x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Power couples of the UAE share their secrets of success

Some couples seem to balance it all effortlessly: homes, careers, family. What are their secrets to success?

Dominic Jermey, the British ambassador to the UAE, and Clare Roberts, a paediatric specialist.
Dominic Jermey, the British ambassador to the UAE, and Clare Roberts, a paediatric specialist.

Some high-achieving husband-and-wife teams explain to Tahira Yaqoob how they juggle careers, family and relationships and find strength in the busy lifestyle they have chosen not only through success in their fields but also by making time for each other.

We had the age of the high-powered career women who amazed us all by holding down executive jobs while raising families. Then we had the backlash against supermum: a cry from women everywhere complaining they could not, as it turned out, have it all.

Even Helen Fielding, the multimillionaire Bridget Jones's Diary author who started her family in her 40s, finally threw her hands up in despair and confessed: "It's a modern disease. They feel they should be getting up at six in the morning and going to the gym, then doing a full day's work, coming back late and having to feed 12 people for dinner."

But there are couples here in the UAE who prove that theory wrong who show that if it's true that "behind every great man is a great woman", then the same can be said in reverse.

They are the power couples of the Emirates, who are an inspiring example of how, with a little effort, one can strike the perfect balance between work, family and home life.

M talks to five such couples about the challenges they face in juggling careers and relationships.

 

Nujoom Alghanem and Khalid al Budoor

Nujoom Alghanem, 48, is an award-winning Emirati film director and poet. Her husband Khalid al Budoor, 49, is one of the Emirates' most celebrated poets and a researcher and scriptwriter for her films. Their documentary Hamama won the Muhr Emirati Special Jury Prize at last year's Dubai International Film Festival. They have been married for 25 years and live in a villa in Jumeirah with their daughters: Nahar, 23; Fatima, 20; and Reem, 12.

NUJOOM: We met when I was 17 and Khalid was 19. I had just finished high school and had already been working as a journalist while studying.

I had a dream of organising a journalists' society so I met some reporters to talk about the idea, including Khalid. The society did not succeed but our relationship did.

My father felt I had to get married to one of my relatives so I had to stand up to him and we married in 1985.

My father was illiterate but wise and wanted us to be educated. I get my strength from him.

I was made the head of the cultural and art department at Al Ittihad newspaper and became a mother but my salary did not reflect my position because I did not have a degree. Khalid encouraged me to continue my education so when I was 28, I went to Ohio University to study television production. I travelled far away with two children because of the image of America he imprinted on my mind.

I had a scholarship from the Ministry of Education and finished a four-year course in three years because I was afraid he would finish his master's before me and I would be left alone; I worked like crazy.

Our relationship is very strong because we give each other space, which makes us appreciate each other more.

When I started making documentaries, Khalid convinced me to set my first film, Between Two Banks, in Dubai. He was the researcher and scriptwriter.

I thought it would be good to establish a film scene here. I feel a responsibility for preserving these traditions of life.

My dream is to produce fiction films but the business we have chosen is a tough one. For me, it is important to be with a husband who encourages you and stands beside you. It is not easy. I know so many couples who suffer because of miscommunication and arrogance or selfishness. Khalid has always been very supportive and encouraging.

I have learnt many things from him, such as how important it is to discuss everything and to compromise. Several times we have decided not to work together.

When there are strong opinions on both sides, it sometimes becomes an issue but we keep talking about it. We try to give our children the right opportunities to grow and learn skills in many areas to be ready for the world.

KHALID: When I met Nujoom, we started talking about poetry, art and photography and had so many things in common.

It was very hard to get married though, as both families refused and wanted us to have arranged marriages.

I encouraged Nujoom in her studies because I thought she would explore new areas in documentaries. It was important for her career to go where she could explore the educational side and find support for her artistic endeavours.

We are not working in a commercial industry but in the field of culture and art. It is hard to convince people we are doing something worthy and conveying a message.

Nujoom and I complement each other: I focus on the culture and heritage and she picks up on the personal aspect of the people we film.

