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Backstory: The royal couple that put Qatar on the map

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Or did she? Squint into the desert sun – because something new and noteworthy has happened here. It isn't the natural gas that was discovered in the 1970s, or any of the subsequent trappings of sudden, new-rich chic so common in the Gulf neighborhood that is different. It isn't the gleaming over-air-conditioned shopping malls, or the luxury hotels with dazzling foyers, or even the foreign workers scuttling every which way to drive, clean, serve, manage, and construct the whole project. It is something else.

There's a whiff of purpose in Qatar. A confidence – cockiness even – rides the breeze. Relevance seems just around the next dune. There is true reform and leadership: An emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and his sheikha, Mozah, have made things happen. In love, beloved, daring, traditional, and original all at once, the couple has bucked all that was expected of them.

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The story begins with Sheikh Hamad, a different sort of royal. Born in 1950, he was brought up, after his young mother's death, by his maternal uncle and then went, like many wealthy Gulf Arabs, to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England. He graduated in 1971, the year Qatar received independence from Britain and the year major gas deposits were found in shallow Qatari waters. A year later, his father, Sheikh Khalifa, seized power from an uncle and became emir of the young nation.

Hamad, the eldest of the emir's five sons, returned home and was commissioned as lieutenant colonel in the Qatari armed forces, quickly rising to commander in chief of the forces, overseeing modernization of the military. He married a cousin, which cemented a problematic political alliance. He married Sheikha Mozah, because she caught his fancy. And he married yet again, solidifying another alliance with another cousin.

Everything one might expect. Nothing really new in the desert. Yet.

During these years, Sheikh Khalifa was busy creating a benevolent welfare state, complete with free healthcare for the people – and, reportedly, Swiss bank accounts for himself. By the end of his 23-year rule, the emir had cultivated a taste for the extravagant, and spent significant time out of the country, often on the French Riviera, leaving the day-to-day rule to Hamad. "Don't make any changes" seemed to be the fatherly advice offered from the luxury hotel suites across Europe to the earnest young man in charge back home.

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