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Qatar’s UN Envoy Wants Other Arab Women to Join Her in Diplomacy


HE Sheikha Alya Ahmed bin Saif Al-Thani, Permanent Representative of the State of Qatar to the UN
Sheikha Alya Ahmed bin Saif Al-Thani, Qatar’s first woman ambassador to the UN, photographed in her office at the country’s mission in New York City, July 8, 2024. She wants other Arab women to join her in the rarefied world of diplomacy, especially as she is currently the sole woman from the Mideast in that top circle at the UN. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE 

Sheikha Alya Ahmed Al-Thani is the first woman ambassador for Qatar at the United Nations. Now that she’s reached that milestone, she wants company — other Mideast women to join her diplomatic world. Her father, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saif Al- Thani, was not only a minister of state for Qatar, a Gulf oil country, but also served as ambassador to Britain, Sweden and Norway. She said that watching him speak at the UN General Assembly when she was a child shaped her career path.

“It’s a personal struggle that if I fail it will discourage others from joining or will discourage the idea of having more women,” Al-Thani told PassBlue during a recent interview in her office at the Qatari mission in New York City. “I think that is one personal struggle for me because it is very important to me that this succeeds and that others succeed.”

Al-Thani, who is in her 40s, has been working in Qatar’s diplomatic corps for about a decade and a half. One of her goals is to keep the door open for as many other Arab women to choose such a career. Before coming to New York City, she was Qatar’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva. Another Qatari woman sits in her old office, a progression that Al-Thani said underscores Qatar’s dedication toward advancing its women.

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Yet, women’s rights in Qatar are significantly restricted with laws limiting their autonomy despite constitutional guarantees of equal rights. A Human Rights Watch report highlighted that women of all ages need permission from a male relative to marry, study abroad on government scholarships, work in many government jobs and travel outside the country. An Amnesty International report in 2023 noted that Qatari women are inadequately protected against domestic violence. Al-Thani told PassBlue that the male guardianship system has changed and that Qatar now has more respect for women.

The ambassador may have a different view of the reality of most Qatari women and others in the Mideast. She was born into a royal family, the lineage of Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al-Thani, who founded Qatar and was emir from 1878 to 1913. The Al-Thanis, from the Tamimi tribe, are Qatar’s ruling family and have led the economic and political affairs of the country since its creation in 1971, when it also joined the UN.

The country’s prime minister, foreign affairs minister, interior minister, culture minister, commerce and industry minister are all Al-Thanis. The extended family numbers in the tens of thousands and make up the majority of Qatari citizens. Two members of the family were listed on the 2024 Forbes billionaires list with a cumulative wealth of $3.5 billion.

Yet, the ambassador is modest and reserved but friendly. Interviewed in her wood-paneled office at the Qatari mission, she works at a large desk in a quiet, orderly space with deep, leather chairs as a large-screen TV broadcasts news (on mute) in Arabic. She earned her bachelor’s degree in economics from Qatar University and a master’s in international studies and diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), in London.

Al-Thani talked in early July about her diplomacy work, her country’s attitudes toward women’s rights and its mediation role in the Gaza war — a difficult subject to broach with her. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and is part of PassBlue’s series on small states and multilateralism at the UN. The definition of “small states” is primarily based on a country’s population (using the World Bank list or Forum of Small States) and other factors like global warming and economic vulnerabilities.

Qatar has a population of 2.7 million, and although it is hardly needy financially, it relies on the UN multilateral system to carry out some of its global ambitions, such as promoting the Sustainable Development Goals, while trying to steer clear of politics, the ambassador suggested. Yet, Qatar is advocating for Palestine’s full membership in the UN. — DAMILOLA BANJO 

PassBlue: What is it like being the only women ambassador from the Mideast at the UN? Until recently, there were two, but the United Arab Emirates envoy returned to her country in a new role earlier this year.

