As a member of royalty, she could have contented herself with working with charities and graciously representing the ruling family at home and abroad, like the huge majority of her Western and Arab peers. But that’s forgetting that Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani is cut from a different cloth, she does as she pleases and what moves her is to show the world how her country, which she adores – her title on her Instagram profile is “public servant 24/7/365” -, is about much more than what people know. It is to forget that what has continued to push her to work hard every day for almost 20 years is first and foremost the desire to create from scratch endless opportunities for all those who have talent, and to empower those talents so that they might find their calling and succeed.

Few people in the Arab world have so transformed arts and culture into weapons of mass construction. And on the occasion of the release of her book, The Power of Culture, Qatar 2022, a much needed legacy for her country and the world, Sheikha Al Mayassa, who co-Chairs Fashion Trust Arabia, agreed to have a conversation with Pulse.

Needless to say, Your Excellency, youre convinced that culture and arts are as political as diplomacy, defense, economy, oil, education… That culture and arts can be weapons of mass construction. When and how did you realize that?

I went to the university thinking I would work as a diplomat or in the foreign service. That’s really what I wanted to do. I always enjoyed meeting people from different parts of the world, being a diplomat, working in a country for four years. This engagement, exchanging with other cultures and learning new languages, has always fascinated me.

When I graduated, I was working in my father’s office and they had some challenges with the Museum of Islamic Art Museum (MIA), so he made that my project to solve. In a few hours, I realized how important this project was and why I had been put to the test, because it was crucial for my father that this museum was done correctly. That’s how it all started.

We will reopen the MIA to the public next month, and people will see how much Islamic culture and history has influenced Western artists. It’s important to study culture and understand it, even if you don’t practice it as a profession. Going to a museum, where different cultures, civilizations, beliefs and artistic influences coexist beautifully, should be for everyone.

This was the epiphany for you? Your fathers challenge?

I would say, “Yes”. Especially that before that, I was interested in everything and I always thought that culture brought everything and everyone together. Unlike in politics, you can say a lot through culture, because it’s an open space. When you’re a politician, you’re limited to your government’s agenda, whereas culture is about humanitarianism, justice, equality, openness. When you have that open mind, you can create this space where people can discuss things no matter how contentious or controversial the topics are.

I think it was like a wakeup call, yes. I asked myself: Why am I in charge of this project? It has nothing to do with my education. But in fact, it has everything to do with my education because you can’t understand politics if you don’t understand culture, literature or history. It was very difficult at the beginning to assimilate how everything works because it’s a totally different world, but I realized that culture is the most powerful tool, it has no religion, no language, it’s just open.

How can culture impact our mentalities as Arabs, how can it make us more tolerant, more open minded?

It’s not only an Arab dilemma. There are close minded people in every culture and of every ethnicity. Culture is so inclusive, that’s why it allows one to be more open and less judgmental. Nowadays, everybody wants to judge people and categorize them. In museums, there’s no categorization, it’s all about inclusivity. Museums connect people, federate them, it’s universal.

For example, we partnered with the MET in New York, for their Oceanic collection. It’s a whole new world: Oceanic art never came to the region before! Imagine children and young adults going to see this exhibition! This is how you create a new sense of respect for this culture and these people, and a lot of them live in the Gulf. And vice-versa: when the MET presents an exhibition around Islamic arts in New York, where some in America can have anti-Muslim or anti-Arab feelings, it’s very important, it brings people together.

Every day in Europe, all over the world, people build walls, like last week in Italy with the legislative elections. You, on the contrary, are relentlessly building bridges between different worlds and cultures. How hard is that?

It’s not, because at the end of the day, you’re dealing with people. If you like people, and I like people, it doesn’t matter where they are from and what they represent. You can create that safe haven and safe space to have conversations and dialogue and allow people to find common ground instead of dividing them through their differences. You have to believe, to have a passion, that when things go from bad to worse, you can make them better, and I really believe in that, through the vehicle of arts, culture and education. If you educate young people about the world, no matter what politicians and the media say, these young people will be able to form their own opinion. Education is the most important tool to build these kinds of connections around the world.

Culture is education and museums are an amazing medium for education. When people go to museums and see the objects on display and they see how far our culture traveled, they have a reason to be proud, and to contribute to economic growth as we did in the past. We have to give people hope. There’s a lot of despair around the world.

