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Meet the Arab Women Breaking the Diplomatic Glass Ceiling and Making Their Mark on the International Stage

Her Excellency Ambassador Hend Al Otaiba took up her position as the UAE’s first female ambassador to France in 2021

December 1993, diplomat Nabeela Al Mulla made history when she became the first Arab woman from a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country to serve as an ambassador. The career diplomat from Kuwait with over 35 years of experience served in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and made history again in 2004, becoming the first Arab woman to serve as Permanent Representative to the United Nations. It came at a time when women diplomats were in her own words, a “scarce commodity on the global scene,” (St Antony’s College, Oxford, 2007) and not just in the Arab world. This was a year before the Kuwaiti suffrage movement saw women finally given the right to vote and to run for office in 2005. Since the turn of the millennium, Arab women from GCC countries have continued their ascent into the world of international diplomacy. In the past where women were once pigeonholed to secretarial or administrative positions, now there is a new generation of female Arab diplomats representing GCC countries. They are taking up the baton of pioneering diplomatic roles, standing on the shoulders of those who came before them.

The UAE’s Hissa Al Otaiba becomes the first Arab and female ambassador to receive Spain’s Order of Civil Merit, in 2019

Currently, there are at least 18 female GCC ambassadors posted all over the world, including the USA, Australia, and several European nations including Germany. The UAE has the highest number of female diplomats of all the GCC members. The country has come a long way since 2008, a historic year for Emirati women in diplomacy when Sheikha Najla Al Qasimi was appointed as ambassador to Sweden, becoming the UAE’s first female ambassador alongside Hissa Al-Otaiba for Spain. Five years later, Her Excellency Lana Nusseibeh became the UAE’s first female Permanent Representative to the UN, and the fifth woman in the country to serve as an ambassador.

Sheikha Najla Al Qasimi at the signing of agreements between the UAE and Portugal in 2015

Her Excellency Ambassador Hend Al Otaiba took her position as the UAE’s first female ambassador to France in 2021, adding Monaco to her ambassadorship in 2022. “Diplomacy is the art of dialogue, which in turn is vital to building peace,” says Her Excellency, who also worked as an advisor to the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, and as director of communications at Abu Dhabi Media, before shifting gears into diplomacy. “In today’s world, bridging our differences takes listening to every voice in the room. The UAE’s approach to foreign policy is focused on achieving consensus, and in my role as ambassador to France, I am privileged to witness firsthand all the positives this brings in crucial areas such as policy, culture, and trade, where we are constantly expanding our collaboration,” she adds.

Her Excellency Lana Nusseibeh speaks at the International Peace Institute in 2018

Among the UAE’s burgeoning female diplomats posted in key positions is Ameirah AlHefeiti, who was appointed as Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in August 2021. Based in New York City, her work focuses on a number of issues in Africa, the Americas, and Asia, as well as on topics such as international human rights and other matters of law. Growing up in the UAE, AlHefeiti was always curious about global politics, and often read about how instability in seemingly far-away countries could impact the prosperity and peace of the world. “It sparked my interest in better understanding how diplomacy can contribute to advance the interests of the UAE abroad, and motivated me to join our diplomatic corps,” she recalls.

Ameirah AlHefeiti

Emirati women have strong representation in the UAE government’s workforce. Fifty percent of the Federal National Council – the UAE’s consultative parliamentary body – are women, a higher proportion than in any Arab parliament. “Being an Emirati diplomat, I am proud and grateful to be able to represent the UAE, where investing in women and girls has been a priority for our leadership since our country’s foundation more than 51 years ago,” AlHefeiti says. “It is because of this that Emirati women have always been able to play a leading role in society – as girls in the different levels of education, or later in life, in the workforce,” she adds. Sat at the iconic horseshoe table, which has become a trademark of the UN Security Council’s international dialogues, AlHefeiti has delivered numerous speeches, including on peacekeeping processes in Africa and Colombia, humanitarian action, food security, and combating conflict-related sexual violence. “Having the opportunity to represent my country in this multilateral setting here in New York, and especially as a woman at the horseshoe table in the UN Security Council, where the UAE serves as an elected member, is an honor,” she comments. “This level of diplomacy and dialogue is exactly what inspired me to join this field.”

Nabeela Abdulla Al-Mulla, Permanent Representative of the State of Kuwait to the United Nations, speaking at a concert in 2004 in NYC to mark United Nations Day

Describing the challenges she has faced working in diplomacy where stereotypical perceptions of Arab women lacking agency and political prowess remain strong, AlHefeiti says stigmas against all women exist in most international sectors. “Diplomacy is an essential vehicle to break these stereotypes: there is so much we can all learn from each other and from the different corners of the world,” AlHefeiti offers. “Women can contribute just as much to this international understanding as men can.”

Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud became Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador in 2019

Among AlHefeiti’s key priorities in her role as Deputy Permanent Representative are gender equality and women’s empowerment, topics she studied at length during her master’s degree that touched on International Law, when she was at Sorbonne University, Abu Dhabi. The education that built the foundations of her career in diplomacy are the roots she envisions planting for all youth. “My hope is that by investing in equal and quality education for all, countries are able to set parameters for this understanding very early on in life, both for boys and girls, hopefully leading to a status quo in which the full, equal, and meaningful participation of women, including in diplomacy, is a reality worldwide,” she says.

Her Excellency Enass Al Shahwan became Saudi Arabia’s third female ambassador when she was sworn in to represent the Kingdom in Sweden and Iceland

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the GCC nation with the second highest number of female ambassadors. As part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 program, launched in April 2016, a central pillar includes the empowerment of Saudi women. In April 2019, Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud became Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador, when she began her duties for the United States. “Very soon, we will no longer refer to the ‘first’ Saudi woman this or the ‘first’ Saudi woman that – because the presence and contribution of Saudi women in every job, occupation, career, and sector will simply be commonplace and unremarkable,” the princess wrote in an open letter for Vogue Arabia’s December issue in 2020.

Kuwait’s Reem Mohammed Khaled Zaid Al Khaled after presenting her Letter of Credence to Julie Payette, then Governor General of Canada, in 2019

Since then, the Kingdom has appointed four other female ambassadors and deployed them to several Nordic and European nations such as Norway, where Amal Yahya Al-Moallimi became the second female Saudi ambassador in October 2020. A year later, in 2021, Her Excellency Enass Al Shahwan became Saudi Arabia’s third female ambassador when she was sworn in to represent the Kingdom in Sweden and Iceland. Al Shahwan spent her early childhood in the US, but mainly grew up in a coastal town called Al Khafji, close to the border between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. “A random sequence of events landed me in the ministry of foreign affairs as I started my career as an IT professional,” Al Shahwan said of her journey into diplomacy, which she described as thrilling. “Back then it was a new field for women in Saudi Arabia and I was excited to be part of it.”

Being among the pioneering first generation of female Saudi ambassadors inevitably came with its own hurdles. “It was very challenging to enter a male-dominated career as the opportunities were limited, especially being one of the first batches of female diplomats,” Al Shahwan recalled. “Another issue I faced was work-life balance, being a mother of three, and having a demanding job that requires constant traveling and at times getting posted abroad,” she furthers. The issues Al Shahwan is invested in is youth empowerment, particularly the continued empowerment of women. “They are the engine for the transformation Saudi Arabia is seeking and play a great role in the Saudi vision 2030,” she said.

Saudi Arabia’s Dr Thoraya Obaid at the W20 kickoff meeting in 2020

Among the Arab women diplomats who influenced her, Al Shahwan named Dr Thoraya Obaid, the first Saudi Arabian to head a UN agency. Dr Obaid was appointed head of the United Nations Population Fund (a sexual and reproductive health agency) in 2001. In 1975, she established the first women’s development program in Western Asia, and in 2013, she was among 30 women appointed to the once all male Shura (consultative) council for the Saudi monarch. “I was lucky to have crossed paths with many encouraging leaders who provided me with mentoring and handed me critical assignments to lead,” Al Shahwan said of the mentors she had – men and women – over the years. As for the future, Al Shahwan is optimistic about the ascent of Arab women in diplomacy, and that perceptions of them in the West are shifting as a result. “It is our role to raise awareness about the importance of Arab women in society and showcase the inspiring success stories of many of them,” she said.

Kuwait’s Her Excellency Sheikha Al Zain Al Sabah was appointed as ambassador to the US in March

Kuwait appointed its second female ambassador, Reem Mohammed Khaled Zaid Al Khaled, as ambassador to Chile in 2011. In 2019, Al Khaled – who was instrumental in the United Nations Observation Mission and Security Council Resolutions between Kuwait and Iraq following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 – became Kuwait’s first female ambassador to Canada. More recently, in March 2023, Her Excellency Sheikha Al Zain Al Sabah, the former undersecretary for Kuwait’s Ministry of State for Youth Affairs and a former film producer, was appointed as ambassador to the USA. “Across all sectors and disciplines, whether we are privileged to hold an office, assume a professional role, or raise a family, what we do and how we do it defines the kind of person we want to be and what kind of collective mission and values we want to leave behind,” HE Al Zain Al Sabah says. “It is only through identifying these components, and being aware of how we choose to show up, can we truly create the momentum needed to nurture positive change and sustain development in our communities.”

Originally published in the May 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

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