Al-Thani: I joined in October 2013 as the representative of Qatar to the UN here in New York. Previously, I headed our mission in Geneva for two years. Women are still looked at as a minority in the composition of the UN community, but the numbers have grown. We are now 47 female ambassadors [out of 193], and I’m happy to be among the very few within the Arab region. Hopefully, we will have more female representation from the region. Qatar is a country that is very progressive when it comes to the role of women. We have three ministries headed by women in key ministries, which are health, education and social development. Several women are leading important positions in every aspect of the political and civil life in Qatar. Actually, I’m the first female appointment to assume the position of a diplomat and the ambassador and the diplomatic corps, starting more than 15 years ago. Today, the composition of the foreign service in Qatar is 30 percent female, serving in the capital or abroad. We need to show our example when it comes to gender parity and empowerment of women. So I dedicate a lot of my time to doing that here in New York City.

PassBlue: You are the first woman ambassador for Qatar. What does that feel like?

Al-Thani: It’s incredible, it’s inspiring. It has opened the door. The government has always been very progressive and provided the opportunity. It was women who were hesitant to join the diplomatic corps for many reasons. We had a very good role model in our country: Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. She’s the UN secretary-general’s Sustainable Development Goal advocate for education; she has served in that capacity for years. I’ve had the privilege of working with her at the beginning of my career. That set the tone. We come from a very conservative society culturally, but with a progressive government that encouraged others to join. I’m privileged to have the honor to be the first female ambassador, but I’m eager to see more. You don’t want to be alone.

PassBlue: Qatar has a guardianship system that requires a woman to seek male relatives’ approval to study abroad on government scholarships or to work in many government jobs. Did you have to go through that process? How did you achieve this feat?

Al-Thani: First of all, it is not how you explain it. Women and women’s roles are very well respected in the government. Look at our education figures, it is in favor of women more than men. We have more women educated, more women in higher education and more women teaching in the academic area. We have more women in many ministries, whether in commerce, education or health. We look at [women] as half of the society, and without them, we can’t progress because demographically, we need women to engage in civil life and political life and in commerce and banking and the private sector.

Whenever you meet women from Qatar, you get the sense of how strong they are and how decisive they are about the future and their opportunities, but family comes first. So, work-family balance is something that the government has always worked on to make sure that mothers and women with families and with family responsibilities are not denied the right to work if they want to, but they are provided with the opportunity to have the work-family balance.

PasssBlue: As of May 2024, women held 25 percent of permanent representative posts at the UN New York City, per the Inter-Parliamentary Union. How can that number grow?

Al-Thani: I think it’s really important that member states continue to encourage and press [fellow countries] to present female candidates for this position. This is something Qatar believes in. New York and Geneva are represented by female ambassadors from Qatar. This says a lot about how much the government trusts women to handle tough jobs, especially in multilateral positions.

PassBlue: What are your efforts in promoting Qatar, a small state, at the UN? How do you optimize multilateralism at the UN as a small country?

Al-Thani: We try our best to contribute to the international community through our work here. There is a lot of substantive work that takes place and negotiating outcomes. I had the privilege of facilitating several important resolutions, namely the UN 75th political declaration in 2020 with Sweden. I also had the privilege last year to co-facilitate the political declaration at the SDG [Sustainable Develop Goals] summit with the ambassador of Ireland. All these opportunities showcase how small states are contributing intensively by using our leverage to reach agreements, build bridges and build consensus approaches, especially in this geopolitical scene we live in today.

We are here to serve not only our national interest but also because we believe in the relevance of the United Nations. Qatar has always been a strong supporter of the UN, and we need to continue to protect multilateralism in the face of those difficulties and the complexity of situations today. The UN is needed more than ever to protect the world from the scourge of war, from humanitarian situations, from the destruction of education. Education is an important objective for our foreign policy. We know through education we can fight terrorism and extremism.

PassBlue: Qatar may be small in population, but  it is in the big league economically. How do you encourage small countries that do not have Qatar’s resources to engage the multilateral system to benefit their country individually and collectively?

