Her Excellency Hend Al Otaiba embarks on her new role as the UAE’s ambassador to France, applying her soft power with quiet dignity.
Outside, the leaves whirl like spinning tops as gusts of wind scatter them about like giant confetti. The sight brings a smile to Hend Al Otaiba’s face. Her Excellency Madame Ambassador for the UAE to France is observing the weather through a window that seems like a portal to Paris, the center of her new world. “We love the passing of seasons,” she remarks, her voice warm and serene. Al Otaiba arrived in France in the summer with her husband, Sheikh Salem Al Qassimi, and their boys, who are nine and five; the latest addition, a French poodle named Bailey, joined them shortly afterwards. The ambassador considers the recent move to France a fantastic opportunity for their sons, citing that it will make them “more well-rounded, diverse, and open people.” Perhaps, however, it’s women at large who stand to benefit most from Al Otaiba’s swearing in this July by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates.
“Women empowerment has always been a key issue for me,” starts Her Excellency. The ambassador has cordially accepted to be a part of this special Golden Jubilee issue to highlight the UAE’s significant progress, and the women driving the country forward. “Our region is often misunderstood and that’s why one of the main issues I want to take on here is to highlight the way we are seen as oppressed women, suppressed, and without a say or a role to play in society,” she says. The UAE has nine female ministers, constituting 29% of ministerial positions. The Federal National Council is 50% occupied by women; there are 10 female ambassadors representing the UAE abroad today; and nearly 50% of the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation’s employees are women. The UAE Constitution guarantees equal rights for both men and women, including legal status, claim to titles, access to education, the right to practice professions, and the right to inherit property. As for the future, 70% of current university graduates are women. “I have a sister who is 11 years younger,” shares the ambassador. “The way she behaves is completely different from how I did in my 20s – she’s comfortable to speak her mind. Once upon a time, with regards to authority we had to think twice, and they don’t. There is a new wave of young women who will be fascinating. In my previous role [leading the first strategic communications department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-Operation], I witnessed very bright ladies. Leaders who speak their mind and who are not afraid to push their agendas.”
Perhaps Al Otaiba, who also worked as director of communications at Abu Dhabi Media and as an advisor on issues of international diplomacy to the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Co- operation, was destined for a life of public service. Her father, HE Dr Mana Saeed Al Otaiba, is a renowned poet and was Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources at 23. Her elder brother HE Yousef Al Otaiba is ambassador for the UAE in Washington. “My father had high expectations of his children. We grew up in an ambitious and competitive environment, where performance mattered, whether it was school or career,” she notes. “My father has been the key driver of that in terms of his expectations, and we wanted to live up to them.” While Al Otaiba admits to being shy and timid as a young girl, she practiced ballet, which she regrets stopping, and has always been prone to languages, studying French, Spanish, and English, along with her native Arabic. While she is fluent in French, she continues to hone her skills with a tutor twice weekly.
As a student, Her Excellency traveled to the UK to study psychology. To this day, the studies serve her both professionally and personally. “To begin, you are constantly questioning whether you are a good mother,” she notes of her challenges. “If I go back to my psychology school days, attachment theory says that there is no such thing as a great mother, you just have to be a good enough mother. When you are a working mother, you spend a lot of time away from the children. Sometimes my kids ask me, ‘Why are you going out?’ and I answer, ‘So that you can be proud of me, and you will grow up and realize and appreciate this.’” It’s all about balance, and she shares that her family life consists of enjoying walks outdoors, visiting museums – her husband is an avid collector of Middle Eastern art – and enjoying restaurants, indulging in escargots, tartare, and cheese. She considers her family her greatest blessing, with no one ever standing in the way of her professional ambitions.
