Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Qatar Museums
Sheikha Moza: Qatar’s glamorous – but viciously anti-Israel – face
The emir of Qatar’s mother has significant influence in Doha and beyond with her high profile and control of the country’s massive philanthropic foundation— which she is leveraging against Israel
On Oct. 8, the day after Hamas massacred 1,200 Israelis and took 240 hostages, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the mother of the current emir of Qatar, shared a photo with her over 1.2 million followers on Instagram. It was of a man with his head in his hands in front of a demolished building, with the caption: “O Allah, we entrust Palestine to you.”
Since then, Moza, one of the most famous and powerful women in the Middle East, has consistently used her significant public platform to rail against Israel. She has posted on Instagram 28 times since the start of the war, almost always about devastation in Gaza, often parroting unconfirmed claims of thousands of children killed.
Moza, 64, spent much of her childhood in Kuwait, in exile from Qatar as the daughter of jailed opposition activist Nasser bin Abdullah Al-Missned. Yet, in the middle of her studies at Qatar University, she met Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the heir apparent of Qatar. The two married in 1977.
In 1995, Hamad took the reins of Qatar in a bloodless coup – he reportedly called his father at a Zurich hotel to tell him he was no longer the emir, and then froze his assets – that some claim Moza played a role in planning.
From 2003, Moza was allowed to make public appearances, an unprecedented position for a Qatari emir’s consort.
News about Moza, the second of the former emir of Qatar’s three wives and his public consort, has often focused on her status as a style icon who adjusts haute couture to comport with Islamic modesty rules and ranks on international best-dressed lists.
Aside from her meticulously curated wardrobe, Moza’s public profile may not seem not so different from that of many Western first ladies, focusing on educational, health and humanitarian causes, establishing “Education for All” to get the world’s poorest children into school and serving, until recently, as a UNESCO special envoy for basic and higher education.
“Sheikha Moza is the public face of Qatar, a country that cares a lot about PR,” Ariel Admoni, an expert on Qatar at Bar-Ilan University, said. “She’s a fashion icon who uses that status to advance the issues that she cares about.”
But that is a deceivingly simple description.
“From the beginning, Moza was very dominant,” Admoni said. “She is a critical factor in Qatar.”
Of Hamad’s handover of the throne to his son, the current emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, in 2013, Admoni said: “It’s not a democratic country, so we don’t have it on the record, but from leaks – it was her decision.”
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that Moza “is the connective tissue” between the “father emir” and the current emir.
“When Hamad stepped down, it was a rare moment in the Middle East. The father abdicated for the son well before decline set in. It seemed like a much more deliberate move,” he said.
Hamad was the first world leader to visit Gaza after Hamas took over and let Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the former head of propaganda for Al-Qaida, into Qatar after 9/11, Schanzer pointed out.
The changing of emirs “appeared like a moment where the Qataris needed to think about shuffling the top leadership because of their reputation for radicalism,” and was “the beginning of the rebranding of Qatar as the U.S.-approved channel for engagement with radicals,” Schanzer said.
Moza plays a key part in that rebranding with the major part of her power base that is well documented, as opposed to the whispers about her role in Qatari leadership transitions.
As co-founder and chairperson of the multibillion-dollar Qatar Foundation, Moza stands at the fore of the efforts by one of the world’s most repressive regimes and a major funder of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamist terrorist groups to maintain good ties with the U.S. and other Western states through philanthropy, business and other levers of soft power.
In addition to many Qatari donations to American universities and think tanks, the Qatar Foundation established outposts of Western universities in the Gulf state, including a two-year program for Cornell medical students, the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, a Northwestern University journalism school and the HEC Paris business school.
“The great reforms in Qatar are maybe 80% due to her,” Admoni said.
The Moza-led Qatar Foundation was a key element in Doha’s campaign to host the World Cup and its preparations for last year’s mega-event, as well as buying space on F.C. Barcelona’s jerseys – which Schanzer called “sportswashing.”
Moza is “behind initiatives that put Qatar in polite company, while the regime continues to grant safe haven to the Taliban, Hamas, ISIS and Al-Qaida,” Schanzer said. “She is very much part of the laundering operation of Qatar’s image – and in the process, she appears to really enjoy the spotlight.”
For the past two months, Moza has been using her sizable platform and influence to post incessantly about Gaza on her social media and speak about Palestinian children in international forums.
At a summit called “United for Peace in Palestine,” hosted by Turkish First Lady Emine Erdogan, Sheikha Moza called on supporters of the Palestinians to “counter false narratives” and “promote the truth wherever we can,” while doing the opposite.
For example, she claimed, “a child dies in Gaza every 10 minutes, which means…by the end of this session, a further 18 children will be dead.”
Further, Moza said, “if someone dares to debate any Israeli narrative, he is cast aside, having been accused of antisemitism, which in itself, is another problematic narrative. By ‘Semitism,’ they mean Jews, having taken a monopoly on the Semitic race, which they attribute to themselves while denying [its application] to other nations.”
In a clip from the speech that she highlighted on her Instagram account, Moza said: “All that we do, we do for the people of Gaza, but it can never be as much as is owed them.”
“At this wretched moment in history, the people of Gaza represent the dignity of the ummah,” she continued, using the Arabic term for the Muslim world.
She resigned from her UNESCO post in protest in November, after 20 years with the organization.
“I held great respect for the organization,” she said. “I was profoundly hopeful that together we could change the field of education and protect it. But I was disappointed in the silence from UNESCO while students are targeted, and schools destroyed in Gaza, which does not align with UNESCO and its mandate on any level.”
Admoni was skeptical about the resignation, saying that “Qatar won’t cut ties that they care about because they’re a PR country. She still has WISE [World Innovation Summit for Education], which is a Qatari collaboration with the U.N. on education.”
This week’s WISE Summit, which Sheikha Moza hosted, was focused on “Education in Times of War,” and she spoke extensively about Gaza. Moza repeatedly spoke of Qatar-funded schools destroyed by Israeli actions in Gaza, without mentioning the many times in which Hamas attacked Israel from the vicinity of schools, which is a war crime.
“Education faces many challenges across the world,” she said. “None are more acute than those posed by wars and humanitarian crises, such as those in Gaza, where the Israeli aggression has denied children their right to education.”
Sheikha Moza also seemed to claim that Hamas atrocities against Israelis were products of artificial intelligence, saying in her speech to WISE that “artificial intelligence [is] used to fabricate stories, falsify facts, and block publications, photos, and videos that include atrocities committed by the Israeli occupation forces against the people of Gaza and the West Bank.”
Schanzer argued that the Moza-helmed Qatar Foundation is now using its leverage over Western institutions, and Doha’s largesse is behind some of the U.S. college administrations’ paralysis in the face of antisemitism on campus.
Admoni said the Qataris “have a special fondness for the Palestinians,” and Moza has long used her favorite causes as a “semi-political way to echo the Qatari message, especially for the Palestinians and especially for Gaza.”
“Moza reflects the view of the establishment,” Admoni said. “Her speeches are definitely approved by the top echelon…The fact that she escalated her own rhetoric goes together with Qatari policy and their statements viewing Israel as solely responsible and accusing Israel of genocide.”
While Moza has spoken out against Israel at every opportunity, Schanzer pointed out that she was not praising Hamas.
“Her rhetoric is couched carefully enough. She’s careful enough not to draw significant fire,” he said, “but as I see it, she’s doing her job as part of a regime that is sponsoring Hamas and promoting it.”