to a large extent that is the legacy that they left for developing nations in this region. This was one of the areas in which I felt I could help Sheikh Mohammed and he agreed because of the experience I had when I was growing up. In a way, it was very refreshing for me because they said I had lived all my life trying to emulate my mother and while it would have been very difficult to build further on her work in Jordan I was given a clean slate to create a whole new system here in Dubai. Even with His Highness’ help it has still been a huge responsibility and a learning process. At the same time, it has been very rewarding. However, we have only taken the first steps on the way. Health and education cannot be approached the same way as real estate so a cultural change for the region is not something that can quickly be put into place.
One quite obvious observation from the perspective of an outsider is that Dubai has no world-class institution of secondary education. Is your focus more on education as it applies to younger age groups or does it link in any way with the overall economic vision of the country? Can Dubai he a hub for education as well?
The short answer is yes, I think that Dubai can be and in many ways must be an education hub. I do not mean a hub in order to attract people to its educational system but in a way it must be a hub to satisfy the needs of the many people and their children who are coming here. The numbers we are expecting by 2015 is truly a hike. Jordan was the only country that doubled its population on two occasions overnight but Dubai seems to be doing it regularly. So naturally, Dubai should develop to become a center of excellence for education
Now that I am going into my fourth year here, and I understand the people and the culture, we can look at a more holistic approach to education. We interface now and we help in a patronage role but the strategic role has been taken by a wonderful man, Dr. Hanif Hassan, the UAE’s minister of education. He is doing an excellent job. Education has always been of importance in building the future of this country from the times of the late Sheikh Zayed to Sheikh Kalifah to Sheikh Mohammed. Our rulers have always invested in their people as part of being a hospitable nation. Today it all looks very exciting.
The doubling of any population through diverse immigration automatically brings health concerns. You have people coming from all over the world and each of them brings a different background with a whole new profile to healthcare. How is Dubai planning in advance to meet all these different healthcare needs?
Sheikh Mohammed has a cutting edge approach to the medical sector and his knowledge is vast. It is not a well known fact that he is a very talented physician in his own right and has a real passion for science and medicine.. The main issue that we are really looking at isn’t the influx of people but rather probably the influence of the various cultures the people are having on our own society. Road traffic combined with multicultural driving habits may be the greatest threat to human health in Dubai at the moment but we are in the middle of a huge push right now to combat these twin dangers. HH Sheikh Mohammed is working on instilling a culture of safe roads and safe driving habits through media, awareness and regulations, whereas on the curative level, we are building the most wonderful trauma center that is really second to none in the world). I am very proud to be part of that planning process. The increase in the population has also given us horrific numbers suffering from cardiovascular disease and a 40% rate of diabetes. Clearly these are priority areas as, through education many types of cardiovascular disease and diabetes are avoidable.
It is clearly representative of the speed of the change of lifestyle and nutrition. The fast food of today is so different than what children here used to eat and it is something that has happened over the past thirty years.
That is a real change in culture. What is your personal top priority right now?
Diabetes is definitely not a concern for the UAE alone but for the Arabian Gulf and indeed the world. My personal interest is in helping orphans. The universal fact is that parents love all their children the same, and I do love all children the same way, but orphaned children have a special place in my heart, maybe because I can relate to them having grown up without a mother, so I always feel especially close to them and I like to dedicate more time and special attention to orphans.
There is so much prosperity in Dubai right now that you are in the fortunate position to be able to think and act more on a regional and even global level. Your numerous leadership positions in highly-regarded global organizations such as the FEI, WFP, and IOC reaffirm this. Just how can you help to raise the profile of the Emirate and the country as a whole as more than just an offshore business hub but also a major contributor to international goodwill and humanity? What is your vision?
The spirit of Dubai is definitely in its implementation and action. I would like to introduce to you the International Humanitarian City in Dubai (IHC) that we are working on right now. That is our answer to your question which ironically is what we have been asking ourselves and discussing with Sheikh Mohammed for the last two years. What we came up with was the idea of having an International Humanitarian City that is not just a city in itself but a home for all the UN agencies, local NGOs, and basically the entire humanitarian community. In the spirit and soul of Dubai, we are located geographically to be able to respond to humanitarian emergencies in the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia, Indian subcontinent, and northern or eastern coast of Africa, probably better than any other country in the world. Our answer to everything is efficiency. We have just secured our land between the new Jebel Ali airport and the sea port so we will be probably be the first humanitarian response effort that can move cargo from land to sea in five minutes in response to any emergency. Most emergencies in the world right now, unfortunately, are happening in our region. Therefore, that would be Dubai’s contribution; to be able to host that society, to be able to create dialogue, to be able to make sure that the different humanitarian entities aren’t duplicating. We would be the first roundtable forum of discussion between the UN agencies and local and regional NGOs. We have already signed a MOU with the Sultan bin Abdel Aziz Humanitarian City in Saudi Arabia, that we won’t duplicate their work. Therefore, we are starting a real network.
How can the creation of the Dubai International Humanitarian City augment your capabilities to effect real change as one of only two World Food Program Goodwill Ambassadors in the whole world?
The Dubai International Humanitarian City is definitely looking at being a host umbrella for all humanitarian agencies but regarding the World Food Program, I think I found hunger before it found me. What I mean is that I was interested in aiding hunger and had established Tkiyet Um Ali, the region\'s first food relief NGO, before the World Food Program contacted me. What I love about working with WFP is that they are truly wonderful people who work in that organization and to a large extent, they are cutting edge in getting in and alleviating hunger in emergencies straight away. They have really delivered - when no one else is there, they are there. They are also a very silent organization which doesn’t say a whole load about what it does, but just gets the job done. That is consistent with the way I think that humanitarian business should be conducted. I think that people have always got to have a large ambition in life and I don’t think it is too big, if you actually break it down and study it, to eradicate hunger in the world we live in today. I believe this can be accomplished in my lifetime. I would seriously like to do that and do not think it is impossible, but rather so basic, that I find it difficult to understand why it continues to happen. I think, in a way, the millennium goal of halving child hunger is almost settling. We should truly be living in a world where hunger doesn’t exist. It can be done.
It is such a massive issue, where do you start?
I think you start quietly. You try and find a network of people who realize that this isn’t a personal crusade and that solutions can be found. It is one step at a time, and there are a lot of people like that in the world that are prepared to do that.
As a member of the IOC Athletes Commission and a former Olympian, what message can you send to the organizers of the next Summer Olympic Games in Beijing next year? Everyone there is mandated to learn 100 words of English right now, it is kind of a far out concept…
I think that China has a huge amount to give to the world. I also believe that the Olympics have a huge amount to give to China. The incredible thing about the spirit of the Olympic Games is that when it happens and you are able to live it I think that the only single word that can describe the experience is “giving.” You find that the public gives, even if it is something as small as a smile. The Olympics is a wonderful thing to have in a country. I think that the Chinese people will enjoy it enormously and we are really all looking forward to that experience.
How do you think that the people of Hong Kong can make the Equestrian competitions at the Olympics a success?
The most outstanding feature of any community is its people and the people of Hong Kong certainly excel in offering a warm welcome to visitors. Furthermore, I am sure that the spirit of enthusiasm which has prevailed throughout the preparations and the lead up to the Games will only heighten throughout the two weeks of Olympic competition, followed by the Para-Olympics, making it one of the most memorable experiences for us in the horse world.