I feel good when we are able t0 bring in the aid to those in need says HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, when asked about her humanitarian initiatives and her interest in helping people from all four corners of the earth, irrespective of their color, gender or beliefs.
With her diligence and contagious smile, she has gained global attention and admiration, and has successfully redirected that attention towards important causes and helping others.
Yet, there is still so much to do in the world, Princess Haya tells Newsweek Middle East, in an exclusive interview, adding: ì800,000,000 people are hungry today, millions displaced. There is no place for pride so long as that is the reality of the world we live in.
Princess Haya is also a mother of two, with barely a free moment, and I was surprised to learn that she managed to find time to answer our questions, not only about her humanitarian work, but also about her family, hobbies and memories when she was growing up.
Aside from her kind heart and compassionate nature, this interview has also revealed a side of her which not many people know of: she enjoys a great sense of humor, which has not been dimmed by the sad images she has to see in her line of duty.
And though she is extremely proud of her Arab and Jordanian heritage, her non-discriminatory humanitarian work and non-bias relief extend to all people, irrespective of their race, beliefs or nationality. With that, she has truly become the princess of the people, all people, everywhere.
HAITI, MUCH TO BE DONE, STILL
Indeed, it was a month ago that Princess Haya made headlines when she took to social media to write a chronicle of her humanitarian mission to Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries, which is yet to recover from the aftermath of multiple natural disasters the most recent being Hurricane Matthew, a deadly tropical cyclone, which tore through the island among other nations in the Americas.
Starting from Rome, on October 14, where she had met with His Holiness Pope Francis at the Vatican, to discuss the plight of the world’s hungry, Princess Haya, under the direction of her husband, HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president and prime minister of the UAE, and ruler of Dubai, joined an airlift carrying 90 metric tons of humanitarian aid and relief items to the Haitian Capital Port-au-Prince.
The aid, which she personally oversaw its distribution, was part of a humanitarian initiative by Sheikh Mohammed, and organized by the International Humanitarian City (IHC), in Dubai, which Princess Haya currently chairs.
As we began to descend for landing in Haiti, we were hit by a huge storm. And as they opened the doors of the plane it was lashing rain, wrote Princess Haya on her Instagram account.
She made sure to thank all the soldiers behind the success of the UAE’s humanitarian mission in Haiti, particularly members of Jordan’s Peace Keeping mission in the country.
As think the humanitarian initiatives that I feel most useful to be involved in are emergency operations. I feel I can add value to the rest of the team effort. There is a deep sense of honor in being part of a team, and a country that is doing so much to help, says Princess Haya, who keeps in mind every member of her team and those helping it.
when I leave and leave them behind, the victims and the aid workers and peacekeepers, I feel physically sick with guilt. I keep them all with me, all the faces, and all the names. And I thank the generous people who help them in my prayers, she adds.
According to her, there is still much to be done to help Haiti, a beautiful country with enormous potential, despite natural disasters such as the 2010 earthquake and the outbreak of cholera which has killed thousands of Haitians so far.
Today, there are 800,000 people without enough food, and diseases are spreading with the breakdown in infrastructure after the hurricane, says Princess Haya.
And after flash floods created by ongoing rain and a strong wind moving at 120km/hour, there was no tree left standing, 400 people killed, and when we were there, they were still finding bodies, she explains.
She adds that a U.N. coordinator in Haiti told her that a 15 foot wall of water came in from the sea, and literally smashed everything in the four worst affected departments of Grand’Anse, Sud and Western tips of Nippes.
Millions have been affected by this hurricane, and they need assistance.
EVERY STORY IS A MOTIVATION
Princess Haya’s upbringing under her father, the late King Hussein of Jordan’s guidance to be a hard worker, to respect everyone, and know that serving others is a higher cause as well as the charitable nature and love for humanitarian work she inherited from her mother, the late Queen Alia of Jordan, have all helped build a sense of social responsibility in her.
