To be a prince or princess in the Middle East today -- a sheikh or sheikha, as they're known in the Gulf -- means inheriting a country vastly different from the one where you were born. By some measures, cities like Dubai and Doha have seen a generation's worth of change within the past five years, with skyscrapers surging from the sand and oil wealth driving societies more at speed with New York than with old Arabia.
The current rulers of the region have set the exacting pace. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, has turned a sleepy port town into the aspiring business and bling capital of the Middle East. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi is spending billions to bring home the Louvre, the Guggenheim and New York University -- all institutions building outposts in Abu Dhabi.
In Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, who reigns over the world's third-largest natural gas reserve, is raising his country's profile as a diplomatic player and peacemaker. In the past year, Qatar, a close U.S. ally, has hosted Israel's Tzipi Livni and brokered a truce between the Lebanese government and its Hezbollah-led opposition.
The royal leaders of the Gulf are not purely ceremonial figures, as in most of Western Europe, but rather combine the role with a kind of CEO status: they serve as the top tier of governance, aided by able foreign and domestic technocrats. The CEO comparison is fitting, given that the engine of economies in most Gulf countries rests on companies that are fully or mostly state-owned, from oil-producing firms to real estate conglomerates building the region's mega-museums and seven-star hotels.
The rising sovereigns of the Arab world are pursuing the same social and economic development programs as their forebears, but their approach is vastly more globally integrated and externally oriented. Today's Abu Dhabi flexes its wealth through Mubadala, a powerhouse investment firm, and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the world's largest sovereign wealth fund at an estimated value of $875 billion. Those resources are driving initiatives like the Louvre and projects like Masdar, an attempt at the world's first zero-carbon city -- all profile raisers for the oil-rich emirate.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, already in his third decade as a government official, is pushing the city's economic growth and political engagement. In November President Bush hosted Mohammed at Camp David for the second time this year, a sign of America's close ties with the UAE.
It was also in part a credit to Mohammed for rebuilding ties between Iraq and the Arab world, while other Sunni Arab states maintained chilled relations with Iraq's Shiite-led government. Mohammed, a graduate of England's Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, was among the first Arab leaders to visit post-war Iraq and to announce the reopening of an Embassy in Baghdad.
In neighboring Dubai, the much younger Crown Prince Hamdan of Dubai is emerging as a public figure who's part executive, part poet and part pinup model. The handsome prince, ranked sixth on Forbes' list of hottest royals, goes by the nickname "Fazaa" -- "the courageous," in local Arabic -- and has a Web site that features his photos and writings (http://www.fazza3.com). His face graces billboards, mousepads and birthday cakes.