Najah Hussain Al Muntafiq's Pioneering Spirit

BY Alex Aubry / Jun 12 2017 / 21:08 PM

Najah Hussain Al Muntafiq shares with Bazaar how she discovered the true meaning of Ramadan through her journey from Dubai to San Francisco, Italy and back

Najah Hussain Al Muntafiq's Pioneering Spirit
Najah Hussain Al Muntafiq's Pioneering Spirit
Najah Hussain Al Muntafiq wears: Dress and headscarf, her own. Najah's daughter, Sara wears: Dress, Dhs3,550, Amal Al Raisi at Ounass.

“I would invite Her Highness Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi, the wife of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE’s late President, Christiane Amanpour, Hillary Clinton and Meryl Streep,” says Najah Hussain Al Muntafiq, when asked whom she would love to include at her iftar table this Ramadan. That she picked a group of outspoken and successful women in their various disciplines, should come as no surprise given her own trajectory in life; one that includes being the first Emirati woman to break the proverbial glass ceiling in the field of corporate communications and marketing. But on this particular day Najah has another topic on her mind, one concerning how women from the region continue to be portrayed in the mainstream media. “I don’t understand where this persistent image of the oppressed woman comes from. It’s time we took control of that narrative to present more nuanced stories about what it means to be a woman from this region, and that we come with diverse experiences instead of being painted with broad brushstrokes,” says Najah, while looking out of her office window towards Dubai’s creek.

Ramadan pralines in milk and dark chocolate filled with saffron, cardamom, achta, meghli, mastik, lemon with mind and apple cinnamon.

Photography by Richard Hall

It’s an area she’s very familiar with, having grown up during the 1960s and ‘70s amongst the traditional wind-towers and narrow lanes of Al Shindagha, a historic neighborhood founded in the 1830s. Similar to the pearl divers before them, her father’s generation would be gone for two months or more at a time to work on oilrigs, leaving the mothers to care for the house and children. “These were some of the strongest women in the world. My mother had two daughters and three sons to take care of, in a neighborhood where everyone looked out for each other and took part in raising the kids,” says the entrepreneur, recalling other Emirati women who served as role models. Among them was Shaikha Sana’a Bint Mana Al Maktoum, a successful businesswoman since the 1960s, who founded the Dubai Labor Supply Company. “Here was this formidable woman who had several businesses, including one that supplied fresh water to Dubai and held her own majlis for men and women. These were the kind of role models I was surrounded by, so I’m mystified when I’m confronted with this idea that all Arab women are somehow oppressed because that’s not what I grew up with,” says the Emirati entrepreneur, noting that nothing could have prepared her for life in the United States, where she would move to in 1978 to study at the University of San Francisco.

Confiding that she initially received resistance from her father, who preferred that she study closer to home, Najah would eventually manage to convince him when she was ranked one of the top ten students in the country. “The UAE’s Minister of Education at the time was very keen that a new generation of Emirati men and women travel abroad to gain experience to help build the country,” says Najah, who shortly after being accepted to the University of San Francisco received a scholarship from the Ministry to pursue her graduate degree. Her first year in San Francisco was a time of growth and culture shock as she learnt to navigate new experiences such as sharing a small dorm room with her American roommate, paying bills, buying groceries and learning to ride the city’s bus system.

Charger plate, Dhs20; Dinner plate, Dhs10; Napkin, Dhs5; Napkin ring, Dhs5; Candle holderset of three, Dhs30; Gold dlatware, Dhs5 each; all available to rent from Party Social.

Photography by Richard Hall

“I honestly can’t believe how much I’ve grown from that experience, because it taught me how to be independent and to rely on myself. It’s one of the reasons I encourage young people from the Gulf to study abroad because it can help one grow in so many ways,” says Najah, who would spend six years in the United States, where she also earned a Masters in Political Science from San Francisco State University in 1982. To make extra money, she worked at one of the city’s most fashionable boutiques on Union Street. “Some Gulf students I encountered were surprised that I wanted to work while studying, but for me it was really part of gaining more responsibility and independence. Plus it was a wonderful way to get some amazing clothes. I loved experimenting with fashion, even if it was a little avant-garde for the time,” recalls the entrepreneur, who also traveled throughout the United States and Mexico.