Her humble nature drives her to speak with and for people of all walks of life. She listens to their stories, and keeps them in her heart and memory as a driving force to continue her work, and often relays these stories to the international community to garner support.
One of the most heart-wrenching stories, which Princess Haya shared with Newsweek Middle East, was that of a young boy from Gaza named Mohammed, whom she met in 2014.
He had been in his tiny home when they were hit by a missile. His parents had died slowly of their wounds, while he, who was 11 [at the time], comforted them and his three brothers and one sister. His brothers all died, and he said he knew they would, but he held his little sister who was 3 years old, and she said she was hungry, and all he could find was a tomato in the house, so he gave it to her, and then she passed away, she recalls.
Can you imagine the pain of the parents dying and knowing they were leaving their children to die slowly and unprotected as well? Or the pain and fear of those children? Or the courage, and confusion of Mohammad as he held each one before they died. And his fear and loneliness as he sat with their bodies until help finally got to him, a full day later? Alone in the house with his family all dead around him, no food and water, and the sounds of war outside? There are many stories like this, too many people suffering terribly all over the world.
CHALLENGES FACING HUMANITARIAN AID DISTRIBUTION
With increased conflicts across the Middle East and the world, it is important that aid reaches the most vulnerable sections of the society swiftly. Hundreds of thousands of innocent lives have been lost over the past few years because of armed conflicts, the outbreak of diseases and the inability of humanitarian missions to reach those in distress on time.
According to Princess Haya, aid workers on the ground at UNHCR and the World Food Programme describe a nightmare in getting relief to Syrians and Iraqis in battle area first, there are the logistical problems of transporting aid in conflict zones like security, insurance, and fuel supplies. Then there are the inevitable losses of both people and goods in the fighting.
Not to forget that the lines of battle keep changing in both Syria and northern Iraq. I cannot tell you how much I admire the staff on the ground who are persisting in the midst of all this carnage, she adds.
Response time to any calamity is also vital and matters that derail aid distribution from armed conflicts to natural threats are all to be taken into consideration.
Though Princess Haya sees that the IHC’s response and delivery times are good, sending aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan in 12 hours’ time, while helping the U.N. staff in Afghanistan evacuate in an impressive three hours in 2009, are all admirable, yet she feels that there is always room to enhance, be faster and strive to be better.
It is also impressive that the IHC’s recent aid for Haiti took off within 12 hours of the call we received.
The biggest challenges are always when we cannot land our aircraft in the country that needs the relief, either because we are responding to a natural disaster, or it is a conflict situation, says Princess Haya, who is well aware of the challenges facing aid distribution.
Citing Gaza as an example, she elaborates that in 2014, the UAE stood behind an AED13 million worth of humanitarian aid and relief supplies flown on dozens of aircrafts from Dubai to Gaza via Jordan under the directives of Sheikh Mohammed.
Sheikh Mohammed told us to open the air corridor from Dubai to Jordan, and truck across the relief. In less than 24 hours he oversaw the coordination to get the first 747 shipment of 115 tons of aid into Gaza.
She insists that without her husband’s experience, who was the youngest person to be appointed as a defense minister in the world, we would have never been able to plan this joint logistics operation to ensure that 100,000 internally displaced people in rapidly deteriorating security conditions in Gaza were fed and cared for properly.
And it seems that once Sheikh Mohammed embarks on a job, he stays on [the] job, until [that] job is done, she says, adding that he is always involved in emergency operations, and normally, he helps us troubleshoot.
A SOULMATE, A COMPANION AND AN ADVISOR
Speaking of her husband, the visionary ruler behind modern-day Dubai, an international metropole seen by many as an oasis of tranquility amid a sea of regional turbulence, and philanthropist who is also an advocate for humanitarian aid, Princess Haya says she doesn’t make a move in her work without asking him for guidance and advice.
