x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

International affairs

Features Colin Randall meets the Emirati husband and wife team whose commitment to their country has led them to take up separate ambassadorships in Italy and Spain.

Abdulaziz al Shamsi adopts a philosophical attitude to the time away from his home country.
Abdulaziz al Shamsi adopts a philosophical attitude to the time away from his home country.

Colin Randall meets the Emirati husband and wife team whose commitment to their country has led them to take up separate ambassadorships in Italy and Spain. For the Emirati career diplomat, there may be little to choose between postings as ambassador to Madrid and Rome. Both are outstandingly beautiful cities in friendly countries with ever closer commercial and cultural ties to the UAE. Both present ample opportunity to spread the word about the country's hospitable and tolerant nature. But what if your country wishes you to be the ambassador to one, and your wife the other? Then the decision becomes a little more tricky.

It was a dilemma that had to be confronted in one Abu Dhabi household, and the joint call to service called for some soul-searching by Abdulaziz al Shamsi and his wife, Hissa al Otaiba. Each was already engaged in public service at a high level, Mr al Shamsi as head of protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dr al Otaiba in management support at the Abu Dhabi Department of Planning and Economy. A number of friends suspected they would surely decline the new appointments rather than split up the family.

Those friends were mistaken. On a chilly Tuesday in the middle of December, a horse-drawn carriage carried Dr al Otaiba to the palace of King Juan Carlos for the formal ceremony installing her as ambassador to Spain. Early in the new year, her husband will take up similar duties as ambassador to Italy. To the al Shamsis, two endlessly energetic people equally committed to extending awareness of their country in the wider world, the new challenges are a source of immense pride. Both recognise that the periods of separation will bring sacrifice and bouts of loneliness; such feelings, however, are overwhelmed by a powerful sense of duty, and the honour they feel in being asked to represent the Emirates overseas.

And for Dr al Otaiba, there is a significant historical dimension. She is one of the UAE's first two female ambassadors, a privilege shared with Sheikha Nadjla Al Qassimi, who has been posted to Sweden. She is also the first female Arab head of mission in Spain. As they reflected at home on the offers made by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister, on the authority of Sheikh Khalifa, the President of the UAE, to take charge of separate embassies in Europe, the couple reached their decision much more easily than might have been expected. Far from resisting the idea, their children were wholeheartedly in favour.

"The chance to do something like this for your country is a really big thing," says Dr al Otaiba, seated at her desk in a functional four-storey building opposite the Spanish ministry of industry, tourism and commerce in a business quarter of Madrid. "It was a great honour from Sheikh Khalifa. The children were a real support - 'go for it', one of them said - and my husband was very encouraging, too. He didn't want to say it, because he wanted me to take the decision, but I felt it."

Like Sheikha Nadjla, Dr al Otaiba sees her appointment as a further demonstration of the social advance of Emirati women, an emancipation with origins in the bold vision of Sheikh Zayed as he developed the modern Gulf state. "When you see how Sheikh Zayed started it all those years ago, what is happening now was to be predicted," she says. "He encouraged women to go to school, have higher education and have position, and we are seeing some of the results. If you read the history of the Emirates, it is quite logical, not a surprise. You also see all Sheikha Fatima is doing to encourage women? you feel everybody - the Rulers, all the important people - giving encouragement, and this places a great trust in you, a lot of responsibility to prove you can do what is expected of you."

The progress of Emirati women, she says, is increasingly evident at the uppermost levels, from ministerial power to senior business and medical functions; her own sister is an ophthalmologist with a clinic in the capital. "For women to become ambassadors is just another step in the same direction. Sheikh Zayed started it, Sheikh Khalifa is following and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid has some very bright women in his Cabinet, too.

"I don't think Emirati women are behind others in the world. They have the support of their families, leaders and the Government, they have the education and they can do well in any kind of job." Born in Abu Dhabi, Dr al Otaiba drew inspiration from her late father, Abdullah Ahmed al Otaiba, who served as vice president of the National Consultative Council. Even as a girl, she felt her career path would lead abroad.

