She lives in perhaps the most glittering place on earth, but as a child she dreamed of a green countryside with horses — a place she caught glimpses of in children's fiction.
She called it "horse heaven ... my escape and the place I dreamed of."
It is called Kentucky.
You might not yet know her name. But you will be hearing a lot more about her soon.
Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein — wife of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan — is the president of FEI, the international horse sport organization that oversees the World Equestrian Games that Lexington will host in 2010.
In September, Princess Haya came to Frankfort to receive the Henry Clay Award for outstanding service and leadership. She began her acceptance speech with a memory of being a frightened child in Amman, waiting for her father to come home and remembering the taunts of a fellow student who told her that King Hussein's plane would be shot down. Haya had lost her mother, Queen Alia, before she was 3, in a helicopter accident. She said that as a sleepless child she turned to an unusual source for consolation: the Black Stallion books, which she read and reread. The Walter Farley novels led her to the horse country of the United States that seemed millions of miles away from a palace in Amman.
A few months ago, she told an interviewer that while helicopters still rattle her, she's always right at home in one place — on the back of a horse.
When Princess Haya's name was first suggested for the Henry Clay award, notes D. Kay Clawson, president of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, some people didn't know who she was.
Here's who she is:
■ The first Arab woman to compete in equestrian events at Olympic, world and continental championship levels.
■ The first Arab to hold the presidency of the International Equestrian Federation.
■ The first Arab and the first woman to serve as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations World Food Program.
■ The owner of a horse, New Approach, that won the Epsom Derby in England in June. Her family's horse Raven's Pass won the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 25, upsetting Curlin.
The Henry Clay Memorial Foundation knew about Princess Haya's résumé and saw a parallel between a 21st-century princess and the 19th-century Kentucky statesman renowned for his brokering of legislative compromise.
Says Clawson: "She understands her wealth, her privilege, but that doesn't put her above the common person."
Expect Princess Haya to be on site for the 2010 games. And expect to see the woman who charmed the room at the Henry Clay award with a heartfelt appreciation of Kentucky to be right at home in her "horse heaven."
Said David Elsen, director of Lexington's High Street YMCA, who has previously worked with the royal family of Dubai: "She paid homage to Henry Clay, and to the award, but what you heard was a statesman."
"To me, being here is truly a moment in my life where I have to pinch myself and wonder if this is real," Princess Haya told the Henry Clay group. She spoke about horses and statesmanship, a combination that Henry Clay might have approved and later generations of Kentuckians could certainly appreciate.
As the princess said in an e-mail interview: "There is one language in Kentucky, and that is horse."
Athlete, truck driver
Princess Haya, 34, is a woman of contrasts. Born the year women received the right to vote in Jordan, she is a princess but also widely hailed as a rising leader on a number of issues. And she boasts a diverse skill set, including getting a truck-driving license because she wanted to learn to drive her own horses. (Says the princess: "When I was a kid, I told my father, 'When I grow up I want to become a king or a truck driver!' ")
Much of Princess Haya's formal education was in England — at the Badminton School for Girls in Bristol, Bryanston School in Dorset and finally at St. Hilda's College, Oxford University, where she graduated in 1995 with a degree in politics, philosophy and economics.
Before her marriage, the princess was active in Jordanian humanitarian work; she and her family had planned that Princess Haya would return to Jordan eventually and help develop the nation's sporting base. Now, married to someone who is perhaps as passionate about horses as she is, she has moved into a policy-making position where she can change horse sports internationally.
The photo on her official Web site — www.princesshaya.net — shows her dressed to rule in a tiara, but other photos show her toting a pet dog and holding her first child, 11-month-old Sheikha Al Jalila, on her shoulders while wearing jeans at the 2008 Olympics.
She is part of a new generation of female Arab leaders who work vigorously to demystify Arab lifestyles and battle anti-Arab discrimination, opening their culture to world scrutiny by acknowledging its differences but stressing its commonalities with the Western world.
When she received her recent award, Princess Haya spoke about how her husband, Sheikh Mohammed, builds bridges between East and West: "He would tell you it is with horses."
After her 2000 Olympics show-jumping appearance, she told an interviewer: "I do not 'ride' horses. When I sit on a horse's back, we are one — one heart, one mind, one aim."