According to her, Sheikh Mohammed, as the youngest Minister of Defense in the world when first appointed, managed the withdrawal of the British Forces and the defense and internal safety of the United Arab Emirates at the tender age of 18 years old.
In that sense, Sheikh Mohammed knows logistics and understands what is needed by people on the ground. He gives us clear, and impactful instructions. Nothing he does or asks us to do is for show. Everything about the people we are reaching.
She further reveals that her husband is deeply involved, because humanity is what he cares about most. During all emergency operations he would be asked for guidance in the planning, and he always receives updates from the board every 1.5 hours.
After all, it was Sheikh Mohammed who started IHC back in 2003, as part of his vision to transform Dubai into a regional and international humanitarian hub, where response to humanitarian aid calls can be met swiftly and efficiently, given Dubai’s geographical location and interest in helping others.
Princess Haya speaks fondly of her husband calling him a friend, and a great mentor.
As per her words Sheikh Mohammed has so much positive energy, and he is at his greatest when things are worst not when the going is good.
She further explains that she has learned so much from Sheikh Mohammed as far as work ethics are concerned. He does not work a certain amount of hours a day and then clock off. He puts his goal out in front of him, and he keeps going until the job is done.
Success, according to her husband, says Princess Haya, is measured by the result and not the effort. He is a fascinating example for life, and he makes every second of everyday count for something, and he is inspiring to everyone around him.
THE NEXT STEP
As today’s world continues to witness increased problems that need humanitarian support and aid, especially crises resulting from armed conflicts, and with no end to the ongoing war in Syria, HRH Princess Haya’s work in extending humanitarian aid is increasing.
The Syrian crisis has seen a spillover of millions of Syrian refugees into neighboring Arab countries, and many have reached Europe and the Americas in their plight to seek a safe haven away from the onslaught in their country.
Over 1.3 million Syrian refugees registered with the U.N. have been staying in Jordan over the past five years, which has put additional pressures on the country’s economy and security.
For that matter, HRH Princess Haya sees that not only do the Syrian refugees need aid, but also her countrymen, and that is why she says she will be concentrating her efforts there on a personal level, in the coming period.
My home country of Jordan is one of the countries that I feel most needs help right now. Jordan has paid a heavy price for hosting the refugees from Syria, themselves having faced terrible hardship. I would like to do all I can to help the Jordanian people, who have been innocent victims in all of this, they are paying a terrible price for their own hospitality.
A PROUD MOTHER
The graceful Princess says with time, she has grown to enjoy traveling less and less, especially when she has to leave her two children, Sheikha Al Jalila, 9 and Sheikh Zayed, 4, behind.
The more time passes the more I hate traveling. I get really anxious these days when I have to leave my children, I think it stems from the fact that I lost my mother when she travelled to a hospital, says Princess Haya, whose mother, Queen Alia, died in a helicopter crash in 1977 when she was just three years old.
Yet the call of duty and the plight to end people’s suffering trumps her fears and anxiousness.
I know that the trips that I am asked to make are necessary ones, and it’s an honor to be given the responsibilities that I have she says.
Like every mother, Princess Haya is very proud of her children, who have apparently developed the same love of nature and animals as their parents.
My late father King Hussein encouraged all of us to be active outdoors as much as possible, and to practice sports because he knew and believed that this was the key to a healthy and happy life, for any human being.
I like being outside, in any form, if its running, riding a horse, just being outdoors is best for me, adds Princess Haya.
And much like her, Sheikh Mohammed enjoys his trips in the desert and forests when he is traveling, and he often posts photos on his Instagram page when he is enjoying mother nature’s scenery or cooking outdoors.
Both Sheikh Mohammed and Princess Haya are also accomplished horse riders who have competed on the international level, and who love the great outdoors and nature, and their children certainly take after them.
