Abeer Al Otaiba – mother, wife of the UAE ambassador to the US, philanthropist, and owner of fashion brand SemSem – opens the doors to her estate.
Her slender frame appearing even smaller against the backdrop of her sprawling Washington DC mansion, Abeer Al Otaiba flashes a big, welcoming smile. Chances are, new visitors are already familiar with the estate – or at least their entourage is. “Most people who come to our house have security detail, so I liaise with their teams and organize for them to see everything in advance,” she says. Safety clearance is just one of the many boxes Al Otaiba ticks when hosting. As the wife of Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the US, she welcomes government officials, including a recent visit from the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Paul Ryan. Since her husband’s appointment 10 years ago, regular guests range from CEOs to diplomats, and her young children’s friends. “It’s a unique position to be in,” she muses. “I think of it as one that helps to build stronger bridges between people.”
Originally printed in the September 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia
Settling into one of the unassuming plush couches decorated with throw pillows, Al Otaiba explains that she considers her role key to helping project Arab women as leaders in business, culture, and government. As the wife of a high ranking diplomat, philanthropist, founder and CEO of womenswear label SemSem, and former civil engineer, she is well-versed in the art of intelligent conversation. Her home, which overlooks the Potomac River but is hidden from view by mature trees, is her safe haven, and one tailored exactly as she decided. Formerly occupied by a large family, the house underwent extensive structural renovations, overseen by Al Otaiba from her arrival. “It was my project, and I knew what I wanted,” she affirms. She orchestrated for walls to be broken down and light let in via floor-to-ceiling glass walls and skylights. One hallway, encased entirely in glass, appears to blend with the outside landscaping. Further along, the rooms used for entertaining and her children’s zones are separated, though she insists that the entire space is “very kid-friendly.” She introduced a neutral color scheme, with an off-white or beige backdrop serving to highlight the couple’s extensive collection of Middle Eastern art.
Paintings, as opposed to furniture – modest wood side tables and fabric-covered couches and chairs – serve as the house’s accents. A cloudy blue and fuchsia abstract piece by Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata offers a shock of color alongside a dappling of white orchids. A silkscreen painting of traditional calligraphy with a modern perspective by Syrian artist Helen Abbas points to the contemporary style of living in the Arab world. Sharing aspects of her husband’s country (she hails from Egypt) and Arab culture in general are fundamental to Al Otaiba. She explains that guests sometimes bring their preconceived, stereotypical notions of Arabia to her front door. “When I greet them, they are usually stunned that I am not covered, or wearing black,” she laughs. “Then I tell them that I am a civil engineer.”
Hosting guests a few times per month, she begins her planning once her husband informs her of the guest list. Then, she manages entertainment, flowers, and catering, ensuring that all the guests’ favorite foods are available. Dinners are usually served in the dining room, which seats 30 people, and is positioned at the same level of the pool. Speaking of her ever-evolving view, she says: “Along with spring, I especially love the fall season. You can see the leaves change color through the glass windows.” The couple is renowned in their circle for their barbecues by the pool. “Yousef is a grill master and we are known for serving the best burgers in town,” she smiles. Her Lebanese in-house chef always makes ma’amoul, with guests often texting her in advance to request the date-filled biscuits. If they feel so comfortable with her, Al Otaiba attributes it to being one-half of a “young, laidback, cool couple.”
Apart from hosting the political elite, a major portion of her time is dedicated to her philanthropic work. Contributing to local charities, like the Children’s National Medical Center, is at the heart of her work. “Both my children were born in Washington; when you become a mother, you answer to a higher calling of love.” She explains that when she was pregnant, the doctors discovered a spot on her daughter’s lung. At four-months, she required surgery. “Handing my baby to the surgeon was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” she recalls, her voice breaking. “There is a big fundraiser every year for the center, and Yousef and I host a gala, the Children’s National Ball. We reached out to our friends from all over the world, and raised more than US$10 million in one year.” She also supports Hope for Henry, which organizes programs to minimize patient stress, including arranging for professional athletes to visit children in hospitals.
At night, Al Otaiba tucks her son and daughter into their beds in their respective ninja and butterfly pink-themed nurseries. Their adjoining playroom shows a fervent joy for arts and crafts, with cheerful drawing on the walls and ceiling encouraged. It is then that she can work on her passion. Launched four years ago, SemSem is a fashion label with women and children lines. The brand is inspired by the colors of Arabia, while the tailored cuts speak to citizens of the world. With production in New York, the businesswoman admits, “The hardest part of management is finding the right people. I need a team that I can depend on 100%.”
Born in Alexandria to parents who encouraged her to be a “strong Muslim woman,” Al Otaiba dedicates a few hours each day to her personal wellbeing by practicing kickboxing or swimming laps in the pool, which is animated by the gentle gurgle of a nearby stone waterfall. She is also not averse to spending time organizing her two walk-in closets. They are classified according to summer travel, formal wear, and ready-to-wear, which she divulges consists primarily of workout clothes. “I love my Nike outfits,” she says. “Otherwise, my style is feminine with an edge.” She favors pairing leather pants with something conservative, like a vintage Chanel jacket. She also prefers heels – Saint Laurent and Christian Louboutin are her go-to brands, though she will wear sneakers, if necessary. “But they are Dior sneakers,” she says quickly. “Even when I was working as an engineer, I made my own hard hat – and it was pink.”
Making her way to her office that overlooks the leafy trees already turning shades of orange, she passes a large wall aquarium, directly facing a pool table. Al Otaiba comments: “My home is my comfort zone. It’s an organized extension of my attitude and desire to give.” What does a guest bring a woman who quite possibly has everything? “We don’t get a lot of books, though we’ve received some memoirs of former presidents,” she ponders, before remembering, “Once, a couple from Dallas brought us cowboy boots.” Whatever it may be, Al Otaiba will consider it a cherished token, symbolizing a meeting of open minds.