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Exclusive Interview with Sheikha Bodour Bint Sultan Al Qasimi, leading Sharjah to New Horizons

News March 20, 2024

Sharjah stands proud today for its distinctive appeal as the cultural capital of the United Arab Emirates. However, apart from its rich heritage and cultural offers, the emirate is also undergoing massive transformations. These transformations will turn it into a thriving hub for innovation, entrepreneurship and sustainability. Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi shares insightful narratives about Sharjah’s past. She also talks about how it is transitioning to become a city of the future, one that is deeply rooted in its traditions.

Sharjah has experienced remarkable growth and diversification under your leadership. What are the key strategies you have implemented at Shurooq to achieve this?

Sharjah’s remarkable growth and diversification stems from the vision of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah. His vision is to create a people-centric, sustainable and culturally vibrant city.

His vision is to create a people-centric, sustainable and culturally vibrant city. Our focus is on creating authentic experiences that seamlessly blend heritage and progress. This is evident in the multibillion-dirham projects that exist, spanning multiple sectors. From family destinations and arts and cultural centers to eco-tourism initiatives and iconic hotel projects, we have helped position Sharjah as a leading regional player.

On the cultural front, Shurooq leads projects such as the House of Wisdom, the Maraya Art Centre and 1971 Design Space. These showcase our commitment to the arts and the promotion of dialogue. On the economic front, we have established the Sharjah FDI Office and the Investors Services Center. This is to attract foreign investment and promote a business-friendly environment. Sustainability continues to be a cornerstone of our vision, as exemplified by Sharjah Sustainable City – a mixed-use net zero city. We also continue diversifying our economy with exciting projects such as Nomad, LUX* Resorts and Kalba Waterfront Mall.

Gender balance is also a priority, as it empowers Emirati women to lead and influence. Our workforce is now 45 percent female. It reflects our efforts to create an inclusive environment that supports and encourages female leadership. This commitment is in line with national targets for gender equality and emphasizes Shurooq’s role in helping promote sustainable development in Sharjah.

Women’s economic participation is vital for the success of any society. What specific programs or policies has Sheraa implemented to empower female entrepreneurs in Sharjah?
Since its inception in 2016, Sheraa has been committed to empowering women entrepreneurs in Sharjah and beyond. Recognizing the potential of women-led businesses for sustainable development, we have built a thriving ecosystem. It’s an ecosystem that focuses on accessibility, education and community support. More than 52 percent of the 170+ start-ups have been founded or co-founded by women, particularly in sectors, such as sustainability, education and the creative industries.

Sheraa focuses on access to resources and education. Our online platform also enables women with limited mobility to develop entrepreneurial skills at their own pace. Innovation centers at universities provide early-stage guidance and mentoring for budding female entrepreneurs. In addition, Sheraa tackles the funding gap by ensuring equal access to opportunities. It also provides in-depth counseling and coaching. This has resulted in 42 percent of startups in the portfolio, with female co-founders receiving VC funding. It’s a figure that is above the global average.

Strategic partnerships also play a crucial role in Sheraa’s success. By working with organizations such as Meta, the Sharjah Businesswomen Council and Project Hama, women entrepreneurs gain access to workshops, tailored services, mentoring and business transformation support. Sheraa also actively supports the local SME community, where almost half of businesses are run by women. It provides mentoring, events, market access and networking opportunities.

Building a supportive community is central to Sheraa’s mission. Our annual Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival brings together women entrepreneurs with investors, government officials and industry leaders to inspire and network. In addition, a robust group of experienced female entrepreneurs serve as mentors to guide and support the next generation.

As a woman in a prominent leadership role, what challenges and opportunities have you encountered. How do you hope to inspire other women to pursue leadership positions?
Reflecting on my personal journey, I have come to realize that the essence of overcoming challenges lies in recognizing the inherent opportunities within them. It is not always an easy choice. But maintaining patience and focus has enabled me to discover the silver lining amid adversity. The hurdles I have encountered align with the experiences of many working mothers. Striking the right balance between professional and personal commitments is both an art and a science. And it is influenced by the dynamics at home and the policies and practices in the workplace.

My challenges have been further complicated by the intricacies of identity-related issues on the global stage. Being a Muslim and an Arab woman comes with a fair share of stereotyping and misunderstanding. This often leads to frustration. While undoubtedly difficult, these moments have provided unique platforms for me to showcase different facets of our culture and society to a worldwide audience, transforming each encounter into an opportunity for education and bridge-building.

My career story is a winding roadmap. It’s a testament to the determination and perseverance needed to carve one’s own path. Challenges have been my teachers, not roadblocks, propelling me forward, strengthening my resolve and fostering personal growth. To all women aspiring to lead, I encourage you to embrace the twists and turns with courage. Shape your own destiny, face obstacles with bravery and seize every opportunity to make a positive impact. The path to leadership is undoubtedly complex yet filled with potential. Let us leave our own inspiring marks for future generations to follow. By staying true to our ambitions and embracing the journey, we can create a legacy of empowerment and progress.

You wear many hats across various sectors, from education and research to entrepreneurship and culture. How do you balance these diverse responsibilities? How do you maintain a holistic vision for Sharjah’s development?
The essence of balancing these diverse responsibilities lies in my deeply rooted commitment to a holistic vision for Sharjah’s development. This is guided by the vision of His Highness and by the values of innovation, inclusivity and sustainability.

