Kuwait Ambassador Salem Al-Sabah and Rima Al-Sabah
Washington Life recently met with Ambassador Salem Al-Sabah and his wife Rima Al-Sabah of Kuwait as part of a series of interviews with “Power Couples” who live in Washington. Recently, the government of Kuwait announced that it will contribute half a billion dollars in oil and cash for the hurricane Katrina relief effort. The Ambassador, who is also a member of the ruling family of Kuwait, took his post in 2001, three weeks before 9/11. Since living in Washington the dynamic duo have made a name for themselves on the political stage as well as with the A-List social circuit. Recently WL visited with the Al Sabah’s at their private residence in Washington to develop a deeper understanding of this extraordinary power couple and to discuss their philanthropic, political and social activities in Washington.
Washington Life: The government of Kuwait recently announced that it would be giving $500 million to the United States for humanitarian assistance to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. What was the impetus for this incredibly generous gift? Ambassador Salem
Al-Sabah: It is our duty as friends and it is our pleasure to come to the assistance of the United States in its hour of need. The people of Kuwait were devastated when they saw the amount of destruction that Katrina left in its wake. Our government announced this donation because we are close friends of the United States and you know, “friends in need are friends indeed.” The United States was there for us in our hour of need back in 1990.
WL: When will the assistance arrive and in what form will it be provided?
SAS: Four hundred million dollars of the aid package will be in fuel and crude oil and one hundred million will be in the form of humanitarian assistance and cash. As we speak, we are in discussion with the administration about the legalities of transferring both the fuel package and the humanitarian package.
WL: Will you place any conditions on the aid?
SAS: No, absolutely no conditions. It is entirely up to the U.S. and the various Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s). We are looking at the Red Cross, The Bush-Clinton Fund and other NGO’s. Of course, the fuel will be given directly to the U.S. government. So it’s a broad spectrum of recipients and it will be entirely up to them to decide how best to dispense it.
WL: George Washington University is receiving $3.3 million from the Kuwaiti Foundation for the Advancement of the Sciences to fund a chair for Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula affairs, also known as “the Kuwaiti Chair.” How do you hope this will impact the education of American students about the Near East?
SAS: What September 11th brought to the forefront was the need for more knowledge in America about our region and more knowledge about America in our region. It’s reciprocal. We believe there is a lack of curriculum [in American universities] concerning Middle Eastern countries and Middle Eastern issues hence the need to establish a chair for [Persian] Gulf studies.More people know about each other, the less chance there is for violence to erupt between communities.
WL: Are the same number of students coming to America from Kuwait as before 9/11? Does the Kuwaiti government or people encourage students to study here?
SAS: Absolutely, and with full government scholarships. Currently the embassy oversees the study of approximately 1,600 students here in the United States. After 9/11, I think we lost 50 percent of our students because of visa and other issues but Kuwaiti students are starting to come back. In two to five years, we’ll be up to the pre 9/11 numbers.
WL: Mrs. Al-Sabah, you conceived, organized and hosted the “Tribute to Friendship” Benefit Dinner for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at your residence. You amazed all of Washington by single-handedly raising $1 million. What is the secret to your success?
Rima Al-Sabah: The secret is to believe in what you are doing and to be passionate about it. There had not been a single fundraiser for Iraqi women and children in Washington and UNHCR was in urgent need of funds to help Iraqi women and children return to their homeland. It was the right cause and the right thing to do and everybody was very supportive. It was truly a Kuwaiti- American partnership for Iraq.
WL: You draw the largest attendance of A-listers in town to your dinners, which are attended by cabinet members, White House officials, CEOs of large corporations, and famous actresses such as Angelina Jolie. What is it about the style and feel of your events that make them such a hot ticket?
SAS: We love Washington and Washington has welcomed us. I think Rima really immerses herself, putting every ounce of her fiber into preparing for the events. She’s meticulous in setting them up. RAS: The first secret of a successful party is the seating and knowing who will have great conversation with whom. SAS: Don’t give your secrets away Rima! [laughs]
WL: You have been called the top Embassy hosts right now. How do you feel about that and do you think that is an accurate statement.
RAS: It’s not for us to say but it’s a great compliment.
WL: On March 8, 2006 you are hosting the “Bridges of Hope” Benefit Dinner with the Kuwait America Foundation. What is going to happen that night?
RAS: The dinner will benefit UNICEF for the rehabilitation of schools in Afghanistan and will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of UNICEF and international women’s day. For 15 years, girls in Afghanistan were deprived of an education and the country has a whole generation of illiterate women. It is an issue very dear to my heart. Corporations such as Chevron Texaco, Dow Chemical, Shell, and Exxon Mobil, among others have been very generous and we are very close to reaching our goal of $1 million.
SAS: One million dollars is not going to go very far, of course, in fixing the educational system in Afghanistan, but it’s a start. And hopefully it will open a few hearts and minds to carry the program even further.
WL: Switching to the personal, may I ask how did you two meet?
SAS: We met in college at the American University of Beirut 23 years ago. RAS:, It was love at first sight. I had met my soul mate. He was doing his Master’s in Political Science and I was doing my B.A, and we used to sit down and write our papers together. We were inseparable, and we have been inseparable ever since.WL: When you’re not working, what do you like to do together?
SAS: We read, we go to the gym. I love yoga and Rima loves cardiovascular workouts. We go to restaurants and the movies whenever we can. I also love to go biking with the kids in Rock Creek Park.
WL: And now, for the dating game part of this interview….Mr. Ambassador, do you know where Mrs. Al-Sabah likes to shop in Washington?
SAS: Yes, Neiman Marcus WL: And which designers do you like to see her wear? SAS: I don’t have a single preferred designer. I like her to wear what works well for her. I don’t care if it’s a pair of Levi’s jeans or Dolce and Gabbana. She has style and she always picks the right thing.
WL: And now for your turn, Mrs. Al-Sabah…where does the Ambassador like to dine?
RAS: He loves sushi, especially from Sushi-Ko.
WL: What is something about each other that that people might be surprised to learn about?
SAS: That the best time we have is when we’re alone together
WL: What is something that you do that most makes your husband smile?
RAS: When I tell him we have no plans for the weekend.
WL: Mr. Ambassador, what most makes Mrs. Al- Sabah smile?
SAS: Weekends in New York.
WL: Well, clearly you know each other quite well. Now, Mr. Ambassador, what do you most want to accomplish before you leave Washington?
SAS: I’d like to change the stereotypes that exist in American minds about Arabs and Moslems. We are living in an age where a few people are distorting the image of the many. Unfortunately, because of the violence that’s coming out of our region, people tend to stereotype Arabs and Moslems as being violent and it’s simply not true.
WL: Do you feel that religion has been hijacked by the events that have come to pass?
SAS: Absolutely. Less than one percent of the Moselm population are violent fundamentalists and the other 99 percent are paying the price for the misdeeds of that one percent. That’s not fair and I would like to change that if I can.
WL: In the four years you’ve been en poste, you’ve clearly done a lot for Washington and the United States. How many more years are we going to have you here?
SAS: It’s hard to predict. There is no set term.
WL: What word of advice will you offer your successors?
SAS: Embrace this town, it will embrace you back.