I cannot imagine being the person I am now without Nujoom. We share ideas and dialogue regarding life and art. She sees the other side of the coin, things I cannot; it gives our life richness.

When there is disagreement, especially when we work together on films, it is not easy to accept the other person's viewpoint.

Sometimes it gets intense. Artistic choices are always very personal.

When we get home, everyone goes to their individual study room for a bit to let things settle.

The important thing is to give the other person their own space to do the things they like. I always knew Nujoom had the potential to be artistic, so to see her happy and doing the things she loves makes me happy.

That is the secret of a successful marriage - supporting each other's dreams and facing challenges together in life, happy or otherwise.

 

Lars and Soraya Narfeldt

Swede Lars Narfeldt, 43, was a project manager for UN missions in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Uzbekistan and Palestine for seven years, overseeing up to 2,000 staff and helping reconstruct war-damaged villages. He helped launch a company called Reconstruction Assistance International (RAI) in Dubai with his wife, Soraya, 42, in 2004 to provide a service supplying logistics to charities and governments rebuilding the same areas. Lars went on to develop a private investment company with a turnover of US$75 million (Dh275million) and is the founder of Kollektion & Co, which promotes high-end Scandinavian brands. Soraya, who has Scottish, Lebanese and Sierra Leonean heritage, is the director of RAI. She has three children: two from a previous marriage - Anwar, 23, and Samer Kanje, 21 - and five-year-old Adam with Lars.

LARS: I never thought I would get married. I thought my life was a career in the UN but it was love at first sight. I was working with the UN in Sierra Leone and was sitting in a friend's house when in walked his friend Soraya.

She did not stop talking for the full 45 minutes she was there so I told her: 'You are the most fabulous woman I have ever met.'

I proposed on April 10, 2002, on our favourite balcony in Freetown with a fabulous view over the Atlantic and we married in a simple ceremony in Las Vegas 20 days later.

In the peace accord between north and south Sudan, we had done a lot of purchase and procurement deals in Dubai so when we launched our own company, it seemed natural to set up our office here.

The first year, we were both working for RAI. It was hard to juggle with family life: we saw each other once a week for a couple of hours and would pack a lot into one evening. It was tough because we would be taking decisions on our own and working long hours. We were tired and ratty and would have rows but we kept laughing through it all.

We bought our home in The Meadows in 2004 and we love it here. It is our first home after many years of sleeping on bad mattresses and it is full of beautiful things we have accumulated on our travels, from the bronze sculptures from Benin to the black leather chairs from Sweden.

I miss my old life sometimes when I get a text message from my wife saying she has found a nice jazz bar in Chad and the music is amazing - but I get to visit her world every now and then.

SORAYA: I had volunteered for a year with the UN and was in Sierra Leone to see my mother when I met Lars. I had been married for 11 years before and have two children from my first marriage and never thought I would marry again.

The one great thing we have is we laugh at each other, even in the worst of circumstances. We can have interesting discussions about anything.

Now that Lars is no longer in the same field as me, it is fun to listen to each other and not have the same conversation about work. For me, furniture is a serviceable item but he likes what he does and has an eye for aesthetics. I really admire that.

We love just being at home because we never had one before; we had been living out of suitcases all over lives. I could, as a working mother, have help for the children but I don't. It is hard juggling but we are fairly organised and make sure we are here for dinner whenever possible.

We have two separate spaces where we can go to do our own thing, which helps. It is great to bounce ideas off each other because we are in two diverse entities. We still laugh the same way we did 10 years ago. We still argue about the same things. You have to allow for arguments, listen to each other and support each other.

 

Dominic Jermey and Clare Roberts

Dominic Jermey, 43, was appointed the British ambassador to the UAE last year. His wife, Clare Roberts, also 43, is a consultant paediatric ophthalmologist at Moorfields Eye Hospital in Dubai. They have been married for eight years and live in Abu Dhabi with their children, a boy, seven, and a girl, four.

DOMINIC: We met when we were both at Cambridge University. We had mutual friends but didn't date until 16 years later. One of my best friends was Clare's cousin and we both went to his baby's christening.