Says John Long, chairman of the World Equestrian Games 2010 foundation: "You can see that this is a modern woman who is very comfortable in the traditional Arab world. She doesn't shun it. She isn't embarrassed by it. She celebrates it."
Princess Haya crusades on the platform that world-class athletic competition breaks down barriers. At the Beijing Olympics in August, she told CNN that sports "is absolutely fantastic, and I think it's a lot more powerful than politics, than talking, than rhetoric. I think sports really delivers."
Her ability to compete and to pave the way for others to compete is, she says, the legacy given her by her father, who broke barriers to let his horse-loving daughter become a world-class equestrian. It's a gift she hopes to give to others. She and Sheikh Mohammed recently launched Right to Play, a drive to make athletic training more widely available to Dubai's children.
And she is entirely serious about the need to modernize and improve horse sport.
Princess Haya engaged in a high-profile dispute with the FEI dressage committee — a group that has now resigned, with a new, reform-minded dressage task force appointed in its place. Charges flew that the committee was difficult to deal with, arbitrary in its judging and a detriment to the future of dressage. Princess Haya did not back down from her call for the committee's resignation, and has now won that skirmish. Last week Mariette Withages of Belgium, chairman of the FEI dressage committee, resigned, and the rest of her committee members followed.
"No one committee is bigger than the sport," Haya told officials from around 80 national horse sport associations at their annual convention earlier this month in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
A stake in the Bluegrass
While Princess Haya might not yet be a household name in the Bluegrass, it was less than three decades ago that her husband was unknown here. In the early '80s, the Dubai jet that parks at Blue Grass Airport during its Lexington visits was a sight that people would wander by the airport just to see: big, foreign and seemingly out of place just over the way from the legendary Calumet Farm.
Initially, the Dubai contingent didn't even have a regular hotel at which to stay, much less substantial holdings in Bluegrass acreage and a high-profile presence at the Keeneland horse sales.
That changed. Sheikh Mohammed is now a dominant presence at the sales, and his wife is an increasingly familiar presence in the Bluegrass.
Princess Haya says her favorite place in Kentucky is Keeneland, where her husband has spent tens of millions of dollars at the sales. Possibly the ultimate prize in horse racing, the Kentucky Derby, has so far eluded the couple. Still, Princess Haya says of the horse sales: "We don't always get it right, but we have great fun in trying."
Not winning the Kentucky Derby is a rare miss for Sheikh Mohammed's family: Dubai's building boom is the stuff of global awe.
For Americans, who tend to see the world through the lens of their car's gas tank, a Dubai economy that plans for a post-oil future can come as a surprise.
But Dubai is the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, and uniquely positioned to profit from the world's new trade template — the booming economies of Asia, India and the Middle East. The princess calls her husband "a true visionary."
Princess Haya's high profile is part of that vision — but her ability to shake the international foundations of dressage shows that she is also committed to far-reaching change.
"She's a hands-on president," says Long, chairman of the WEG 2010 foundation. "She doesn't see this as a ceremonial position."
The dressage committee dispute reflects that. Princess Haya has long worried about the appeal and safety of horse sports. Perhaps her most controversial quote, one that effectively framed the early debate on dressage and the future of horse sports, is: "Walking away and saying 'thank God nobody died' isn't good enough."
Possibly it was not her most tactful moment. Still, it signaled an unyielding commitment not only to broadening the appeal of horse sports, but making them safer and more accountable.
When Princess Haya makes up her mind, says Long, "You'd better get out of the way."
She acknowledges that she grew up privileged, but also that she experienced loss and saw people in need. And the princess grew up with a horse heaven in the back of her mind, a place she finally visited when her husband brought her here.
In a recent e-mail, she said: "I think your childhood dreams are often the ones that stay with you for a lifetime and that's certainly been the case for me. The only difference is that in Jordan I had been imagining the landscape and the architecture, but when I came I met the wonderful people of Kentucky and that made the whole picture so much more beautiful."
Princess Haya is unequivocal about what horses have meant to her, her family and her countries, both native and adopted.
"Horses and sport generally do far more for women in the Islamic world than politics ever could," the princess said in accepting the Henry Clay award.
"I did it through horses and as a result, girls all over the Middle East and the Gulf were encouraged to compete. When Western politicians were talking about freeing women from the veil, sports, and in my case, jumping, was doing just that."
Reach Cheryl Truman at (859) 231-3202 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3202.