Al Jalila has a real way with animals, not just horses but all animals. She has a deep interest in learning from nature, she notices tiny things and spends nearly all of her time outdoors. She has always been like that. I think she is very talented as a rider, very instinctive, and she sits on her horse as if it is a part of her own skin.
On the other hand, Zayed, who also loves nature, often comes home having caught lizards, and bugs which he wants to keep as pets, says Princess Haya, who jokes that they normally have to wait until he is asleep to set the animals free.
He also loves horses, but he wants to be exactly like his father, so anything Sheikh Mohammed does, Zayed will try to copy, she proudly adds.
And as she puts it, her family as well as her work are a true blessing.
For sure, having my two children, and being given the chance to work for Sheikh Mohammed to help others, are the biggest blessings of my life.
PRINCESS HAYA, THE ATHLETE
Princess Haya started competing on the international level at the tender age of 13, and by the age of 18, she was the first woman to represent Jordan internationally in the field of equestrian sport at the seventh Pan Arab Games in Syria. It was there she won the bronze medal in individual jumping, in addition to being the only woman to win a medal in the Pan-Arab Equestrian Games. She was also the flag bearer for her country at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Australia.
Competing in the 2000 Olympics because my father had said he wanted me to compete on the Olympic Level, but he had passed away in 1999, and for that reason, that [Olympics] Games was very hard, she says.
Princess Haya was very close to her father, especially that he helped raise her after her mother passed away. She says that she does not believe that the late King Hussein ever expected her to go into professional sports, but he did support her when she expressed her will to be part of that world.
He had to fight hard to protect me, as many were critical of my choice, she says, explaining that back in those days in Jordan and throughout the Arab world, sports, and to a large extent culture, were not seen as priorities on the national agenda. Often these two fields and arts suffered and the people who practiced them were not taken seriously. It was not recognized as a serious profession.
And nothing comes easy, not even for a Princess, who recalls the long hard hours of training abroad and how she had to muster the strength to endure the cold weather and fatigue, and show perseverance to carry on and excel.
“Professionally, I think the most memorable [time] was the two years of long hard winter mornings in Germany. Driving to work to ride 15 horses a day, in the dark at 5 in the morning, in minus 17 degrees centigrade and just having to dig really deep to find the strength not to quit at those times through those two years is something that I won’t ever forget. That was hard,” recalls Princess Haya.
However, on the emotional level, she says that she was “happiest” at her first international competition in Latakia, Syria, and in Amman, Jordan as well as in Aqaba.
“We didn’t have much, and it wasn’t top sport, but being supported by the people of my country, and competing alongside fellow Jordanians, was the best thing in the world for me,” she recalls.
With her increasing duties as a humanitarian and a mother, Princess Haya says she now finds less and less time to practice the sports and activities she loves, however, she insists that she tries her best to keep fit.
She tells me that free time makes her “very nervous,” adding: “Your priorities change at a certain point in your life, and there is a real beauty in that transition.”
A TIGHT FAMILY
It is not often that a princess opens up about her past memories on what was it like growing up as a member of the Jordan’s Royal family.
However, knowing how humble Princess Haya is, a trait that shows in the way she cares for others, one can imagine how her father, the late King Hussein of Jordan planted simplicity and love in his children.
But that was not the only thing that the young Hashemite royals were taught.
“My father was incredibly loving, he gave us room to grow, but our education, and chosen professions he was very serious about. He insisted that we had to work harder than others and prove ourselves to be worthy so that nobody could ever say we got somewhere because of our titles. He was very diligent about making sure that we never got opportunities based on being his children, but instead on merit,” explains Princess Haya.
On the other hand, playing with the family, was another arena where titles did not matter and certainly gender or young age didn’t matter either, she jokes, and somehow brags that everyone in her family, including herself, had their fair share of cuts and bruises.
“As brothers, sisters, and cousins… we all played together as a family: football, volleyball, and water sports, and there was no ‘soft approach’ for the young ones, or the girls. That survival of the fittest and toughness gave us all a good foundation, and lots of bruises, a few bloody noses, and a lot of laughs.”