With her husband, whom she met while studying in Cairo, she has lived in Brussels, Tunis, Geneva, Brasilia, Paris and New York. Languages come easily to her; she already speaks Spanish as well as Arabic, English, French and Portuguese. In the past, she has held senior positions in other areas of public work, as a school principal, supervising the UAE's United Nations Development Programme operations team and in her recent work at the Department of Planning and Economy.

Dr al Otaiba points out that while ambassadors' wives conventionally may not pursue careers unless also serving their countries, they often play a crucial part in ensuring their husbands' success. In Brazil she helped Mr al Shamsi behind the scenes as he established the UAE's first South American mission, his ambassadorial duties also covering Chile and Argentina. When he was the ambassador to the UN in New York - a position he took up a few days before the September 11 attacks - she took charge of information technology for groups of envoys' wives.

In Spain, where she runs a mission employing about 20 people, she sees enormous scope for building on existing warm relations. The bond stems in recent times from the close friendship the king enjoyed with Sheikh Zayed, but inevitably owes much to the cultural legacy of the Moorish rule that began early in the eighth century, stretching for nearly 800 years until power was finally wrested from Berber-Hispanic Muslims in their remaining stronghold of Granada.

For Dr al Otaiba, contemporary thought on the past is based more on a spirit of co-operation and mutual benefit than on conflict. She recalls with pleasure a speech made by a Spanish mayor in Granada at the inauguration of a large statue of Abdul Rahman, the first Caliph of what is now Andalusia. Far from dwelling on ancient enmity, the mayor had spoken of common heritage. "He didn't talk of Arabs coming, conquering and colonising but of bringing their civilisation, which then passed through Spain to Europe."

Dr al Otaiba sees an important aspect of her work as promoting a raft of commercial, artistic and educational links. Looking beyond Spanish borders, she expects to fulfil Sheikh Khalifa's desire that the UAE should also reach out to Latin America. "I am naturally an optimist," she says when asked about the tasks ahead. Instead of worrying about difficulties she may face, she talks of applying whatever qualities she is "lucky to have" to the strengthening of the Emirati-Spanish partnership.

It is Dr al Otaiba's firm view that anyone who travels abroad instantly becomes an ambassador for his or her country. "Whatever we do, our country is judged," she says. This outlook is shared by her husband. Mr al Shamsi remained in Abu Dhabi when she left to ensure a smooth handover to his successor, who will assume his responsibilities for the stewardship of visits to the UAE by heads of state, royalty and other dignitaries. Offering tea and dates at his office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he speaks with enthusiasm about his own forthcoming move.

"I have only been to Rome as a tourist," he says, with a laugh. "But it is a fantastic country. The people are extremely nice and I like the way the Italians live their lives." After 28 years as a career diplomat, Mr al Shamsi is relaxed about the need to uproot every few years. "I don't find it difficult to live outside the country," he says. "I like the diplomatic service, and I enjoy serving my country."

Born in Ajman and educated there and in Dubai, Mr al Shamsi comes from a prominent Emirati family with widespread business interests. Although he graduated in business administration studies in Cairo, the lure of diplomacy was irresistible. His first role overseas was in Brussels in 1982; before the year was out, he had gained his first promotion and, two years later, he transferred to Tunisia. A series of career advancements saw him rise and, in 1990, he became the deputy director of the Department of Arab Nations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He rose within months to Minister Plenipotentiary, a role carrying the title of ambassador. Soon he was awarded his first ambassadorial posting, the stiff challenge in Brasilia of building a UAE mission from scratch. The early days in Brazil were tough. Mr al Shamsi was apart from his wife, had little Portuguese and at first found it difficult to develop contacts. But he worked at forging cordial relationships with diplomats from other countries, often inviting them home to dine or play cards. The charm offensive paid off; the couple look back on their time there, once the family was reunited, as "very fruitful". The next overseas posting, to France, must have felt like a reward.