I am a firm believer in the saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” This philosophy underscores my strong belief in the power of teamwork and collaboration. No individual, no matter how visionary, can create lasting impact alone. That’s why my approach has always centered around building and nurturing strong teams that value cohesion, collaboration, mutual respect and a shared vision. It entails actively seeking out and retaining passionate individuals who bring deep expertise in their respective fields and align with your vision. It also involves fostering a culture of curiosity and openness, encouraging the exploration of diverse perspectives.

Once the right team is in place, dynamic, adaptable and humble leadership becomes essential. It is crucial to respond to the evolving landscapes of each sector while remaining steadfast in the pursuit of the overarching vision for Sharjah. This necessitates close collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders. This includes educators, researchers, entrepreneurs, policy makers and cultural practitioners. By actively engaging different perspectives and leveraging their expertise, we can effectively advance shared goals and achieve significant progress. This collaborative approach ensures that we remain responsive to the needs of our community while also fostering innovation and driving positive change.

His Highness Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi emphasizes the significance of reading and knowledge as the best means for progress and welfare. How has this philosophy influenced your strategic vision when you were the president of the International Publishers Association?
His Highness’ unwavering emphasis on the importance of reading and knowledge has profoundly influenced both my personal and professional journey, just as it has for countless generations in Sharjah and the UAE. From my early years, his philosophy has shaped my career trajectory. It highlights the transformative power of accessible knowledge and underscores the vital role that publishers play in its dissemination for the betterment of society. This profound influence has fueled my passion for fostering a culture of learning, innovation and intellectual growth, as I strive to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and social progress.

During my tenure as both president and vice president of the IPA, my primary objective revolved around the promotion of reading and the unwavering support of publishers in their noble mission. For example, I actively engaged in advocating for reading and publishing across numerous African nations. I acknowledge their aspirations for national progress and the indispensable role of knowledge in attaining these goals. By bolstering the publishing industry in these regions, we have successfully enhanced access to local information and knowledge, consequently amplifying its profound societal influence.

What specific lessons or insights have you incorporated into your leadership approach to contribute to the progress of the publishing industry?
Inspired by the enduring vision, patience, perseverance and continuity demonstrated by His Highness, I have consistently strived to integrate these fundamental leadership qualities into my endeavors. Establishing a robust national reading culture is no easy feat, particularly in the midst of a heavily entertainment-driven environment that prevails today. It demands a steadfast, long-term commitment akin to running a marathon rather than a sprint. This endeavor necessitates the foresight to chart a clear course, the resilience to confront and overcome challenges, and the adaptability to navigate unexpected detours. And these are all qualities that His Highness exemplifies. By embracing these values, we empower ourselves to persist in our mission, ensuring that our efforts flourish and cultivate a lasting love for reading that supports our nation-building endeavors and resonates for generations to come.

With the rapid integration of technology, AI and algorithms on digital platforms, the landscape of publishing has undergone significant transformations. How do you perceive the role of publishing in today’s digital age? What measures do you believe are essential to preserve the authenticity and integrity of written content in the face of technological advancements?
The publishing industry is at a crossroads, challenged and empowered by the rise of AI and advanced technologies. This is a pivotal moment to reinvent and adapt to meet the evolving needs of readers, now and in the future. AI offers more than just automation; it opens up previously unimaginable opportunities to improve the creation, distribution and consumption of content.

However, amid this transformation, safeguarding authenticity and integrity is crucial. Rigorous fact-checking, transparency about AI involvement and human oversight in curation are important elements against misinformation and for maintaining the trust of readers. Supporting original content and promoting media literacy further strengthens the ecosystem of trusted information. By embracing these evolving roles and adhering to ethical practices, publishers can not only thrive but also ensure that the written word remains a beacon of truth.

Publishers around the world know that I am a passionate advocate of global collaboration between publishers, and at this stage, collaboration is the key to navigating these complexities. Sharing insights, strategies and best practices through open dialogue fosters a shared vision that addresses both opportunities and challenges. This not only helps to anticipate future trends. It also creates industry-wide standards that prioritize the quality and integrity of content. This collective commitment to providing high-quality, trustworthy content ensures that the digital age of publishing will continue to enrich and inspire readers around the world.

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for Sharjah’s future? What do you hope to achieve in your different leadership positions to further enhance the emirate’s prosperity and global standing?
Rooted in a vision of sustainable growth and cultural enrichment, my aspirations for Sharjah encompass a multifaceted approach. Firstly, I aim to build upon the existing educational infrastructure, elevating it to world-class standards. By investing in education, we can empower future generations with the knowledge and skills necessary to thrive in an ever-evolving global landscape.

Furthermore, I am deeply committed to promoting economic diversification through the projects we create and manage in Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq). And, by fostering innovation and embracing continuous learning and improvement, we can create a dynamic environment that nurtures talent and encourages creativity. In particular, I am passionate about fostering and nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit of the youth in Sharjah and the UAE. Entrepreneurship serves as a vital engine of growth in the global economy. And by providing the right environment and support, we can enable our young people to invest their creativity and passion in ideas that have the potential to attract global investment. This will lead to job creation and economic resilience.

Culturally, I seek to deepen our engagement and dialogue with the world. Through showcasing Sharjah’s rich traditions and arts, we can encourage global conversations and dialogues that build bridges and dismantle walls. By promoting cultural exchange and understanding, we can foster mutual respect and appreciation while also preserving and celebrating our own heritage.