HH Sheikha Latifa Bint Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Chairperson of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, and daughter of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, stands as a powerful symbol of hope, purpose, and the beating heart of the UAE’s creative ecosystem.
HH Sheikha Latifa Bint Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum is walking inside the corridors of a private majilis of Dubai’s royal family, nestled in the heart of the Al Shindagha Historical Neighborhood, by Dubai Creek. Although this is not the first time the Sheikha visits the location, she can’t resist stopping in front of the sandy walls covered in black and white photos, showing candid and more official encounters between some of the most recognizable faces in the country, many of them part of her closest family. “Look at Dad here, so nice,” she muses, while pulling out her phone to click a picture of an old image of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai – her father. If you were not part of the crew, the relaxed ambience would not give it away that Her Highness was about to photograph her first ever magazine cover, and one of extreme importance for Vogue Arabia, as this September marks the 50th issue of the publication in the region.
I met Sheikha Latifa more than four years ago, when I organized a charity design exhibition in benefit of Dubai Cares. The royal offered her kind patronage and consequently made an official visit to the event. I still remember her noble serenity, and also her sharp eye and curiosity. While meeting each designer, the Sheikha spotted a cabinet inspired by the burqa, the traditional Gulf face mask usually worn by Bedouin women as a sun shield, but many times mistakenly associated by the western world as a form of oppression. “What do you personally think about the burqa?” Her Highness inquired, challenging the creative, and clearly ready for any answer.
Since then, I have been in close contact with Her Highness’s team, proposing, and mostly waiting, for the right time to work on a profile piece for Vogue Arabia. Now, that time has finally come, as in 2021 the UAE continues making history, in an exciting countdown for the celebration of its 50th anniversary. Not only is the country at the peak of its development, sending its first mission to Mars while the world was on hold with Covid-19, but Dubai’s hospitality industry is also in top shape, ready to officially open the gates of Expo Dubai 2020. As the beating heart of the emirate’s culture and arts scene through her position as Chairperson of Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, now more than ever, Her Highness is in a privileged position to use her power and influence to communicate and promote the local creative community.
Although the Sheikha has a large following on Instagram of more than 1.3 million and often visits functions related to the arts field, not many know who she is beyond her public and professional persona. When we finally had the chance to sit down and talk, we started from the beginning. “I had an interesting upbringing, but I would say that it was mostly normal. We were raised around many people, and we went to school like everyone else,” she recalls. “I am fortunate that I grew up in a family with a lot of interests and many passions. I grew up spending a lot of time horse riding in the stables, because my father has a passion for horses. We were lucky to be raised in a way that we could choose what we wanted to do.” The Sheikha also fondly remembers her initial experiences with the arts, first with the poetry of her father, and through other key family members who were part of her upbringing. “My father is a renowned poet, and we liked to memorize his verses. To me, literature has a deeper meaning because of that,” she shares. “My aunt and older sister also brought me closer to the arts. One of my first memories holding a paintbrush was sitting at my aunt’s easel, with her encouraging me to explore colors and make a mess. I was around five years old, and whenever I sketched something, I would run to my dad, who always encouraged me – even though I’m sure at that young age my drawings weren’t any good at all!” the royal laughs.
This spirit of encouragement led Her Highness to thrive both in sports and in her studies. As a teenager, she fell in love with martial arts, first attending kung fu lessons with her sisters, and later achieving a taekwondo black belt. School was also navigated with method and commitment, even during times when the will was not there. “I was academic in school, but I don’t think anybody really enjoys it,” the princess chuckles. “It was a lot of hard work and I wanted to do well. My father always reminded us that ‘we should be number one,’ so we have that built in our essence. Whatever I did, I did 100%. I also grew up in a family of big achievers, with a sister and cousins who are Olympic champions, who brought many medals back to the UAE. I have been influenced by this kind of environment, and this gives you the confidence that you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”
Sheikha Latifa often mentions her father, making clear that His Highness “is and always will be” her biggest inspiration. But there are other people in the Al Maktoum family who deeply inspire the leader’s life, especially her female relatives. “I grew up surrounded by amazing and strong women in my family; my mother and my aunts, who devote their lives to serving Dubai and its people and have a very strong sense of duty,” she tells me. “Even if back then they were not in the media or in the public eye, people knew who they were. They still do. Growing up, they’ve set the bar high. Today, my unwavering dedication to the success of my city and my country is greatly influenced by the dedication I witness through them.”
These important figures and their sense of mission toward the emirate were fundamental not only to build Her Highness’s individuality, but to organically lead Sheikha Latifa to become one of the few women from the Al Maktoum family to choose to be in the public eye, and with an official government role. “I always knew I was going to give back to the community, and circumstances and opportunities brought me where I am today, within the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority.” After the Sheikha graduated with a degree in business sciences specialized in marketing from Zayed University, she interned at Dubai Holding, before joining Dubai Culture in 2008, upon its launch. Her first job: research analyst, the lowest grade on the government scale back then. Working her way up through the years, she took over as Chairperson in 2020. “Today I don’t see myself doing anything else. I’m proud of what I do and I don’t see it as work. It’s passion, dedication, it’s my life. I found my purpose in the happiness of the people of Dubai and nurturing and supporting the cultural and creative scene of Dubai.”