Mr al Shamsi's face lights up at talk of Paris. The al Shamsis' first home there was in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower; then they bought a house in the smart suburb of Neuilly, close to the town hall occupied by Nicolas Sarkozy as mayor. When Sarkozy visited the UAE as president of France, Mr al Shamsi reminded him that they were once neighbours. "I wasn't sure whether he remembered," the ambassador admits.

Mr al Shamsi is a passionate sportsman, both as a participant and spectator. He prides himself on being able to spot exceptional promise in unknown footballers and declare them stars of the future. Two of his previous spots include AC Milan's mercurial midfielder Ronaldinho and the French-Algerian Ali Benarbia whose later career included a Player of the Season award at Manchester City. He makes no such claims, however, in the case of Sarkozy. It was, after all, in the mid-1990s; so early in the presidency of Jacques Chirac, no one was talking of Sarko as a president in the making.

In his own work, he made a striking impression on President Chirac. Their encounters were frequent and warm enough for Chirac to address him as mon cher ami: his achievements, in improving understanding between the countries, brought him a medal of the French Legion d'Honneur. Mr al Shamsi makes no secret of his fondness for the City of Light. Memories of sipping coffee at Les Deux Magots, the renowned St Germain haunt of Sartre and Beauvoir, were still fresh when, after a two-year stint back at the ministry in Abu Dhabi, he was appointed Permanent Representative to the United Nations. It took time to come to terms with a city that drank its Starbucks decaf lattes from cardboard cups while walking to work.

To be in New York in September 2001 was to live through one of the traumatic events of modern history. The diplomatic shield could not isolate the al Shamsis from the social repercussions of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Mr al Shamsi remembers the city emptying, businesses shutting up shop, even the hotel in which his family was living suspending many of its facilities. Dining out, the ambassador and his wife would be approached by strangers, asking what they, as Arabs, and from one of the countries in which the hijackers originated, made of what had happened.

"I don't blame them, but it was a difficult time," he says. The first few weeks were especially troubling. But Mr al Shamsi applied all his skills of diplomacy to proving to Americans that he represented a country of wholly peaceful intentions. "Americans are nice people," he says, "and of course they are multinational. You have Chinese Americans, Indian Americans, Arab Americans, Japanese Americans and so on, and they are very friendly. The man in your lift will tell you his life story in a minute before you reach your floor."

Apart from one minor incident, some time after September 11, there was no real antagonism. The al Shamsis' attachment to New York grew, as can be seen in the weekly column written for this magazine by their elder daughter, Fatima, who studies there. And ultimately, Mr al Shamsi feels, the true diplomat adopts a philosophical disposition. "When you leave your home country, you have to expect anything," he says, "No one forces you to go. It was for me to live with the situation."

Now, as the al Shamsis face up to being apart for more than they have been in their 25 years together, their thoughts are dominated by that philosophy of accepting the demands of the lives they have chosen. The Middle East already has one diplomatic couple who have had to live with the consequences of both partners having high-flying careers. The US ambassador to the UAE, Richard G Olson, is married to Deborah K Jones, who holds the same position in Kuwait. The al Shamsis' variation of their geographical separation means they cannot say with any certainty when they will all be together as a family again.

But Hissa al Otaiba knows she made the right decision. She relishes the opportunity to tell the Spanish more about the identity of the Emirates, to impress upon them the hospitable and tolerant nature of the country, and the great strides it has made in just 37 years. Having lived in Egypt, Europe, North Africa and North and South America, she finds the expatriate life unthreatening. "I don't think of being out of my country as a bad thing," she says. "It's good to be learning new things, new culture, to be representing your country even informally. Yes, I feel homesick but this is something, a way of life, that now is part of me."