By December 1985, Najah was living in London, where she was preparing to enroll in the doctoral program at the London School of Economics. While back in the UAE to spend Christmas break with her family, she decided to interview for a job with Emirates Airlines, which had just launched in October of that year. “I thought it would be an opportunity to make some money over the holiday before returning to school, but I don’t think the head manager was expecting to meet a young Emirati woman wearing a Gautier suit with a short punk haircut. Little did I know I would end up staying with the company for 13 years,” says Najah, who was offered a position on the marketing team. She became responsible for much of the strategic direction behind the airline’s launch across four continents, rising to become the only Emirati woman in a senior management position at that time.  In 1999, she left Emirates to found Sareem Consultancy, the first Emirati owned and managed communications, design and branding agency.

Plaisir Cadeaux flower box and Diptique candles are the perfect finishing touches for any Ramadan table.

Photography by Richard Hall

By the time her twin daughters had graduated from college, she was already thinking about her next move. “I wanted to shift gears and focus on something that I’m passionate about,” adds Najah, who decided to launch a UAE based artisanal chocolate line in 2010. She would spend the next two years researching the market before approaching the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development. To set herself apart from her competitors, she learnt everything she could about artisanal chocolates. “I became interested in developing a line with the finest natural ingredients,” says the entrepreneur, who boarded a plane for Turin, Italy, where she knocked on the door of one of the world’s top chocolatiers.

“I convinced him to teach me all about the process of making artisanal chocolates, and we developed a great working relationship creating handmade chocolates flavored with pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts and other ingredients,” adds Najah, who launched her new chocolate brand, Coco Jalila, during the UAE’s National Day on December 2nd, 2012. “I decided to call the line Jalila after my mother, which also means the supreme or the ultimate. Even though it’s my mom’s name, there are so many wonderful women who deserve the title of Jalila and I wanted to dedicate the line to them,” says the Emirati entrepreneur, noting that the demand for Coco Jalila’s chocolates has grown to the point where she now produces a large portion of her orders at a factory in the UAE to keep up with sales.

Medjool stuffed dates with almonds, pitachios, orange peel and sesame seeds.

Photography by Richard Hall

Despite Ramadan and Eid being two of the busiest times of the year for her chocolate business, she makes it a point to prioritise family and friends during the holy month. “It’s the one time of the year when we slow down and the entire family comes together for a meal during iftar. But beyond the hyper commercialisation of the last decade, at its core Ramadan is about giving back to the poor through charities and making sure not a single person in the neighborhood goes hungry,” says Najah, recalling how children would often be sent by their mothers to deliver and exchange dishes with neighbors during the holy month; a tradition which continues today across the Gulf.

Mayfair marble coffee table, Dhs250; Mayfair marble side table, Dhs175; Casablanca poufs in gold and turquoise, Dhs100; all available to rent from Harlequin Arena. 

On the table: Medjool stuffed dates; Coco Luna in gold overwrap; Coco Colour Dragees; Coco Covered Almonds; Coco Covered Pistachio, Coco Dark Chocolate Mint Dragees; Coco Cherry Dragees; Coco Blueberry Dragees; Coco Gold Pistachios; Coco Pink Peppercorn; Coco Bergamot; Coco Covered Coriander; Coco Pistachio Croquant; all Coco Jalila.

Photography by Richard Hall

“What’s changed in the last couple of years is that people are increasingly organizing outings to hotels to break the fast, which put on beautiful spreads for iftar in a chic setting,” observes Najah, who counts the Armani hotel and the Royal Mirage amongst her two favorite destinations to invite close friends for iftar. “I typically limit my entertaining to the first 20 days of Ramadan, because personally it’s a very spiritual month when it’s important for me to find my center through prayer and memorizing the Quran. On a certain level, we’re all on a journey and there are times when we need to step back and not only take stock of our lives but also how we can give back to others. It’s something we can all relate too, no matter what our background or beliefs may be,” says Najah, noting that one of the most rewarding moments of her journey to date has been mentoring students at the Stern Business School at NYU, Abu Dhabi. “It’s a privilege to mentor these incredibly smart kids who are eager to leave their own mark on the world. In the process I’ve learnt a lot from them, and that is a part of the Ramadan spirit we should all be carrying with us throughout the year.”

Read Alex Aubry’s full interview in the June issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia, available on iPad and in-store now.

Photography: Richard Hall

Table Setting: Janet Luu at Harlequin Arena

With special thanks to One & Only Royal Mirage, Harlequin Arena, Party Social, Diptyque and Plaisir Cadeaux