It was lucky we were in the same country. I was doing UN peacekeeping for the Foreign Office and had been in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Balkans and East Timor while Clare was just back from six months working as a doctor in Cape Town.

We were grown up and ready for a relationship. But seeing Clare again still took me by surprise. Just as we were getting to know each other again I was sent off to Afghanistan. It underlined how I felt about her. We met when we could. We went on picnics and Clare visited me at the Foreign Office. I proposed after nine months at twilight on a mountainside in the south of France. Then we had a week of hiking in the Pyrenees, which probably tested our relationship more than anything has since.

Our lives are very busy. My role means a lot of moving every two or three years and we have an understanding that we have to consider each other in any major decisions. Some places are easier for Clare to work in than others. In America she would have to resit all her exams so she has told me I cannot be ambassador to Washington until she's retired.

CLARE: I knew that Dominic was "the one" about three weeks after we started dating but I didn't tell him. I didn't want to scare him off. I met his family very early on as he was awarded an Order of the British Empire [OBE] a week after we started dating, which was a lovely celebration. We married in a church wedding in Kingston upon Thames. Our first child was born nine months and four days later. That is where the juggling really began.

I'd got my first consultant job and taken maternity leave. I knew I wanted to carry on in medicine so after six months I went back to work and returned from Spain to the UK with the baby. Dominic commuted once every fortnight for a four-day weekend. It was hard but family and friends helped. When an opportunity to do a clinic in Spain came up, it was wonderful. By then I was confident I could be both a doctor and a mother.

Being married to an ambassador complicates things. Most people do not leave a consultant position a couple of years after getting it. One of the exciting things for me about coming to the UAE is the opportunity to work at Moorfields. Of course I am also Mrs Ambassador. That could take up all my time but I have to be selective with what I do.

As told to Laura Collins

 

Eileen and Mike Wallis

US-born Eileen Wallis, 40, and her husband, Mike, 39, both worked as lobbyists in Washington DC before moving to Dubai in 1998. Mike was made company director of an exhibitions firm before creating his own public relations company, Wallis Marketing Consultants, in 1999. Eileen initially worked for him before launching her own marketing firm in 2005, The Portsmouth Group, with clients including Art Dubai and Doha Tribeca Film Festival. They live in a villa in Media City, Dubai, with their children, Lily, nine, and George, seven.

EILEEN: We both worked at different times for the US Telecommunications Industry Association, a lobby group helping US manufacturers get their products sold around the world.

It was my first proper job after studying communications, art history and English at university in Virginia and was a lot of pressure at the age of 22.

Mike and I were introduced over lunch at a trade show in Dallas, Texas. I thought he was articulate, well-presented and really funny. I could tell immediately he did not care for me.

But we kept seeing each other at the same events and ended up dating. When a job opportunity came up for him in Dubai as an events director for an exhibitions firm, it sounded exotic and immensely appealing.

I had travelled before and had a real taste for it.

We got married in Florida and moved here in 1998. Initially I worked for Oracle but in August 2000 after Mike started his own company, I began working with him. I was there five years and had a fantastic time.

One of our clients then had the idea of me setting up on my own to deal with potential conflict and proprietorial multinationals.

I took a healthy sized batch of our clients and set up office in the same building. It was not a start-up which made things easier.

Expatriates back then were far more adventurous and entrepreneurial. There was a sense of enormous opportunity for good people. I have such faith in Mike's judgement. We have a lot of discussions and freely air opinions.

Between us we have 50 consultants and 50 clients. We collaborate on a lot of things; we do not want to compete against each other so we will discuss who will go for a pitch while the other helps them.

Both of our sets of parents have been married for more than 40 years, which is a great example to us. We have a good home life to counter-balance our work life. Our children are tons of fun and love to travel with us.

We talk about general frustrations but the rant is over much faster because the other person understands immediately what the difficulties are.

MIKE: I studied public administration and public policy analysis at George Washington University.

I had an interest in meeting Eileen because she had previously worked for my employer but I was immensely put off by her at the trade show.

We were surrounded by multinational company reps and there is a real pecking order about who you talk to - and there was this short, brash blonde talking to everyone by their first names. She was too outgoing, too informal and did not seem to have respect for the system.

