Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi is a trailblazer who has fired the ambitions and aspirations of a generation of women in the United Arab Emirates, and the Gulf with her meteoric success story. Because not only is the US-educated Sheikha Lubna the first woman in the Emirates to hold a ministerial post, she is also the first woman in the region to have successfully led the male-dominated Ministry of Economy and Planning, she is also the first to start a Middle Eastern BB online marketplace, which is now one of Dubai World’s most successful business units with franchises across the Middle East. Sheikha Lubna has spent a long time in governance starting from 2004. And over the years, she moved from Economy and Planning to Foreign Trade, International Cooperation and then the curiously named ‘Ministry of Tolerance’ before stepping down a couple of weeks back.
Listed by Forbes every year in the past decade for her dynamism and achievements, in 2016 she made it to number 43 on the list of the most powerful women in the world, and this year she was ranked the most powerful Arab woman in governance. What makes her even more interesting is the ease with which Sheikha Lubna straddles the traditional and the modern with her attitude and way of thinking. A member of the Sharjah royal family, Sheikha Lubna carries none of the baggage associated with her class and status. A ‘people’s person’, she is unassuming, unpretentious and forthcoming, and willing to share her vision and life’s philosophy.
Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi was in Kuwait to give a keynote speech at the 10th International Conference on Women Leaders in Science, Technology and Engineering organized by Kuwait Foundation for Advancement of Science in association with the American Association of Science and the US State Department. In an exclusive interview with the Arab Times, Sheikha Lubna explains the importance of co-existence and tolerance in an increasingly divisive world, the need of countries and culture to evolve at a pace of their choosing, and shared her pride in the increasingly progressive role that women are playing in her country.
The United Arab Emirates has made no bones about championing the cause of co-existence and tolerance in its society. Last year, HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE in a statement said, “We need to study, teach, and practice tolerance and instil it in our children, both through education and our own example.” When asked about the workings of the Ministry of Tolerance she headed until a short while back, Sheikha Lubna reiterates the vision of her country’s enlightened leadership. “Usually ministries are formed to solve a problem or address a lacuna, but the Emirates has 200 nationalities living in co-existence so that one may wonder about the need for a ministry like this,” she smiles. “Tolerance is a legacy from our founders,” she explains.
“The foundation of UAE is based on coexistence, and this is the reason our country thrives with people from all over the world living and working there. Moreover, moderate Islam advocates tolerance and co-existence for all nations, and we believe it is important to preserve this legacy.” In the face of violence, terrorism, negative rhetoric and blame shaming, she says, it has become imperative that governments play an active role in guiding and educating their people on the values of inclusivity and coexistence. “There has been a rise in populism and hate speech. Values have started to erode worldwide. We have to remind ourselves that societies cannot exist on just moving forward without preserving our values, which are our assets. Other nations can adopt the national programme for tolerance followed by the UAE. We aspire that others will follow our example. This policy stands on certain pillars which includes the principle that government is an incubator for tolerance.
For example, the UAE has laws against hate speech and discrimination, especially on social media. The other thing the UAE concentrates on is the youth. Today, young people live in a virtual world where they are more influenced by others than their parents. We have to immunize the kids by instilling values in them, something we took for granted while growing up,” said Sheikha Lubna who is also the President of Zayed University. “We have to carry out an immunization program that will remind people of the essence of their nationalism, identity and community,” she continues. To strengthen their ‘immunization’ programme, the UAE has created a charter for teachers forbidding them from influencing students with their personal views and limiting their role to the curriculum alone. “We also focus on cohesive families,” she adds. “Families are no longer the same, and it is important that kids are close to their community and family. And lastly, we work on enriching cultural content. Today, there is a lot of negativity on the internet, and the only way to counteract this is to remind people of the values of civilization and co-existence. We should celebrate our differences and not criticize. For example, last month, the UAE celebrated Diwali, with our Indian friends. It was a big deal for us. This is the essence and reason for a strong programme for tolerance in the UAE,” she explains.
