Off hours: Country comes first for Kuwait’s under secretary of the Ministry of State for Youth Affairs
Sheikha Al Zain Al Sabah is Kuwait’s undersecretary of the Ministry of State for Youth Affairs. It is a key role in a country where half the native population is under 25. Before joining the government in May 2013, Ms Al Sabah, 40, was chairwoman and managing director of the company she founded, Eagle Vision Media Group, a production hub for media and entertainment projects. She has also worked in New York for ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings and produced and directed several political talk shows for Kuwaiti television.
How do you spend you weekends?
Writing – usually film scripts, and I love to write narrative non-fiction and fiction. I like to see how I can use elements of those stories in my everyday activity at the ministry. In my former life as a filmmaker, I had a lot of films produced that went on to film festivals. I cherish the idea of moving my mind away from the everyday into the creative realm. That’s where I find my safe haven – I love to dream a little.
How did you become Kuwait’s undersecretary of the Ministry of State for Youth Affairs?
Initially I spent a few months advising the minister of state for youth affairs (Sheikh Salman Sabah Salem Al Sabah) on formulating a new strategy for the youth of Kuwait, when this ministry was just being established. Then he asked me to take on this role. He wanted someone who had experience on the entrepreneurial front, who knew how to build SMEs and work within the current legislative infrastructure in Kuwait to make things happen. We brought in incredible young men and women to form a team around me and really start bringing together the language for a new government. I believe each and every one of us in the private sector should serve at least two years in government, to give back to the community and really change the system from within. It’s not the same as saying you want to consult for the government – it’s quite different to give up all the luxuries of the private sector and serve the people. I decided to put my name on the line to make sure change happens.
What advice would you offer others starting out in government?
They should treat it much like a start up and not abide by the way things were done in the past. Use the current legislative models available to the system, but to your advantage. Make sure you take risks, but calculated risks. Then change the system as you move forwards in the process, to make sure it is reformed and developed slowly, but hopefully surely.
What was the lowest point in your career?
In 1990, during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. I was 16 at the time but I’ll never forget it. We lost everything overnight. But at the same time, it was also the best learning point in my career. It has made me who I am today.
What’s your most indulgent habit?
Travel. It’s the only time that I totally switch off and be with my three kids who are aged 13, 10 and nine.
What do you have on your desk at work?
Mugs made by my kids. I also have my scripts, so I remember where I came from and the power of the narrative. I also have files and files of all the priorities that the youth of Kuwait have asked me to take on. I have 114 files of different projects.
What’s your go-to gadget?
It’s my biological gadget, which is my brain.
What can’t you live without?
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
Let’s not kid ourselves, you can’t have an equal work and home life and sustain that. What you need to do is prioritise and choose one or the other, over certain calculated and strategically placed periods of time. For me, from Sunday to Thursday, I know that I’m committed to working at the Ministry. Then from Friday to Saturday, and also part of Sunday, I’m 24-7 at the beck and call of my kids. That’s the only way I’ve found to do it. When you’re a public servant, you’re a servant. You’re there to serve the people, not to serve yourself or your family. The time that I’m with the government is time I take very seriously.
If you could swap jobs with anyone, who would it be and why?
My mother. I’d love to be able to see the development of a fully integrated household that’s complete with so much energy, love and affection. My mother is a housewife who has an absolute commitment to the greater idea of the state of Kuwait. She brought us up to believe fully that we’re there to serve the country. I’d like to be in her shoes, just to see how much vision that would entail. She would tell us kids: “Kuwait comes first and everything else comes last.” It’s rare to have those ideas – usually your husband, your household or your children come first but for her, Kuwait comes first.
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