Interview with Her Excellency Sheikha Al-Zain Al-Sabah

As Women’s History Month came to an end, the Middle East Policy Council had the pleasure of interviewing Her Excellency Sheikha Al-Zain Al-Sabah, Ambassador of the State of Kuwait to the United States. Shkh. Al-Zain welcomed our Educational Programming Manager, Jessica Diez, to the embassy to discuss the importance of women’s leadership in diplomacy.

Shkh. Al-Zain is Kuwait’s first female ambassador to the United States, having been appointed on March 12, 2023. A pioneering social entrepreneur, in both public and private sectors, Shkh. Al-Zain brings with her an extensive background in the fields of journalism, youth development, advocacy, and policy building.

Growing up in Kuwait City, Shkh. Al-Zain expressed gratitude for being brought up in a strong women-empowered household. 

“We had incredible men who led the way and supported our educational and intellectual growth, and equally incredible women who encouraged us to disrupt and question the way things were done, always. That was for me, in hindsight, an incredible privilege,” she said.

“We never accepted things as they were,”  Shkh. Al-Zain continued.

Shkh. Al-Zain highlighted the strong women role models in her life: her mother and grandmothers.

“That’s the environment I was brought up in. The women were central to this environment. They were decision-makers as much as they were storytellers as much as they were compassionate leaders within our household and within our larger community.”

They weren’t professional women, but they were just as mighty when it came to the nurturing and development of us all,” she continued. “They were mentors for me, my north stars.” 

With this support, Shkh. Al-Zain has become a powerful advocate for inclusion and diversity in the business and media fields, making it her goal to create havens for Middle Eastern media entrepreneurs and storytellers to collaborate and help spread messages of peace, plurality, and understanding in their work.

Prior to Shkh. Al-Zain’s appointment as Ambassador, she was the founder and former Chairperson and CEO of National Creative Industries Group (NCIG), which has been recognized for its acclaimed regional media impact-driven productions. NCIG partnered with Netflix as the service’s first accelerator in the Middle East and North Africa region. 

That’s why we built the Netflix incubator, to elevate how we [Middle Eastern storytellers] compose our stories. The traditional approach was not viable if we aim to crossover into mainstream global markets. We need to move forward in telling more nuanced narratives with more emotional and psychological depth,” she explained.

Shkh. Al-Zain has also co-produced award-winning movies like Amreeka, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, received the Fipresci Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and the Best Film Award at the Cairo International Film Festival. 

She has also created Kuwait’s first short film fund. 

She stated her inspiration to pursue the media and entertainment world was due to a pervasive misrepresentation of the Middle East, especially in 1990-1991, when Kuwait was invaded by Iraq.

Her trigger point was when she saw events during the invasion being portrayed in ways that she knew were untrue. 

When they took over our land, they even took over our narrative and took over the way our story was portrayed in the press and international media,” Shkh. Al-Zain said.

The invasion came during the early days of satellite TV, making media largely analog until that point.

“We saw the birth of CNN at the same time. And as a result, you saw real-time portrayals of what was happening in your country and narration you felt didn’t represent you. It was frustrating to see that,” Shkh. Al-Zain said.

“There were a lot of storylines that I felt that I needed to disrupt but I felt completely powerless. At that time, I was in high school, but I felt like there needed to be some sort of intervention there,” Shkh. Al-Zain continued.

Shkh. Al-Zain felt the responsibility and need to change the narrative, which resulted in her pursuing broadcast journalism.

“I ended up going into broadcast journalism as my undergrad to do that. I then worked at ABC News in New York for a few years in the same studio that was actually where I saw a lot of stories come up about Kuwait years before that,” she said.

One specific conversation will stay in her memory forever. There was a conversation that came out of Kuwait during the invasion with broadcaster and journalist Barbara Walters and a resistance fighter.

“One of our then resistance fighters, now a martyr, Asrar Al-Qabandi, was one of the very active members of the civil resistance movement in Kuwait during the occupation. She was very vocal and incredibly brave,” Shkh. Al-Zain said.

“She made the first telephone call out of Kuwait to explain what was really happening on the ground. She explained to Barbara Walters, ‘We have no guns, we have no arms, we’re being killed,’” she recounted.

Shkh. Al-Zain mentioned the stark difference between the digital age of social media in the 21st century as opposed to the state of news in the 1990s.

“We can’t relate now; we think this access is normal and unlimited. In the early 90s, that was unheard of, where you have a victim inside of a warzone calling out and pleading for help. That was the first call that was received by a major news agency and the moment I decided I was going to go into journalism,” Shkh. Al-Zain explained.

“And I ended up working in that newsroom where that exact call was received,” she continued.

Shkh. Al-Zain reflected on the vastly different level of accessibility to the world this digital age has brought, comparing her experience during the invasion of Kuwait to today’s conflicts, most notably the war in Gaza. 

She discussed the usage of social media and the effects of the war and decades-long occupation on the Palestinian community, reflecting on the strength of people telling their own stories and defining their own narratives.

“Today, the Palestinian people are using the power of social media to provide direct and unfiltered accounts of the atrocities taking place inside Gaza and the West Bank. These recordings are vital in documenting a moment in time where our humanity is being put to the test,” Shkh. Al-Zain said.

“Still, even with accessibility to these stories, the global community’s calls for a humanitarian cease-fire is still being disregarded on a policy level,” she continued. “So the larger question now isn’t so much about access, but about how the power of the algorithm is deciding which stories are fed to us and, in turn, how we can use this information to drive institutional change on the judicial, legislative, and policy fronts.”