The United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain have been proactive in their pursuit of tolerant societies, but why is the rest of the Gulf lagging behind? Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the consummate diplomat, answers, “The cultural context of every country in the Gulf is different. Even in the UAE, the Northern Emirates is different from Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It is easy to build high-rises, but it takes time to change the culture and mindsets of nations. You don’t want to accelerate a process of change that doesn’t suit the nation, as it may backfire,” she warns. She also examines the tendency of people to focus on the negatives of a country and not acknowledge and appreciate its achievements. “Saudi Arabia has been criticized for not giving their women the right to drive, well, they are driving now,” she argues. “Few people talk about what is good about Saudi Arabia. Not many people know that Saudi women are some of the wealthiest in the region. They run establishments, and their right to run organizations has always been there. They are smart, modern women, but instead of appreciating that the world is nitpicking. Give them a breathing chance,” she urges.
Every country, she says, aims to build a happy society, and the journey it undertakes to achieve that goal depends on its cultural conditioning. “Perhaps, in the West, a happy democratic society can be achieved through elections, but here in the Gulf, we do it though open majlises, development programmes that put people at the centre of the services. In the end, one achieves the same goal as the West, but the methodology is different. And who is to judge which methodology is right?” she asks.
Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi’s responses are precise, clear and analytical, in keeping with her background in information technology. Did she find it difficult to bridge the gap between IT and politics? “If you think about it, technology is not just about coding,” she smiles. “The essence of my job for twenty years was to transform organizations by raising their efficiency and making them more profitable. You do the same when you move to a government organization. As an engineer, I assess an organization, search out gaps if any and then try to resolve those gaps. I had the responsibility of creating ministries. I did it with the help of a business model before it went into ‘a delivery and maintain’ mode. I finished my job in three to four years. Looking back I feel that computer engineering is the best background for one to get into government service,” smiled the woman who led her country into a period of unprecedented philanthropy as the Minister of International Cooperation and Development.
Despite being ranked among the most powerful women in the world several years in a row, there is no arrogance in the woman who has played a significant role in her country’s diversification plans and helped to pull it out of the dark phase of recession. Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi is a study in simplicity and amiability and has a hands-on approach to leadership. Developing human capital is her forte, and she believes in walking the talk, thus becoming a role model for her people. “In every organization I am asked to lead, I say I do not own the chair I sit on. The organization will go on even after I have left. The most important task for me is to focus on people. I identify people who work and contribute, and I also work on people who may think they are limited, by enhancing their knowledge. I have to give an opportunity to my people to prove themselves. I have to give them a chance,” she reiterates.
It could not have been easy for Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi to shoulder the responsibility of being the first woman cabinet minister of a country rooted in traditions and defined gender roles. “Before I joined the cabinet, I managed Tijari, a startup company with 18 employees. And then I inherited 300 employees when I joined the government. Moreover, I was given a very heavy portfolio. Economy and planning is the bloodline of the country. I tell you I could not sleep for three weeks,” she laughs in recollection. “I had sleepless nights, and I would think, ‘Oh my God! I am going to fail my country. How will I ever do this?’ One day I woke up early morning at 4 am. I sat on my bed, and it dawned on me that I was given this responsibility by the leaders of my country and there is no way they would leave me in a lurch. They would be there to support me. They would make sure I succeed. A sense of relief overcame me, and I succeeded in redirecting my energy. That was an ‘aha’ moment in my life,” she smiles.
Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi has played her part in steering the United Arab Emirates through difficult times into an era of unprecedented prosperity. She has also been a powerful role model for women in her country and the region not only with the efficiency and purpose with she carried out her responsibilities but with her effective straddling of the old and the new, the traditional and the modern. When asked about her views on the present role of Emirati women, she remarks, “When I was appointed the first woman minister, I aimed to ensure that there would come a time when there would be so many of them that my presence would not be required. That time came a few days back when I stepped down. Today we have nine women ministers in the UAE, and most of them are young and aspiring. My job was to build a bridge, and I did that. It is unfair for any woman to sit on a job and not be there for the young ones. Our job is to leave a legacy, and the best legacy you can leave are people who become leaders themselves.”
‘ Other nations can adopt the national programme for tolerance followed by the UAE which includes the principle that government is an incubator for tolerance. For example, the UAE has laws against hate speech and discrimination, especially on social media. The other thing the UAE concentrates on is the youth. Today, young people live in a virtual world where they are more influenced by others than their parents. We have to immunize the kids by instilling values in them, something we took for granted while growing up. We have to carry out an immunization program that will remind people of the essence of their nationalism, identity and community. The UAE has created a charter for teachers forbidding them from influencing students with their personal views.’
By Chaitali B. Roy – Special to the Arab Times