06 Nov 2016

HRH Princess Haya Gives Keynote at The Global Crisis of Obesity Summit in Dubai

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


Good morning and welcome to Dubai. I am deeply honoured to be opening this crucially important summit.

Among you are scientists, academics, Government officials, healthcare providers, CEOs of public and private institutions. You are global influencers from a variety of sectors.

You have gathered here in the Emirate of Dubai to explore how best to tackle one of the most pressing issues affecting our society today: obesity, and obesity-related diseases, namely diabetes.

You have much in common, and you are all eminent in your fields. My hope is that you will learn from each other, but not only as scientists and experts. My hope is that you will bring your greatest and most deeply felt humanity to the fore.

Although I just talked about obesity and obesity-related diseases as “societal” issues, they are, far more importantly, deeply personal, human issues. Issues which require a deeply personal, human response. Striking a balance between science and compassion is perhaps the greatest challenge you will face.

You have come here to Dubai today to explore a problem that affects the four corners of the globe. You are here to meaningfully build on the wealth of existing knowledge, expertise and experience, and to challenge preconceptions.

I know you bring the open, curious, compassionate minds that drove you into healthcare in the first place.

I do not need to tell you that, across the world, obesity and its associated diseases have reached crisis proportions. In 2014, the World Health Organization estimated that there are nearly two billion adults overweight, a third of whom are obese.

But people are not statistics. And the burden carried by overweight and obese individuals and their families cannot be easily measured.

Allow me to introduce you to a gentleman by the name of Kevin, who has graciously permitted me to share his story.

Kevin and his family furnished me with some very hard-hitting questions about the emotions that someone like him can sometimes stir amongst those who interact with and care for them.

I am sure you can imagine how those emotions might inform the way people communicate with Kevin. The way in which people cared for him, the way in which businesses interact with him.

Would it surprise you if I were to tell you that, from Kevin’s perspective, nobody beyond his immediate family cares about him? That, from his mother’s perspective, the moment he transitioned from paediatric to adult medicine, nobody wanted to know?

That Kevin has been turned away from major European hospitals and refused care for complications associated with his condition because there is “nothing we can do for someone like you”? Shameful, isn’t it?

Countless medical professionals around the world have poured thinly veiled scorn on both Kevin and his family. Fitness clubs will not allow him to use their facilities. Airlines have refused to carry him, thereby making it almost impossible for Kevin to access the specialist care he desperately needs.

After being taken to a succession of hospitals via ambulance on a single day, and turned away by each before returning home, twenty-five-year-old Kevin confided in his mother that, if anything serious happens to him, he feels certain he will be left to die in his bed. No matter who his mother calls, he is not confident that he will receive the medical attention he needs. “Nobody wants to know me,” he said.

Kevin’s mother went a step further when she told me that, “He has become an enemy to everybody because of his weight. Kevin embodies their fears. But he is not alone. All obese people do.”

I will let that sink in for a moment. “He embodies our fears.”

Perhaps you think that it is time that Kevin did something to help himself? I feel duty-bound to tell you that in fact, a rare hormonal condition is at the root of Kevin’s obesity, the onset of which began when he was only six months old.

At 12 years old, he was the youngest ever patient to receive gastric bypass surgery at the Mayo Clinic.

Kevin’s situation, therefore, is perhaps an anomaly in so far as a rare medical situation underpins his weight. But what complex factors underpin the condition for other sufferers of obesity, and, what level of research funding would give us some real answers? Until those answers are found, are we doing people a disservice by calling obesity a ‘lifestyle disease’?

Are any obese individuals less worthy of your compassion than Kevin?

This is not a comfortable conversation, is it? The important ones never are.

It would be far easier for me to stand up here and talk statistics, to talk about society rather than individuals; to talk about trends rather than truths.

But I want to ask you a question today, a question that we would need to each look deep inside ourselves to answer.

Is it possible that the medical profession, the industry, indeed the world’s stigmatisation of obesity, and associated negative judgements which percolate through to patient interactions, and perhaps even to policies and treatment protocols, are feeding the problem?

We have come so far, in recent years, in de-stigmatising mental health issues. Is it perhaps time that we did the same for obesity and its associated, so-called ‘lifestyle’ diseases?

Is it time for a paradigm shift away from shame and disdain?

You in this room today know better than anyone just how urgent the problem is.

You will all be aware of the dire predictions which suggest that by 2025, one in every five adults will be obese. Given the plethora of obesity-associated diseases, from hypertension to heart disease, from cancer to diabetes, this represents nothing short of a crisis, and the name of this summit reflects that.

Sadly, the UAE is an appropriate host for the Economist Events’ inaugural Global Crisis of Obesity Summit for more than one reason. Of course, we are an unparalleled venue for such a gathering. But, more importantly, this topic is painfully relevant here because, in our region, it is estimated that up to 75% of adults are overweight or obese.

Furthermore, the Gulf region accounts for 10% of diabetic sufferers worldwide.

We in the Gulf take these statistics very seriously. We know that we are not alone in this fight, and we take some small comfort in the notion that we are probably in a relatively strong position compared to other countries in terms of being able to rise to the challenge.

In England, the department of health estimates that illnesses associated with lifestyle cost the NHS £11billion a year. Unless health problems related to poor diet, drinking and smoking are tackled more effectively, the NHS, once considered the envy of the world, will be unaffordable. Already, four out of every ten middle-aged people have a long-term condition such as diabetes or bronchitis, for which there is no cure.

To reduce the incidence of lifestyle-related diseases, the challenge, for the vast majority of cases, will be in helping people to change their lifestyles.

But I am standing before such an eminent group of experts, not as a medical professional, but as a human being. And the reason that I dare to stand here and speak to you so passionately is that this is more than just a medical issue.

As Kevin has shown us, it is also a social, very personal, individual and familial issue that public policy alone cannot remedy. It is complex. It requires a multi-faceted approach. We all know that overcoming damaging lifestyle habits is not easy; behaviours are often ingrained and can be difficult to change.

Of course, the importance of instilling healthy habits at an early age cannot be over-emphasised. A shift in thinking toward “what is keeping me well” rather than simply “what is making me ill” could yield benefits.

Our youth have the luxury of choice, and we need to guide them in making healthy choices. Choose to extend life, watch their children grow older and create a better world for them. While obesity can take off eight years of life due to diabetes and cardiovascular disease, increased leisure activity adds four and a half years to life expectancy. But having a choice comes with responsibility and being accountable for the choices we make. We must not forget that health, while it is a right, is also a privilege. It is up to us to treat it carefully, wisely and proactively.

Making the healthy choice is sometimes hard. We must teach our youth to make the healthy choices and not the easy ones. However, we need to make it easier to do that.

In the UAE, we hope that initiatives for Health, Physical Education and Sport in our schools will have a profound impact on future generations not just in terms of health and wellbeing but also in terms of economic and social impact.

We have a great example in Dubai in His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is a world champion long-distance horse rider, riding over a hundred miles in a single day. His Highness cycles not less than 30 kilometres per week and walks between 5 and 10 kilometres per day. But more importantly, He is very vocal in advocating this lifestyle to young people across our country, who take inspiration from His example.

The Dubai Sports Council initiated a 2021 strategy which aims to engage the community by providing activities they wish to participate in, particularly youth, and seeking their input on what they would like Dubai to offer.

In 2013, the Road & Transport Authority completed a 104km cycling track, as part of an 850km masterplan, further lengthened just last year with more to come. See, while we are already known to strive for quality in business and tourism, we also strive for building a healthy community for our people.

In addition to providing better facilities to encourage an active lifestyle, such as bicycle tracks, sports facilities and leisure parks, we need to work together with the food and drink industry to make healthy food readily available at affordable prices. This is unlikely to be achieved by legislation alone, but more with partnerships between the food and drink industry, healthcare professionals, media companies and governments.

And speaking of the food and drink industry, we cannot continue to ignore the correlation between the availability of fast food and the rise in obesity. Perhaps we need to call on the food and drink industry to take some responsibility for the problem and look at what they offer?

The UAE is proud to bring all of you together to identify the challenges and seize the opportunity to achieve the United Nations goal of halting the increase in obesity by 2025. We are keen to assert a leadership role in raising awareness and education at all levels. We must drive the most proactive and effective approaches towards obesity and diabetes mitigation and management with the ultimate aim to affect real behavioural change. We can then improve the health outcomes of millions of people in the future.

In Victorian times, your forefathers worried about diphtheria and polio, which have now been conquered.  Today, we have obesity and obesity-related diseases to deal with. So, please be brave in your thinking and exploring, and courageous in the humanity you bring to the table. This problem needs radical and fast action, and it starts with you, and with your willingness to understand just how complex it is.

I would like to leave you with some final thoughts from Kevin’s mother, Christina. She said,

‘It is so hard to be obese. No illness is good, but obesity is like having leprosy. I sometimes feel like it would be easier to have cancer.’

It is time for a new era, in which stigma is not part of the problem, and in which innovative and human-based solutions come together for long-term change.

I very much look forward to hearing the outcomes of your conversations.

Thank you.