On the topics of the global community and policy, she brought up other female Kuwaiti trailblazers who have helped guide the country’s foreign policy, including former Ambassador Nabeela Al-Mulla, who served as Kuwait’s Permanent Representative to the UN, the first Arab woman in that role, and Ambassador Reem Al-Khaled, the current Kuwaiti Ambassador to Canada.

What Shkh. Al-Zain noticed throughout her career is that women encourage more feedback than their male counterparts. 

“[Women] seek consensus. They like to collaborate and nurture those who work with them and around them. They like to come up as a group and that gives them a great sense of community and identity when they do that, even more so than if they do it on an individual basis,” she explained.

“For women, it’s not about how much you’ve done in your life but how you have used that momentum to affect positive change around you.”

Shkh. Al-Zain mentioned the importance of having an inclusive mindset in all professional sectors across the board, especially in diplomacy and policy-building. 

She further described how this approach in professional spheres is being adopted more and more by male counterparts, an integral part of the assimilation.

“I think women are making those changes necessary for not just the larger community to replicate but also even more so the younger generation now to then scale and sustain moving forward,” Shkh. Al-Zain said.

“There’s something about leading by example that sets a precedent here. If you can’t see it, you can’t replicate it.”

Kuwaiti Ambassador with MEPC Educational Programming Manager.

Within her role, she values not only her responsibility of being a public female representation but also in expanding the already positive Kuwaiti-American relationship.

Kuwait-US relations are robust; they are thriving and naturally so because this affiliation started off very holistically,” Shkh. Al-Zain said.

Holistically in the sense that in 1951, ten years before Kuwait gained independence, the US established its first consulate in the country. 

Then, only one year following Kuwait’s independence, in 1962, Washington’s trust was reciprocated when the Gulf state opened its first embassy in DC.

“Even in 1914, for example, an American hospital was built in Kuwait before there was a consulate, providing humanitarian and medical support to the community,” Shkh. Al-Zain said. “That hospital still stands today as a testament to that relationship and to this partnership.”

“This relationship was further strengthened in 1990 and 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the US led an international coalition to free Kuwait. Today, we have strong diplomatic, military, economic, educational, and cultural ties with the United States,” Shkh. Al-Zain continued.

Kuwait currently hosts almost 13,500 American troops, the fourth largest host of US forces in the world, following only South Korea, Japan, and Germany.

“We’re the largest host in the Middle East,” Shkh. Al-Zain said.

Another Kuwaiti-American highlight fostering a growing connection was the Kuwait American Foundation (KAF). Built over three decades ago, the organization was created as a show of appreciation for the US by the Kuwaiti people. 

One of the foundation’s various initiatives is aptly named “Do the Write Thing.”

“Through this program, the KAF team works with middle schools all around the United States to give students the opportunity to write essays—hence the name—on their experience with domestic violence and violence in general,” Shkh. Al-Zain described.

Over the last 30 years, they’ve been able to reach upwards of two million students around the United States.

“Every year, they choose 40 or 50 students to come with families and their administrators, teachers, etc. and they choose them according to their essay. They come in and they meet with their representatives on the Hill to talk about legislation on violence,”  Shkh. Al-Zain explained.

“All of their publishings are then put into a beautifully bound book before it is submitted to the Library of Congress. It’s a program that impacts American kids and, as a result, molds the future of the United States, a country that plays a major role on the world stage,” she continued.

When discussing Shkh. Al-Zain’s accomplishments, she highlighted her small milestones adding up and the recognition of a great support team around her.

“There’s nothing humongous or magnificent, it’s the tiny things,” she said.

“It’s the thank you’s here and there, such as a letter that I get from a young girl telling me thank you for what you do. It’s tiny little things. It’s seeing somebody who perhaps was part of my team and then goes on to do wonderful things on his or her own because he or she learned from the group,” Shkh. Al-Zain continued. 

She shows immense appreciation and privilege to be a part of a larger whole; anything positive that comes her way is to be celebrated as a community.

She specifically is proud of her skills in building from the bottom up.

“I’m a start-up kind of person. I usually excel at them, especially startups that are underestimated, where we’ve been overlooked,” Shkh. Al-Zain said. 

“I thrive being the underdog, and that’s my starting point. It is an incredible privilege for me to see the scalability of it all and be part of that story.” 

One of Shkh. Al-Zain’s upcoming projects entails her visiting several states in the US to explore the small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) and start-up communities as well as expanding partnerships across sectors such as STEM, creative industries, food security, and education.

“There is so much opportunity that is quite untapped and so much bridge-building work to be done,” she said. 

Shkh. Al-Zain and the rest of her team at the embassy are also working to build a larger space for stories from the region to thrive, to “allow for unhindered Middle Eastern voices to make their way to DC and vice versa.”

At the end of the interview, Shkh. Al-Zain was asked what advice she would offer to young girls trying to pave their professional paths forward, especially in male-dominated spaces. 

She argued that there is a way to see obstacles in a different light, offering the perspective that some things that seem to be barriers are really opportunities.

“You’re going to come across a lot of tables, where there will be no seat waiting for you,” Shkh. Al-Zain said.

“But I promise you, no matter how daunting this may seem at first, having no seat at the table is a good thing. It propels you to create your own table, and to engineer it in a way that is expandable and adaptable, allowing for the inclusion of an infinite array of viewpoints and voices,” Shkh. Al-Zain concluded.

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