Do you remember the first emotions you had vis-à-vis culture? Was it a book, a movie, a song, a painting, a garment, a piece of architecture?

It’s difficult to say. As a child, my parents took us to museums, to archeological sites. We enjoyed some, we didn’t like some others, but it was a part of our ecosystem. But thanks to that, I have the greatest pleasure in what we’re doing now, public arts and museums. We created an environment for all the residents and citizens of Qatar. I always liked art myself, I like to paint, to cook, I like photography, it was a part of who we were growing up. I didn’t like fashion, I was very sporty and used to wear a lot of sportswear, but the art world introduced me to fashion in a different way and now fashion has become a key part of what we do through the FTA Prize. Seeing the emerging Arab fashion designers engaging in dialogue with non-Arab designers is something very important. I’m very proud of this.

How was the idea of your book, of creating this legacy to the world, born? Why did you want to write?

For multiple reasons. I turned 40 last Thursday, and I’m not a birthday person, and I thought: Since I graduated from university, what have I done? I realized I that I have committed myself to people and to public service which is something I think I’ll do for the rest of my life, and I said to myself, “Why don’t you write a book…?” This is how it started. It’s not a heavy book or a memoir. I turned it into a guide book with personal reflections and recommendations. I covered all the projects that we’ve done, people will know why and how we did all this and why it makes sense for our country and how it can be a real legacy.

It also talks about our future projects for the next seven years. Next year we have an amazing exhibition about Lebanon in the ‘60s at Mathaf, and we discuss how Lebanon ended up in this situation, because we can’t not ask why all this happened and we need to help societies recover. Lebanon is multicultural, multi-religious multi everything…

Until last month I didn’t think it was going to happen, this big thing in such a short period, but I had a good team. We also wanted to create conversations, because you understand people more thanks to conversations, so there’s a podcast with the book, and we asked people why they’re working in Qatar, what they think about Qatar, that sort of thing. It is all about Qatar and the world.

Im not sure you will answer this question, but whats the one place in Qatar you immediately go to when you seek a bit of peace of mind, or when you want to be in the presence of beauty? Whats your favorite cultural spot in your country?

In my free time I like to be with my five kids, they’re all very creative in different ways, and there’s so much today in Qatar, The National Museum is an amazing space with nice cafés, nice playgrounds, we’re opening a new one with Total, the MIA is incredible, it depends. I like everything, it’s like if you asked me who’s my favorite child.

I’m so proud when I see people succeed, when I see people with talent going international and shining. Talent is everywhere, opportunity is not, and we try to create opportunities for the talented and this includes everyone who lives in Qatar. So to answer your question, I don’t have one favorite place, it depends on my mood, on what I want to do.

Is there a dream you have and that you intend to realize one day, waiting for the right time?

We have four more museums to open in the next seven years, and one cultural hub, and obviously we have to keep growing the collections and we’re very selective, we don’t buy to store, we buy to display and quality is way more important than quantity. We develop everything in house, organically, and we don’t outsource these services. We are building this at the perfect time, because we have a pool of talent to pull from, to work with us. It’s a very exciting moment for our country and our future projects look to support the refugees in the Arab world who are craftsmen or artisans.

Do you realize that what you do is pure diplomacy, even beyond diplomacy? You are everywhere!

I don’t know, this is a big compliment!

Its not a compliment I just stated a fact.

I always remind myself that everyone has a short time on this earth and you have to decide what you want to do and enjoy your life. Will you just be a consumer and let it pass, or will you dedicate your life to helping others and empowering them…? That was my goal since the beginning, through philanthropy and then culture. Culture connects everyone.

2023, for example, will be the year of Qatar and Indonesia. When I graduated in 2005, we set up a NGO, my brother, the current Emir, was at that time the crown Prince and chairman of  the Doha Asian Games 2006 and we decided that we needed to set up something dedicated to the families from Asia who’ve helped build all our infrastructure as workers, so we planned to do trips to Indonesia and take young adults and teenagers from Qatar to work and help in the nonprofit projects there. Culture is lifestyle. How you decide to live your life depends on the decisions you make. That’s the kind of ecosystem we’re trying to put together.