Al-Thani: We need to continue to build partnerships, we need to support each other. We are small countries, but we are blessed with the resources and we are supporting countries who do not have the privileges and the resources we do. Qatar is working with countries in Asia, Africa and every part of the world. We believe in genuine cooperation that doesn’t have a political agenda. We want to lift up countries. This is why we have hosted the UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries [LDC]. We have a commitment for the next eight years, which is called the Doha Program of Action. It has five key deliverables. We will announce the implementation of two key deliverables, on food security and on building resilience. We have allocated funds for [the deliverables] of over $60 million for LDCs. We need to help each other. I think this is the essence of the Summit of the Future [in September]. We need to revive the financing of the development agenda.

PassBlue: How else can Qatar help other small states lacking the financial power of your country?

Al-Thani: I think by meeting our commitments. We are approaching 2030. Last year, the SDG summit was an opportunity for us to renew our commitments. We shouldn’t preach, we should do what we have committed to do. I think the key aspect is financing the SDG agenda. Qatar has continued to do that. We set goals for ourselves through our bilateral development assistance to our multilateral development assistance, to which we contribute over $90 million annually between core contributions to the UN and voluntary contributions and beyond. We had a major commitment in 2018, to commit $500 million up to 2030 to support the UN. We are focusing on innovative approaches with the UN Development Program through the SDG accelerator labs operating in over 70 countries.

PassBlue: Let’s talk about Gaza. What is the status of the latest negotiations being led by Qatar, Egypt and the United States to broker a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel? What role do you personally play?

Al-Thani: Gaza takes me to our role in mediation and conflict resolution. Qatar has invested a lot in this area. Throughout the years, we’ve been involved in discussions that have led to solutions, and specifically in Gaza, we have always played an important role in reaching several ceasefires in the past wars. But this war is more devastating. The Palestinian people in Gaza have suffered Israeli bombardment. Qatar, throughout these months, has committed together with Egypt and the United States to try to find solutions to reach a ceasefire. In November last year, Qatar, through its mediation, was able to achieve the humanitarian pause that helped release 109 Israeli hostages. The efforts have never stopped. We have had highs and lows because of the complexity of the situation. We need to see an end to this war, we need to have a ceasefire, and we need to commit to the Security Council resolutions that have called for a ceasefire.

PassBlue: What’s Qatar doing to encourage Palestinian membership in the UN?

Al-Thani: We have worked closely with the Palestinians and the Arab group to make sure we continue to call for the two-state solution. As you know, the process of Palestine requesting admission to the UN has started; a resolution was presented in the Security Council. Unfortunately, it was vetoed [by the US]. But that resolution went to the General Assembly and it was adopted. We keep saying that the situation we are faced with today in Gaza did not start on October 7. It is a situation that has continued for the last 75 years because of decades of occupation and illegal settlements in the West Bank. If you look at the outcome of the resolution in the Security Council — 12 countries were in favor of Palestine’s request, two countries abstained [Switzerland and Britain] and one country vetoed. Nobody disagreed with the importance of a two-state solution, including those who have not supported it. What is important is to continue the momentum. We are very close with the Palestinians to see when will be the time to go back to the Security Council.

PassBlue: There are reports that some Hamas leaders are sheltering in Qatar. Is your country not worried about sheltering members of what is considered a terrorist group, particularly in light of the Oct. 7 attack?

Al-Thani: Just to be clear, Qatar hosts the political office of Hamas. We are engaged in negotiations with the parties, including the political office. We are finding ways to solve the situation. We cannot do that without the key parties,  Israel and Hamas.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on Qatar's role at the UN?

Damilola Banjo

Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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Qatar’s UN Envoy Wants Other Arab Women to Join Her in Diplomacy
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Dr Bilali Camara
Dr Bilali Camara
2 days ago

A great woman in service of humanity, thank you Ambassador Sheikha Alya Ahmed for all your efforts for peace, human rights, equality and respect for women and girls. Your call is very significante because it magnifies the reality of the important role played by our mother Khadijah in the building of the family of the prophet of Islam Mohamed (peace on him and his family). Indeed peace, development and diplomacy cannot be achieved by the world without women’ s full participation in the decision-making and implementation of actions. Ambassador Sheikha Alya Ahmed you are a role model for the whole word and keep up with your great leadership as the world is learning from you every day as highlighted in your interview.

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