He has long been fascinated by the culture and art of the Middle East, and now the Prince of Wales is taking his interest to a new level by having lessons in Arabic, it emerged today.
The Prince modestly told guests at a reception in Qatar that the language “goes in one ear and out the other”, but an aide disclosed that he is so keen to learn it that he has been having private tuition for more than six months.
Understanding Arabic would enable the Prince, who is passionate about encouraging dialogue between different religions, to read the Koran in its original form.
It would also mean he could decipher Arabic script during visits to mosques and museums of Islamic art.
The Prince attending the launch of the Qatar-UK Alumni Network
The Prince was in Doha attending the launch of the Qatar-UK Alumni Network, for Qataris who have attended British universities, when he told a group of guests: “You all speak such good English.”
Dr Mohammed Bin Saleh Al-Sada, chairman of the association and Qatar’s energy minister, asked the Prince if he spoke any Arabic, and the Prince said: “I tried to learn it once but I gave up. It goes in one ear and out the other.”
Dr Al-Sada told him: “It’s never too late to learn.”
Later, one of the Prince’s aides confirmed that he has been having lessons in Arabic recently, adding: “He is enormously interested in the region.”
The Prince speaks good French, some German, and has also had lessons in Welsh.
All of the women at the reception were dressed head to toe in black, wearing a traditional shaila on their head and an abayya covering their body.
The Prince asked Dnya Al-Yahri, a 28-year-old Essex University graduate, “Did you dress like that [in the UK]?”
She replied: “No.” The IT worker later said she and other Qatari women wore western clothes, with a headscarf covering their head, when they were students.
All of the men in the room wore a traditional white thobe from neck to foot, with a ghitra on their head secured by a band called an igul.
Later the Prince had a private audience with Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the second wife and official consort of the Emir of Qatar, who is regarded as the power behind the throne in the oil-rich state.
She is the head of the Qatar Foundation, which works to improve education, science and community development in the country, and which is perhaps best known as the sponsor of Barcelona FC.
Meanwhile the Duchess met a group of Bedouin women who work for Vodafone selling mobile phones.
Because the women are forbidden by their husbands to talk to strangers, they can only sell phones to people within their tribe, but the tribes are large enough to make it worthwhile for Vodafone to employ the 21-strong women-only Al Johara sales force.
The Duchess sat down with a group of the women, who were dressed from head to foot in black abayas and veils, with only their eyes visible, in a replica bedouin tent at Doha’s Science and Technology Park.
The women explained that they are barred from talking or socialising with men who are not immediate family and, until their jobs took off, never even had the chance to socialise with other women.
They are trained to go out into their communities and sell phones as well as tariffs and pre-paid airtime. Many Qatari Bedouins own three or four mobile phones.
One woman, Safia, told the Duchess that she was 42 and had nine children and six grand-children and feared she was too old to work.
‘I was so pleased when they agreed to train me,” she said. “My husband was not happy at first but he has warmed up now, especially as we now live in a big house and have bought our children cars.
“The family gather at our house on Thursdays and Fridays and I sell to them then. All of the men are actually proud now.”
Susie Kelt, founder and head of the Al Johara project, explained that Safia couldn’t read or write but had become one of their top saleswomen.
“She is remarkable,” she later explained. “These women lead very, very traditional lives and their husbands were almost universally against them at first but have been won over by the difference they have seen their wives make to their lives.”
The Duchess appeared hugely impressed by their achievements.
She said: “Well I think you are all really brilliant – I don’t know how you manage it, especially with all those husbands and children. I can see how your confidence has rocketed.”
Richard Daly, chief executive of Vodafone Qatar, said the project was set up to reach the poorer parts of Qatari society that a multinational could not normally reach. “It’s not corporate social responsibility. It’s business, ” he said.
“We are talking about people living in poverty. These people want to earn some money and we want to get into society.
“They may not know what Vodafone is, but they want a mobile phone.”
First the company had to overcome the suspicion of the women’s communities that they would not offend traditional Qatari values.
“They come to us with the blessing of their families, who scrutinise us hard to make sure we don’t offend their religious and traditional beliefs,” he said.
“This has taken traditional Bedouin women out of their society and allowed them to earn an income which has changed their lives. Some of these girls have moved from living in a one bedroom flat with three children into a three bedroom flat.
“We have taught them how to become businesswomen. They buy and sell. They make a margin.
“The volume that they sell makes a difference to us. It is a good thing to do which is profitable. There are not many times you can say that.”