Princess Haya is also especially close to her brother Ali, who like her, was orphaned at a young age when their mother passed away.
She campaigned for him when he competed to head the world’s top football association FIFA, and she continues to support him despite her tight schedule.
She was recently seen in a videotaped message congratulating Jordan, Prince Ali, and Jordan’s U-17 Women’s Football Team, for the successful hosting of U-17 Women World Cup in the Hashemite Kingdom. To many of us, this showed her national pride and sisterly love.
“I was very sorry not to be next to Ali for the Under-17 FIFA World Cup in Jordan. He did a fantastic job to bring it to the Arab world, and to supervise the organization with his National Federation,” she says.
And like any loving sister, Princess Haya defended her brother’s “unfair” defeat due to “corruption” and lobbying, within FIFA.
“Ali has been incredibly brave in the last two years, I saw what he went through (and what those who dared to support him went through) taking on FIFA and challenging the corrupt individuals so as not to allow them to take the world’s most popular sport away from youth, and the people who love it. I was very proud of him, and by stating his values, being honest and clean, he showed the best of our face as Arabs to the rest of the world,” she explains.
She further says that “the IOC and FIFA are now inextricably linked by certain individuals who are shared by both bodies in a circle of corruption that is fast spiraling downwards,” and warned that “FIFA and the IOC must clean up properly or they will implode soon.”
According to her, “there are many good people in both organizations, but it is time for the corrupt old guard to leave. The actions of these individuals have tainted the reputation of global sports. The public outcry has no effect because the actions of those corrupt individuals are within the legal framework in which they operate and they have become increasingly emboldened because they feel they are above the law.”
Princess Haya also hopes that change be brought soon—for the sake of future generation—to those organizations which belong to the world.
“I hope change comes soon, so my kids, and your kids can look forward to competing on a level playing field with leadership examples that are admirable, showing them the way.”
A ROYAL PAST TIME
Princess Haya, who jokes that she is far better at “ruining good dishes” than cooking them, says her “favorite part is cooking with Sheikh Mohammed in the desert, or when we are camping.”
Moreover, she says the Lebanese-American author, poet and artist Gibran Khalil Gibran is her favorite, as well as “novels by Ahlam Mosteghanemi.”
And who knew, Princess Haya, whose “favorite songs are by [Emirati singer] Hussein Al Jasmi,” also likes American singer P!nk?
“I am a huge fan of P!nk – as a person and a singer. I think she is cool,” she tells Newsweek Middle East.
However, Princess Haya draws the line when it comes to the entertainment industry after she was asked if she would take the lead from her brother, His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan, and have a cameo role in a Hollywood movie for charity.
“No, I wouldn’t take part in a movie, I wouldn’t have the talent or the wish to ever do so. I will stick to what I know how to do, and leave others far better than me to do what they know how to do,” she says.
King Abdullah II of Jordan, who is quite a fan of Star Trek, had briefly appeared in Star Trek: Voyager episode in the past.
A PRINCESS LIKE NO OTHER
Though she was born to one of the Arab world’s most revered royal families, and is married to one of the region’s most respected rulers, Princess Haya is not your typical Princess.
And by “not typical,” we mean that she does not conform with the image portrayed of princesses in fairy tales or seen in movies, where she awaits a hero to save her, and spends her life happily ever after in a large palace raising her family.
On the contrary, and truth be told, Princess Haya is the one who embarks on a constant mission to save humanity and help others in need without expecting anything in return, except perhaps a content smile and a child’s laughter.
In that sense, one recalls Nelson Mandela’s wisdom that “there can be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return.”
And for that, the world has come to know and love Princess Haya, especially for her readiness to extend a helping hand as well as for her compassion and resilience in the face of hardship —crossing continents to aid the less fortunate in distressed areas and conflict zones.