My boss amused himself by pushing us together. I said: "She's not at all my type."

But after being sat together two or three times, we found we had a similar sense of humour and the same sense about people. The Dubai job offer accelerated our engagement. We went to get Chinese food and I said: "What do you think about being a serial expat?"

I worked as an events director for 18 months and ended up running the company. I was meeting oil ministers, banking officials and travelling extensively through the Gulf and North Africa.

When I created Wallis Marketing in 1999, it was a three-man show with no clients. Acer was our first client and is still with us.

There were opportunities for us to grow more quickly and get into new areas of business if we had a separate entity, separate brand identity and team.

Initially the idea of splitting the business into two seemed ridiculous. The idea that you would put your heart and soul into creating this brand to then create this other brand seemed a big headache.

But it was not as if one of us had a grand business plan and the other conflicted. We love what we do and are good at our jobs - that makes it fun.

We have developed professionally and personally at the same time, which has enabled us to see each other as equals.

 

Irina and Warren Foster

Irina Foster, 37, is a Russian engineer with three degrees who works on sustainable design projects for government and public buildings in Abu Dhabi. She met her husband, Warren, 44, while working on military bases in the US in 2004. Boston-born Warren spent 22 years in the US military as a major in the special forces, serving in Iraq and the Gulf war. He speaks five languages, including Arabic and Haitian Creole. He retired from the army in 2007 and now works as a freelance military consultant. They live in Abu Dhabi with their sons, Nicholas, five, and Michael, three.

IRINA: We were both working at the same military base in North Carolina. I was there as an engineer but was thinking about joining the army as part of the civil military and Warren took me on a tour of the base.

I already had tremendous respect for the special forces because they are an elite unit. They had this aura about them. He was very upfront and honest about the risks and convinced me to reconsider.

I knew he liked me and I knew I liked him. There was no discussion necessary. That's the thing about Warren, he does not waste time. Special forces guys grab opportunities when they see it. Guys like him are type A males - determined and extremely aggressive.

Our first proper date was a 12-hour obstacle course, which involved biking, cycling and swimming. It meant a lot more than a romantic dinner. We share a lot of similar interests.

We got married in October 2005. It is very difficult being married to an officer and the stress when he goes away does not get any easier with time. Work and exercise help.

We moved here for a better life. Since he retired, Warren has been travelling a lot less and for shorter periods of time. We talk about where we want to be. It is very important to me to be productive and for my children to see both parents living life outside the house and contributing to the family wellbeing.

Our relationship is largely based on respect. We are good friends and a team. I think it is important for working women to respect their husbands for what they do. In Warren's case, what he does and who he is are very much intertwined. It is difficult to tell where one starts and the other stops.

He is very wise. Sometimes when I get stressed and tell him I cannot reach a goal, he says: "Honey, all you have to do is change the goal."

WARREN: I enlisted at 17 because I wanted a challenge and could not afford college at the time. When you are very young, jumping out of airplanes seems a lot more exciting than anything else on offer.

I had been married once before but divorced in 2003. It is not a good thing for relationships when you are deployed all the time and my first wife could not handle the stress, particularly when I had a finger blown off by a grenade in Iraq.

It was love at first sight for me and Irina. She was single, beautiful and had three master's degrees - who could ask for more? I pretty much talked her out of signing up as she would have been in the thick of the action.

Actually I just wanted an excuse to take her to dinner. I was in the first special forces unit to go into Iraq in 2003 and the Gulf war. It is one of the few jobs I could do or want to do.

I had to think hard about staying in after we had the boys. I had been to Iraq and Afghanistan half a dozen times and had a lot of close calls.

It's definitely different when you're married. I think about family a lot and feel bad because they are putting up with the stress.

Retiring in 2007 was a family decision. Although I still go overseas as a consultant, it is for shorter periods of time. The big thing is communication and being able to talk about things, whether good or bad. It is easy to get so overwhelmed by work that you forget about each other.

We are still not as successful as I would like to be. We have our differences but I don't think you ever stop discovering one another.