x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Maryam bin Fahad: 'Princess' dreams of silver screens

Profile: Renowned for a hands-on, swift and efficient approach to her work, the head of the Dubai Press Club has already come a long way in a short time. And with youth still on her side, she has plenty of time yet to fulfil her ambitions.

Illustration by Chris Burke for The National
Illustration by Chris Burke for The National

When Maryam bin Fahad left Dubai to study in the United Kingdom, she had no idea she would arrive as a princess.

Aged just 21, Ms Fahad - who is now the executive director of the Dubai Press Club (DPC) - took the bold move of leaving her family home to study film in the northern English city of Leeds.

It is probably fair to say that, in a British city not particularly renowned for its glamour, it does not take much to pull off the "princess" look.

But despite declaring her lack of royal credentials, Ms Fahad's fellow students in Leeds were convinced she was of blue blood. And so, a nickname was born.

"It was 'Princess Dubai' every time they saw me, even though I said so many times that I'm just an ordinary person," the young Emirati said this month of her university days.

Admittedly, this was in 2002, and Saudi Arabia was then ruled by the late King Fahd. This did not help clear up any misconceptions about Ms Fahad's status.

"I kept showing them the map and saying 'Dubai is here, Saudi Arabia is here'. And they said 'no, we know it'," she said.

Ten years later, Ms Fahad has done her former peers proud.

The 31-year-old last week appeared on stage at the Arab Media Forum, giving an address to a packed audience - with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, sitting at the front.

For while she is still a commoner, Ms Fahad has certainly earned herself a lofty position in the Arab world's media industry.

She oversees the DPC, which is part of Sheikh Mohammed's Government of Dubai Media Office.

For much of the year, the club ticks along quietly, arranging occasional talks, assisting its 700-plus members, or putting on training courses.

But over a few insanely busy days each spring, the DPC puts on its two flagship events - the Arab Media Forum and associated journalism awards - as well as publishing the weighty, 128-page Arab Media Outlook.

The two-day forum held this month attracted hundreds of delegates, with media figures flown in from across the region to discuss the hot topics of the day: press freedom, the Arab Spring and the rise of technology.

It is something of a surprise, then, that Ms Fahad had time to meet for an interview just before the two-day event, given the demands involved in arranging it.

But it seems Ms Fahad's preparations for the media forum - which started on May 8 - were completed early.

"I'm a very fast person in terms of work, and I hate to delay things. If I ask for something, I'll come in five minutes and ask for it again and again," she said.

Ms Fahad was sitting in her office at the Dubai World Trade Centre, dressed in an abaya with purple-edged sleeves. Images of Sheikh Mohammed adorned the walls, and an Arabic teapot stood on her desk.

About 15 people work at the DPC - although scores of part-time staff help out during the media forum itself. Ms Fahad's favourite exercise is speed-walking - and it seems this is matched, in the office, by speed-working. She said her staff can find it difficult to keep up.

"They find me a really fast person. Sometimes they say 'we cannot run after you'," she said. "This is what they find difficult to deal with. But I make sure that they enjoy what they do, and I hope they are enjoying what they do."

A business associate who has known Ms Fahad for several years acknowledged her "hands-on" approach at work. But "she has a good management style - she's never authoritarian," he said.

Despite not being quite a princess, you cannot call Ms Fahad's beginnings humble. She grew up in Dubai's affluent Jumeirah, a low-rise district of plush villas and lush lawns.

Not all Emirati women get the chance to leave the family home to study abroad, she pointed out. "It was not easy for me to convince my family," she said. "It's a cultural thing that they have always felt that they are responsible, especially when it comes to females."

However, her father agreed to let her move to Leeds, partly because of her good grades at college and a scholarship granted to her by the UAE Government.

"He was very supportive," she said. "I think the community has changed now. They're more open. They've seen good examples of people going overseas and coming back with a good education."

And so, Ms Fahad found herself in Leeds, where she earned both the "Princess Dubai" nickname and the strength to deal with life's challenges head-on.

She was the only Arab at the college, and despite the odd stereotype being thrown around, she got on well with her fellow students, she said.

"They assumed that I came from a royal, rich family. But they were really nice people," she said of her peers. "The questions they were raising were not offensive at all - it was something that we really have to answer. It was because of curiosity."

But speaking to her fellow students in the UK, Ms Fahad witnessed first-hand the misconceptions that many people have about the Arab world.

"They didn't know much about our region. And at that time it was the Iraq war. And what they saw and heard was all war, war. They didn't know that there was a good place like the UAE," she said. "Media played a big role in exposing us in a wrong way. And by being there, I felt I was an ambassador for my country, I had to project the right image."

Upon returning to the UAE, Ms Fahad worked briefly in the TV industry, but said she did not enjoy this because it "blocks creativity".

Before joining the DPC in 2005, she won an award at the Emirates Film Competition for a short film she made called Lifeless.

She described film as her true passion - and added that her current job organising the annual Arab Media Forum requires many of the organisational skills of a director.

"In the press club, I love what I do," said Ms Fahad. "I got to know industry leaders, authors, economists, the people who are well known in the industry."

One of the authors she got to meet was the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh, who spoke at the Arab Media Forum in 2009.

Mr Hersh delivered both a keynote speech - and another misconception about Ms Fahad.

The American journalist had to check Ms Fahad's name tag upon meeting her - because he had assumed she was much older, having spoken with her on the phone.

As Ms Fahad explains: "He said 'I can't believe it. I always thought you were an old lady. [But] you're a kid'. And I said 'no, I'm not a kid. But this is Dubai and everything is fresh and young'."

Ms Fahad says her own position at the DPC - and people's assumptions about her age - informed her own outlook on the young people who help out at the Arab Media Forum.

"I don't know why people assume that if you're managing such a thing, you should be 40-plus," she said.

"I never look at the young people now and say 'no, they cannot do it'. They can do it, as long as we give them the right direction."

Ms Fahad still has a number of years before she hits 40. And she has not yet realised her big ambition: to make a full-fledged film.

"I have a few scripts that I have written, but I haven't had the chance to film or shoot," she says.

But she cannot say for sure whether her career will take this turn, or another, unexpected move.

With youth on her side, and having already proved so many people wrong, one suspects Ms Fahad will unfailingly pick the right path.

bflanagan@thenational.ae

twitter: Follow and share our breaking business news. Follow us

iPad users can follow our twitterfeed via Flipboard - just search for Ind_Insights on the app.