The conversation breaks momentarily as a man enters the room. His confident stride echoes her own. “My husband,” announces Al Otaiba, introducing her life partner and the UAE’s newly appointed permanent delegate to Unesco. “We both have intersecting jobs now,” she smiles. After exchanging pleasantries, she hints at their dynamic, “A smart woman should allow the man to exercise his masculinity.” If, from a professional standpoint, the couple checks in regularly with each other, she counts HE Reem Al Hashimy, Minister of State for International Cooperation and the Managing Director for Expo 2020 Dubai, and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash as her mentors and she underscores the transformative vision of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and his wife on her psyche. “Progress on the women empowerment agenda would not have been possible without the vision of HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and our mother of the nation, HH Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, who both recognized the importance of empowering women ahead of time. The UAE is a progressive, moderate society where women hold leadership roles in all sectors and industries – including government, military, business, and society – and participate meaningfully in every facet of civic and political life,” she says. “There is a saying: You are the average of four people you surround yourself with. I’m a strong believer of that,” notes the ambassador of her inner circle.
Asked if she deciphers any common threads in female versus male leadership and Her Excellency remarks that she considers female leadership to be compassionate. “Men are more… I don’t want to say pragmatic because women can be pragmatic too. But generally, men’s decision-making is at times not inclusive of feelings – and I think there is virtue in both. I respect that at times feelings can overshadow decisions and it’s important to be subjective. At the same time, especially when managing teams, it’s important to take emotions into consideration.”
As for HE’s team of Emirati and French staff, she steers them to further cooperation between France and the UAE with “a strong sense of self, drive, and passion.” These words are employed by her close friend Salama Khalfan, who designed a brooch of gradient blue sapphires, diamonds, and cabochon garnets pinned to a Rami Al Ali royal blue dress for the ambassador’s investiture before President Emmanuel Macron. “France is a priority country for the UAE. A lot of work has already been done in terms of education and investments; I don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” states Her Excellency. “We’ve received clear guidance that the UAE is interested in doubling and even tripling down on the relationship with France.” She seeks to find opportunities to link both sides to further cooperation on business opportunities, education via increased exchanges – not forgetting the existing agreements between Paris’s Sorbonne and Abu Dhabi (Al Otaiba earned a master’s in marketing, managing, and communications from the Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi), and technology. She cites Station F in Paris – the world’s largest start-up facility – as a place of interest to link with Abu Dhabi’s Hub 71. “I think it’s also important for an ambassador to step beyond meetings and to try to get to know the people. We need to go beyond politicians who are familiar with us and speak with all levels of society.”
Since her arrival in France, she has noted that these encounters have motioned a sincere curiosity to her regard. “People are more interested to see what a woman from our region has to say. We automatically project the opposite of how they expect us to be.” The west’s vision of the oppressed Middle Eastern woman, cloaked in an abaya, is an underlying factor. In April this year, France’s senate voted to outlaw the headscarf for minors in public. “I think the abaya is beautiful. It’s flattering and elegant, and I enjoy wearing it,” she remarks. “You must respect every country’s position. As part of non-interference in a country’s policies, this is how things are, and I respect that. But if I can focus on what I see the UAE is doing right – it accepts everyone, dressed in all sorts of ways, living together, and having no issue. That is phenomenal. It leads to less friction and decreases conflict.” Her voice applies a firmness, perhaps a rebuff to her realization that in her new public role, her choice of dress will be analyzed far and wide. Thus far, she has championed Arab talents and craftsmanship; donning an intricately embroidered ebony thobe when hosting the Golden Jubilee soiree in Paris, as well as Elie Saab, and offering a nod to her new French home with a suit by Christian Dior and jewelry from Chaumet, in a true masterclass of fashion diplomacy. “Quite frankly, I don’t think clothes should even be a matter of discussion,” she states. Her comments are fair in that she is addressing clothing from the lens of sexism whereby women’s actions are all too often overlooked, their clothes serving as the easy alibi for people seeking to silence a woman’s voice. Long after leaving the meeting with Her Excellency, her voice remains, as does her presence, rare in the world but familiar in the UAE – graciousness flows through her.
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Originally published in the December 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia
Style: Cedric Haddad
Senior fashion market editor: Amine Jreissati
Hair and makeup: Ophelie Crommar
Creative producer: Laura Prior
Producer: Aurea Productions