In Recognition of Rima Al-Sabah's Social Activism in Washington

How the Diplomat's Spouse Recast Arab Woman's Image in World's Most Powerful Capital
3- Sheikh Salem Al-Sabah, Ambassador of Kuwait to the US (L) and Sheikha Rima Al-Sabah (2nd L), with UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Nicole Kidman and husband Keith Urban, at the Annual Gala of the Kuwait-America Foundation on 11 March 2012. (Photo credit: flickr)

Last week, Rima Al-Sabah, wife of Salem Al-Sabah, Kuwaiti ambassador to the US, and a former Lebanese journalist, held her last major international reception, concluding 21 years of Arab and Muslim activism in the US, as her husband’s official tenure came to an end.

Two of her opinions about America, 15 years apart, illustrated her story in America:

In 2007, she told “Vanity Fair” magazine: “We came to Washington three weeks before September 11, and what happened was a shock. On September 12, I had a lunch invitation … The first question I was asked was ‘Did you see what you Arabs did?’ I was horrified.”

Last week, she told “The Washington Post”: “I have embraced Washington, and it has embraced me back. All you have to do is reach out and embrace …  It has been an amazing, fabulous ride. I’ve loved every minute of it.”

“Vanity Fair” contrasted the husband, “a soft-spoken ambassador”, and his wife, the “intense and flamboyant, with platinum-blond hair down to the middle of her back”.

Within a few years after their arrival, the husband jumped to the front row of foreign diplomats in Washington, thanks to the strong relations between the two countries that faced a strong test in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the US led a military coalition that liberated Kuwait.

Sheikha Rima Al-Sabah (KUNA)

 

On her part, Rima cultivated Washington’s social scene, befriending first ladies, top government officials and members of Congress, men and women. In 2007, when she gave birth to her fourth child (at age 45), invitations to the first of four baby showers were mailed four months in advance, and 120 women attended.

Rima’s activism didn’t only cross gender, but, also, political differences, in the world’s most important capital. As of 2009, when she was named by “The Washingtonian” magazine as one of the 100 most distinctive women in Washington in the field of advocacy and nonprofit work.

She was the only Arab, and only foreigner, to make the list.

But, aware of the Americans’ stereotype of Arab and Muslims, her activism, smartly enough, avoided being only about Arabs and Muslims. In 2005, she started an Annual Gala Dinner to raise money for different causes: to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); to United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF); to Project HOPE (Health Opportunities for People Everywhere); to reduce malaria in Africa; and to fight climate change.

Within these organizations, she helped Iraqi refugees who had fled their country, because of the US-led invasion in 2003, and wanted to return home; to improve educational opportunities for children in Afghanistan; and to build schools for girls in remote parts of Pakistan.

In 2011, “The New Republic'', a liberal magazine asked “Why Washington’s Elite Loves Rima Al-Sabah Parties.” The report started by describing her “uncannily smooth skin, full lips, enormous brown eyes, and a thick mane of long gold hair". But the report quickly jumped to the list of her guests throughout the years that included: Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. and Laura Bush, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, House of Representatives leader Nancy Pelosi, former Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry, Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen Breyer; also, Hollywood Stars Ben Affleck, Michael Douglas, and Angelina Jolie.

Needless to add, Rima family’s wealth has been a major factor in helping her towards achieving her goals, and, thereby, scoring more points than the Arabs and Muslims known for rhetoric, confrontation and unfulfilled promises. 

And that has been exactly what worked – and needed -- in Washington: lavish parties, sophistication and personal relations.

In 2011, Eliza Gray of “The New Republic” visited Rima at her home, and quoted Buffy Cafritz, a longtime Washington socialite, reading from a menu she’d saved from a recent luncheon with Rima, and saying. “She served asparagus vichyssoise and sea bass and pureed potatoes and a raspberry sorbet”.

Gray described her own visit to Rima: “She showed me the fountain room, where large parties are held, on intricate aqua-green, red, and turquoise floor tiles which were imported from Positano, Italy … We sat on an ornately upholstered sofa, and she served me Middle Eastern finger food. Rima told me that the seating plan for the large party took three days to arrange. On the first day, she conducts a three-hour session with diagrams of twelve tables of twelve people. On day two, she makes strategic moves. Day three is for finalizing the plan and last-minute change”.

For Rima and her husband, apparently the strategy of elegance and sophistication worked better than that of confrontation, because Rima, throughout the years, continued to receive high marks from her guests – and from the media.

In 2011, “The Washingtonian” magazine put her as one of the most powerful women in Washington, and, again, in 2013, and, again, in 2019. In 2015, “The Washington Life” magazine, also, put her as one of Washington’s most prominent women. 

But most of the praise came from officials of the organizations that received donations from Rima’s Annual Gala Dinner, like UNHCR, UNICEF and Project HOPE.

Sheikh Salem Al-Sabah (L) and his wife Sheikha Rima Al-Sabah (1st R) with former Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence in Kuwait’s Embassy Annual Gala Dinner in 2018. (KUNA)

She received praise also from a variety of Arab and Muslim organizations, like WISE (Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality), a branch of the New York-based American Society for Muslim Advancement “(ASMA)

Last week, First Lady Jill Biden was the guest of honor at the Annual Gala Dinner, which this time raised about a million dollars for a United Nations program assisting Ukrainian refugees. The event was attended also by CIA Director William J. Burns, UNHCR’s Filippo Grandi, actor Ben Stiller, Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova, members of Congress and corporate executives. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to give remarks, but he canceled at the last minute after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Rima described the evening to “The Washington Post” as “the perfect example of what you can accomplish with relentless determination, an incomparable team, and the support and generosity of amazing friends and partners.”


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