Abeer Al Otaiba: Our Woman In The West

BY Harper's Bazaar Arabia / Dec 20 2015 / 17:17 PM

As wife to the UAE’s ambassador to America, Abeer Al Otaiba is charged with changing the world’s perception of Arab women. Now, with a tenderly conceived mother and daughter clothing line to her name, Abeer speaks to Louise Nichol about adding fashion, philanthrophy and family to her sphere of influence

Abeer Al Otaiba: Our Woman In The West
Abeer Al Otaiba: Our Woman In The West
Models wear: Adult’s kaftan, Dhs5,510, SemSem. Shoes, Dhs4,950, Jimmy Choo. Child’s dress: Dhs1,380; doll, Dhs370, both SemSem. Abeer wears: Jumpsuit, Dhs8,080, SemSem
Abeer Al Otaiba: Our Woman In The West
Child’s dress, Dhs1,085; adult’s dress, Dhs8,080, both SemSem. Flower crowns, Dhs250 (child); Dhs500 (adult), both Bliss Flowers
Abeer Al Otaiba: Our Woman In The West
Abeer wears: Kaftan, Dhs5,510, SemSem. Models wear: Child’s dress, Dhs1,380; adult’s dress, Dhs3,655, both SemSem at Semsem.com

The most powerful voice against extremism is women,” says Abeer Al Otaiba without hesitation, “women have the most to lose and the most to gain.” 
The former civil engineer, budding fashion designer and mother-of-two knows a thing or two about powerful voices. Her husband is Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the United States of America, who was recently described by The Huffington Post as ‘The most powerful man in Washington you’ve never heard of’. The couple has lived in DC for seven years, representing the UAE on the world’s leading political stage. But while it is her husband whose ambassadorial role comes with a capital A, Abeer’s own diplomatic influence should not be underestimated. “I think women as ambassadors for Islam and the Arab world are the most powerful voices in the West, because it allows people in the US and Europe to see that we have shared values,” she explains, adding, “how societies treat women is the best indicator of how free they are.”
As an Egyptian Muslim living in the US, Abeer herself falls on the wrong side of Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s recent call to stop foreign Muslims from entering America. “Too many people are talking about how to divide us,” she responds with dignity, “when you hear extremism anywhere it’s troubling and disturbing and we should spend more time talking about how to bring people together, and not how to come apart.”
To that end, Ambassador Al Otaiba and his wife ceaselessly promote the UAE’s progressive attitude to women among the corridors of power in DC. “The UAE has just appointed the first woman parliamentary speaker; the UAE’s first strike against ISIS was led by a woman pilot; 75 per cent of college enrolment in the UAE is women,” enthuses Abeer, “we have more women going into government institutions, more women starting businesses. These are very positive examples of how the UAE empowers women.” 
Abeer herself is an example of a Middle Eastern woman defying stereotypes. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, she was raised in “a normal, moderate Muslim household” by a family “open-minded enough to send me to French Catholic school”. Consequently, she speaks Arabic, French and English, languages that were to prove essential in securing her first job after graduating, working for Orascom Telecom in Egypt as a civil engineer. “It’s a male dominated sector in the Arab world,” she says, explaining, “I wanted to prove a point and set an example.” Building cell towers in the likes of Pakistan, Congo, Chad and Syria, Abeer recalls being on site in blazing August heat, the only woman among workers from all over the world, all of them thinking, “What is this girl doing here and why is she giving us orders?” Her career subsequently took her to the UAE, where she worked on setting up Infinity TV in Dubai and Reem Island in Abu Dhabi. It was here that she met Yousef, their shared heritage – he is half Egyptian and half Emirati – setting the stage for a romance that began with a first date in Dubai’s One & Only Royal Mirage and culminated in a proposal when he was posted to the US in July 2008. It was a key appointment at a time when diplomatic relations between the US and UAE were strained following the Dubai Ports World controversy, which saw the US Congress move to block the takeover of American port operations by the UAE firm. 
Moving to Washington came as a culture shock for Abeer, a self-confessed “beach bum”. Yousef had studied at Georgetown so the city was akin to a second home, while Abeer confesses that the transition Stateside was galling. “When I moved here I was very lonely. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t have any support system.” Into this upheaval soon came children; their son Omar is now five, while daughter Samia is two. “Everything was new to me. A new husband, a new country, and new mom,” she remembers, “even a new job, because living in Washington as an ambassador’s wife is a full-time role.”
The couple was already a strong supporter of Children’s National Medical Centre in DC when Samia was admitted for lung surgery at just four months old. “When my child cuts a finger, I fall apart,” says Abeer, “so having a surgery, a serious surgery, is a big deal.” The hospital has treated hundreds of Emirati children from less privileged backgrounds and Abeer lauds its inclusive approach. “They don’t only take care of the illness or the children, they help the family. So if an Emirati family is coming to get treated, they have a translator ready and a dedicated nurse whose job is to make the parents relax and focus and not panic.” 
It was Abeer’s philanthropic work with the hospital, combined with a lifelong passion for fashion, that led to the launch of her mother-and-daughter clothing line SemSem, now in its second season and named in honour of Samia’s nickname. “I’ve loved fashion since I was a little girl. Every time my parents would go to Europe and come back with clothes for me I would alter everything, adding my own personal touch,” she recalls. Even during her construction site days, Abeer would opt for Nikes with as much cushioning as possible “for an inch or so of height”, she laughs. Feeling that there were no mother and daughter collections available that spoke to the bond she wanted to demonstrate with Samia, Abeer set about designing her own. “There was nothing that you could wear with your daughter and feel like it’s appropriate for your age as a mom and her age as a child,” she explains. Rather than simply shrinking an adult’s dress down into baby-sized proportions, Abeer envisaged something where “mother and daughter’s style are aligned through subtle, sophisticated elements, colour palettes and complementary fabrics.” On a par with the aesthetic vision of SemSem is the philanthropic arm of the venture, conceived to help mothers educate their daughters about the importance of giving back. Each season SemSem will partner with a different charity that supports gender equality, literacy, health, legal awareness and education among women and children. For its spring/summer 2016 collection, SemSem is working with Women for Women International to sponsor 24 women for a year in countries such as Afghanistan, Kosovo, Nigeria, Sudan, Bosnia and Iraq. “SemSem for me is more than just a clothing line,” says Abeer, “its values are more about your relationship with your daughter, the mother teaching her daughter about giving back. Philanthropy plays a big role with SemSem, it’s about family and charity. You are wearing beautiful clothes and at the same time you feel good about yourself because you are also helping other women.” - Louise Nichol

For the full article, see the January issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia

Creative director: Acacia Stichter. Models: Suzie and Shantilly Robertson at MMG. Hair and make-up: Britta Tess and Lidia Trzos at MMG. Photographed at Emirates Palace, Emiratespalace.ae.Thanks to Bliss Flowers, Blissdubai.com