As the conversation flows, we move into debating the evergrowing role of Arab women, and the foreign misapprehensions that often try to jeopardize the emirate’s efforts for equality. Her Highness responds calmly but assertively, explaining that it takes little research to look at the topic through a fair lens. “There are a lot of misconceptions about our rights, but I always invite people to come to Dubai and see the reality for themselves. We have legislation in place that supports equal salaries and opportunities for men and women, and many of our most important positions, from ministries to projects such as Expo 2020, are led by women. The same happens in the private sector, with women heading major companies and sitting on the highest boards.” Something that, for Dubai, is not new, Her Highness adds. “The notion of female empowerment isn’t new to the UAE or to the region. Throughout history we have seen examples of leading, prominent, brave, and very intelligent Arab women, and we grew up learning about and appreciating these figures. Also, if you think of the old days, when Dubai used to rely on the pearl trade, women held the fort; managing the household, taking care of businesses, and raising their children while their husbands, fathers, and brothers were away at sea for months on end. Dubai always respected women for their role; encouraging and supporting them.”
Encouragement and support of the cultural landscape are also Sheikha Latifa’s key mandates as Chairperson of Dubai Culture, a role she took six months before Covid changed the world, putting her initial leadership to the test. But even during the pandemic, work was intense and productive, resulting in policies that aim to ensure Dubai remains a hub for culture in the region and the world, where heritage, arts, and literature are seen as sectors with real impact in the emirate’s economy. Besides the development of key events such as Art Dubai, Downtown Design, and the SIKKA Art Fair, among others, the city also aims to offer a sustainable ecosystem where it is “easy for artists to set up, operate, sell, and promote their work.” One of the most revolutionary projects under Sheikha Latifa’s leadership is the initiative of the 10-year cultural residence visa, the first of its kind in the world. A project that, once again, Her Highness says reflects the fundamental principles of the city, that now hosts more than 190 nationalities. “People from Dubai have a saying: ‘Dubai is blessed.’ This is because of the way the leadership in Dubai intertwines the success of the city to that of its inhabitants and its ability to attract the best and the brightest. Ever since Dubai was a small fishing village along the creek, relying mainly on pearl diving and trade, my great grandfathers realized that if traders brought their businesses to Dubai and operated here, the economy would benefit, and so would the people. So they called upon traders interested in setting up shop on the banks of the creek and gave them land on which to build their businesses. This view continued with my grandfather, and now with my father. We have a strong belief that when people succeed, everyone benefits. When someone does well my father always celebrates their success stories, whether they are Emirati or a resident who calls Dubai home.”
Outside the office, Her Highness also leads a busy life, having two small children – three-year-old son Mohammed and ninemonth- old daughter Sheikha, with her husband, HH Sheikh Faisal Bin Saud Al Qassimi, whom she married in 2016. When I ask if she’s always dreamed of having a big family, the answer reveals the more practical woman, with a sharp sense of humor: “When I was a girl, I was dreaming of getting a black belt and having a career,” she laughs. “Today, I believe that motherhood is the most important and significant thing I have ever done in my life. Being a mother gives you skills and abilities you never knew you had and makes you a stronger person. It made me much more efficient. Mothers are not focused; they are laser focused. We get things done.”
We are now on the rooftop of the historical building selected by Her Highness for this photo shoot for its important meaning, as the Al Shindagha Historical Neighborhood is deeply rooted in the DNA of Dubai. Her Highness is posing with Dubai Creek as a backdrop, facing the twinkling lights of the city that, in only 50 years, turned sand into one of the most futuristic and record-breaking places in the world. I’m curious to know if the royal – even as someone who is an active part of the daily transformation of Dubai – sometimes feels struck with what has been achieved in so little time, and, as an Emirati, what she is most thankful for. “I get that feeling often, but it’s a reminder of how our forefathers persevered and worked very hard for our nation to progress into what it is today. So it is imperative for us to continue what they have started and build on their noble pursuit, fulfilling the reality they worked so hard for their grandchildren to witness,” she says. “As an Emirati, I am grateful that happiness is a key pillar of our country; I am grateful for the wisdom of our leadership; I am grateful that my children will be able to achieve anything they set their minds to; and I’m grateful to be living in such a multicultural society,” she adds. “This doesn’t happen often around the world. Dubai is a place where people from all over the world come to live and work, knowing that they will retain their cultural identities and be respected for it. It is a place where you do not need to leave your culture, traditions, and language behind and blend into the culture of the land to be accepted; you are celebrated for who you are and where you come from. I wouldn’t replace Dubai’s approach to multiculturalism for anything else. It has shaped me.”
Originally published in the September 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia