A beautiful, educated, British-born fashionista was once the apple of the international media's eye. Deemed the glamorous "'rose in the desert"' by Vogue, and regarded as the modern-day Princess Diana of the Middle East, First Lady Asma al-Assad (above right) was the glimmer of hope for progression, perhaps even democracy, in the government of Syria. That is before she stood silently by the President's side as he called for a bloody crackdown of protests in March 2011.

Since her marriage to Bashar al-Assad in 2000, the former banker became an eager advocate for women's rights and education. The 36-year-old founded an NGO to fund children's educational and cultural facilities, was a frequent visitor of orphanages, approved the first independent magazine in Syria, and encouraged youth to take on civil responsibility. These ideas were inspired by her upbringing in London. Though her parents are Syrian, Sunni Muslims, she was raised in Western traditions and worked at JP Morgan before her marriage to Assad. Needless to say, Asma is not what comes to mind when you think of a Syrian dictator's wife.

As the death toll in Syria continues to rise to over 17,000 people as a result of the war between the army and rebels, instead of standing up against the violence as many people thought and waited for her to do, Asma has said nothing. Instead, leaked emails show that she spent over €270,000 to furnish one of the presidential palaces in what is being called "retail therapy."

If Asma hoped to stay silent, this shopping spree didn't help. Media critics have renamed her "Marie Antoinette of the Middle East" as the e-mails showed inquiries for Christian Louboutin shoes and the new Harry Potter DVD. Although the authenticity of the emails ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.