As you drive along the long undulating roads from Washington DC to McLean, Virginia you’ll marvel at acres upon acres of forests dressed in their crisp coat of autumn colouring in heartening oranges, reds and browns that dot the Potomac River. Like a warm, protective blanket they cocoon you with their presence and comfort you with their hue.
Take this route until you arrive at a grand and welcoming residence that seems to enlarge in size as you enter its majestic doorway, immediately enabling you to peer through a high Roman archway into a living room set with calming neutral shades of cream, white, pastels and rich browns. This is the home of United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States and Minister of State Yousef Al Otaiba and his wife Abeer, founder of fashion brand SemSem, and their two children, Omar, 9, and Samia, 6. The residence, nestled alongside the picturesque Potomac, is framed by the natural beauty of America’s Eastern Coast.
Yousef Al Otaiba
Designed by Los Angeles-based interior designer Joan Behnke, renowned for her work on the homes of the proverbial rich and famous, it is within these elegantly defined rooms that the Al-Otaibas regularly entertain distinguished guests and Heads of State. “When we first started working on the project the original brief was incredibly direct, Yousef and Abeer wanted a home where they could entertain important guests and make them feel comfortable with a background that reflected their personal sensibilities, sophisticated, understated, comfortable, suitable for a family and for important meetings and dinner parties.”
An interior view of Yousef and Abeer’s living area
The living room area, which extends from the entrance via a longish corridor, boasts floor-to-ceiling glass windows through which rays of sunlight beam inside the already luminous interior filled with plush off-white couches decorated with throw pillows, copper-coloured rectangular-shaped Japanese chandeliers and Middle Eastern art, such as the large multi-coloured calligraphic work by Tunisian artist Nja Mahdaoui that hangs over the fireplace.
In every room are objects reminding guests of Yousef and Abeer’s Middle Eastern heritage, whether it is through the couple’s extensive art collection, including works by Wissam Shawkat, Mohamed Nagy, Kamel Boullata, Jamal Abdul Rahim and Mohammad Bozorgi, or hardcover tomes on the history of the UAE and other intricate objects from the region.
Step inside any bathroom and you will also find calligraphic and Islamic patterns aligning the walls.Yousef was working as a Director of International Affairs for the court of Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi when he met Abeer, who was working in Dubai as a civil engineer. Born and bred in Alexandria, her family moved to Paris and then to the UAE. Yousef too has an Egyptian connection. He was raised in Cairo by his Egyptian mother and then moved to the US where he studied International Relations at Georgetown University.
Yousef and Abeer Al Otaiba. Abeer wears: Women’s Resort 2020, SemSem (look 10)
Upon moving to DC over 11 years ago Yousef and Abeer were introduced to Behnke by a mutual friend. “We immediately clicked with Joan and embarked on a huge transformation; the only thing that stayed were the outside walls,” says Yousef.” The first few years of living in the home were intense on both the personal and professional side. “The house serves as one of those rare combinations where it is a family home and also a place for entertaining for the purposes of my job.” From having a casual barbecue outside to lavish upscale dinners for guests, the house has seen it all.
An artwork in Yousef and Abeer’s home by Sol LeWitt
A Secluded Enclave
The Al Otaiba residence is a safe haven. The tranquil ambience found within allows Abeer and Yousef to unwind with their children after a hectic day. “The overall colour palette was based on Yousef and Abeer’s desire to have a home with neutral tones,” adds Behnke. “In contrast to the previous home, their look was thoroughly more modern and calm.” Light zips through each and every room, illuminating the guests and objects stationed inside, thanks, explains Behnke, to a special finish from Galice in the form of a reflective plaster finish adding light to the interiors. “We have the same taste in everything – the same colours, the same art and Joan, of course, has amazing taste,” says Abeer.
A quick walk around the main house and one will find several children’s areas designated by a multitude of colourful toys that seem to manifest their imaginary realm in the present. A glimpse from a hallway encased entirely in glass connecting to the new extension immediately merges the beauty of the outside world with Behnke’s splendid interiors, and also reveals numerous large-scale play areas for Samia and Omar. Here is a dream world for children. From vibrantly coloured jungle gyms to slides, and gigantic life-size game boards, in many ways the children’s areas are akin to another home within a home.
An interior view of the living room
“I wanted to use my engineering background to create the playrooms, playground and new extension,” says Abeer. “This was my project shortly after I had my second child, Samia. Simply put, I wanted my children to have more space and I didn’t want our home to look like an ambassador’s house in a very serious, official way. I wanted it to be warm and reflect my personality. This is where my children were born, so it is the only home I know for them.” The playroom is at the heart of the house. “You need to pass by it in order to go anywhere and that shows just how the children are at the center of everything we do,” she adds.
Creativity is central to Abeer’s manner in raising Samia and Omar. The walls in the inside playroom are filled with drawings. “I love painting and drawing with them; splashing paint on the walls,” says Abeer. “Ever since I was Samia’s age I wanted to be a fashion designer, but I came from a family of engineers. I so believe in the power of creativity. This part of me was always waiting to come out and I want both of them to experience it early.”
