DOHA, Qatar — The first lady of this conservative Muslim sheikdom walked up to the podium in a luxury hotel banquet room and sized up the crowd of mostly wealthy businessmen. "Do not be afraid to take risks and to try," she told them. "Think out of the box."
Sheika Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned may have been wearing a traditional black head scarf and robe, but she took on a very untraditional role in rallying the men to support a $100-million initiative to tackle unemployment. Like her counterpart in Dubai, Oxford-educated Princess Haya, Mozah is taking up the Western "first lady" model — activist, globe-trotting and involved in public affairs.
It's a major change in a region where a ruler's wife is rarely seen and even her name is little known. She might be one of several; many emirs and kings in the Persian Gulf have multiple wives — up to the four permitted by Islam, though sometimes the actual number is not well known. In some cases, the ruler will pick one to be the public "first lady."
The emergence of high-ranking wives on the public stage is part of the booming gulf states' efforts to appear more in synch with the West as they seek investment, political clout and even big-name sporting events like the Olympics. It's also clearly a competition with other high-profile Middle East women, such as Jordan's Queen Rania.
In recent years, Qatar — like the other small Arab countries lining the Persian Gulf — has transformed its desert landscape into a financial and media hub. High-rises and construction cranes now swarm the once-barren skyline of Doha, home to Al-Jazeera, the groundbreaking Arabic-language satellite TV station.
Mozah, who is believed to be in her 40s, has taken a starring role in the transformation. She is one of Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani's wives — it is not publicly known how many he has — and the only one who makes public appearances.
Her most prominent role is chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation, which launched Education City, a 2,500-acre campus outside Doha and home to branches of prominent American universities like Carnegie Mellon and Georgetown.
Mozah is increasingly rivaling Queen Rania's globe-trotting, giving speeches at institutions in the U.S. and Europe. Last year, she claimed one of the spots on Forbes magazine's list of the world's 100 most powerful women. At home, she wears traditional long robes. In the West, she wears stylish business suits.
"No gulf royalty stands out as Mozah does," said Rima Sabban, a Dubai-based sociologist. "She broke all cultural barriers and shaped an image of a woman that is fully modern, fully confident and fearless of a backlash from the society … Mozah's strategy is part of her husband's goal to put Qatar on the world map."
In the even glitzier city of Dubai, Princess Haya is also breaking the rules — giving speeches on public welfare, working on public projects, appearing in magazines, keeping up personal Web sites and traveling the world. Dubai gained significant political influence in the region through the 2004 marriage of its powerful ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, with the 34-year-old Haya, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan.
They have one daughter, though the Dubai ruler has 18 other children, most with Sheika Hind bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, the first of his wives to become publicly known.
Like Mozah, Haya has taken on public roles, including chairing the Dubai International Humanitarian City, a cluster of Western and Islamic charities.
But Haya pushes the traditional boundaries even further. She is rarely seen wearing a head scarf and is a sports enthusiast, a rarity in the male-dominated region. She represented Jordan in equestrian show jumping in the 2000 Olympic Games in Australia, is president of the International Equestrian Federation and even has a truck-driving license, obtained in Jordan to help transport her horses.
Other wives of gulf rulers are active in campaigning for women's rights, charity and humanitarian issues, particularly in Bahrain and Kuwait, but they have not sought foreign attention or assumed highly public roles. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates both have female Cabinet ministers, and the Emirates recently appointed its first female judge. The Emirates' minister of foreign trade is a woman, as is the founder of Amwal, a top investment company in Qatar.
Women make up 22.4 percent of the Emirates' work force and 32 percent in Qatar, according to government statistics, though it's difficult to know how many are foreigners.
Seventy-seven percent of university students in UAE are women, according to the Ministry of Education and Labor. Three-quarters of students who graduated from Qatar University this year were women. Kuwait recently gave women the right to vote and run for office, and it has several female Cabinet ministers, though no woman has been elected to parliament.
"It's a domino effect. Success in one country has spilled over into other countries in the region. When a ruler in one country appoints a woman to a high-level post, others follow. It's a healthy competition because everyone wants to show that they are democratizing," said Rola Dashti, a Kuwaiti economist who has run for parliament.
Not every country in the region is eager to change.
Saudi Arabia, a bastion of conservatism, still keeps its royal wives under wraps and remains the only country in the Middle East to bar women from voting, except for chamber of commerce elections in two cities in recent years. No women sit in the kingdom's Cabinet, and women cannot drive or travel without permission from a male guardian.
A prominent Saudi princess, Lolwah Al-Faisal, made headlines two years ago at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland when she spoke out against the driving ban. Another princess, Adelah, gave a rare interview to an Arab women's magazine in 2006, and on occasion speaks at events.
The views of one 20-year-old Qatari university student in journalism, Fawzia, reflect both the change for women in the gulf and the restrictions that still hold them back. Fawzia did not want her last name used because she said her family and university would regard it as immodest for a young woman to speak out on such matters. Yet she also said the ruling women are opening doors that were closed to her mother's generation.
Mozah "has challenged tradition that wanted women to be restricted to the domestic field," Fawzia said. She added that Mozah has made it possible for women to have "a role in the society while also being a wife and a mother."