While there are nods to the Middle East in most spaces, the home has a largely Asian contemporary feel. “Japan was always on our bucket list, even before we met,” explains Abeer. The cupboards which align the magnificent dining room area are covered with glass into which have been placed delicate Washi papers, a traditional Japanese fine paper made from fibers of the Gampi Tree. “There is always an element of eastern and Oriental design in our work,” says Behnke. “It lends a bit of history and ethnic taste that is both elegant and timeless.” Such detailing injects the space with meditative serenity.
Yousef and Abeer’s chic dining room featuring a calligraphic work by Nja Mahdaoui and Japanese chandeliers
Creativity at Play
As the wife of a high-ranking diplomat, Abeer’s schedule is consistently filled with a revolving calendar of important social events. She is also the founder and CEO of womenswear label SemSem, which she began in 2015. The tenderly conceived line presents a range of stunning designs that have already been snatched by pivotal luxury e-tailers such as Net-a-Porter and Moda Operandi and worn by celebrities such as Gigi Hadid and Blake Lively. “I converted one of the guest rooms into my office,” she says, “and I also have a small studio in New York where my design team is based.” The brand, like Abeer herself, is on a mission to empower women. Every season SemSem partners with a local charity focusing on girl’s health and education and female empowerment.
“My heritage and my culture come through in my designs,” says Abeer. “I always try to add subtle Middle Eastern and Mediterranean details that hark back to Egypt and the UAE.” The very same details, grace and elegance that Abeer has incorporated into her clothing line are found throughout the couple’s home. “My favourite room would be the ‘Zen’ room, she says referring to a charming, smaller-sized space with sofa beds, a reformer and the most stunning expansive views out onto the Potomac. “This is my Zen space; I love open areas that have a lot of light. A few minutes here helps me to start my day on the right note.”
A view from the hallway leading to the dining room
The Al Otaiba mansion, while grand in size, is unassuming and discreet, just like Yousef and Abeer. While the home is punctuated with a few eminent designer names, most of the furniture is custom-made. “The project expanded overtime,” explains Behnke. “The second guest home was also entirely remodeled and related to the expansion of the family.” Numerous guest rooms all dressed in the same subdued yet elegant neutral colour palette with nearby kitchens and dining areas comprise the new extension. Clearly, hospitality, as it is in any Arab home, is pivotal to the functioning of the Al-Otaiba residence.
An interior view of the bathroom
On a lower level, just as you enter a TV room flanked by another kitchen, is a large aquarium. “I love aquariums – I find them so soothing,” says Yousef. “I wanted to have something that serves as a focal point. So that aquarium was built and brought in by a crane. It’s one of the principle elements that all of our guests are immediately attracted to.”
After Yousef takes the children to school he heads to the office and then spends the day running around congress, the state department and other venues catering to the needs of the hour and the day. Life is hectic. “Especially these days,” states Yousef. “Being an ambassador has a lot of different facets to it. While the government-to-government work is a big part of the role, on any given day we also have roughly 2,500 Emirati students studying here for whom we are responsible.
We also have an average at any given point of 1,500 Emirati patients and probably 1,000 escorting family members. On most days there are around 4,000 Emiratis in this country and we have a large team that tracks these people to ensure they are properly served.”Yousef’s responsibilities are presently at an all-time high. “From the 11 years I’ve been here, it’s far more challenging now than before – everything is politicised in the US,” says Yousef. “Our policy and national security interests are pretty much the same no matter who is in the White House. We as a country have not changed our policy on what is important.In the US where we are now and I suspect where this trend is leading us, is that you are going to have a very fluctuating foreign policy. From Republicans to Democrats to Democrats to Republicans, either way the foreign policy shifts are going to be pretty steep,” he adds.
Abeer Al Otaiba wears: Women’s Resort 2020, SemSem (look 10)
The UAE and the US have been partners since 1971, following the UAE’s formation and independence from the UK. In 1972 the two countries established formal diplomatic relations. The UAE remains a key partner of the US in the Middle East region. “I always say that if you look at the US-UAE relations as a stock it would be rising very consistently with the exception of a couple little blips,” explains Yousef. The UAE is a country that looks to the future with an anchor in the past. But how does one maintain that history and that identity whilst spearheading into the future?
“This is our biggest challenge,” answers Yousef. “It’s an identity challenge. Who are we: are we the traditional conservative Bedouin society or are we this very progressive, open and liberal society that we are becoming? The answer is that we are both.” As Yousef says, it’s about establishing the intersection between Emirati history and roots, embracing traditional Emirati culture, and moving fast into the future, with appointments such as having the first Minister of AI. “We just put our first astronaut into space,” he adds. “We spend a lot of time as a country talking and speaking about the future. We want to maintain a healthy balance between identifying with our culture and our history and the values that Sheikh Zayed instilled in the country and at the same time be this open, progressive and modern society.”
A view from the dining room
The sun has begun to set outside amidst the autumn tipped trees. Abeer’s slender frame can be seen entering the living room elegantly dressed in one of SemSem’s latest ensembles. Abeer and Yousef, like their stately abode, represent a new era – one that is as forward thinking as the UAE and as grounded in the past as the Middle Eastern touches that illuminate their Behnke-designed contemporary abode. Like their well-built home, shifts, flux, change, cannot change a structure well-conceived and so gracefully maintained.
Photography by JACOB + CARROL
From the Winter 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Interiors