Emirati Women's Day: top diplomats share their stories

Hend Al Otaiba and Afra Al Hameli give advice on facing challenges and pursuing passions

Hend Al Otaiba, UAE Ambassador to France, and Afra Al Hameli, director of the Strategic Communications Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation. Khushnum Bhandari / The National / UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation
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Emirati women have made great strides when it comes to increasing their presence in both the public and private sectors, however some misconceptions and obstacles remain despite this recent success.

The National spoke to two Emirati diplomats, Hend Al Otaiba, UAE Ambassador to France, and Afra Al Hameli, director of the Strategic Communications Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation to ask about the hurdles they faced in their careers.

What would you like the world to know about Emirati women?

Ms Al Otaiba:

Emirati Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the role our women play in society, particularly as the UAE has made great strides in women’s empowerment and gender equality.

Throughout my career, I have taken special pride in highlighting the achievements of trailblazing and inspiring Emirati women, particularly those who are breaking barriers in diplomacy and international affairs.

Nearly 50 per cent of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation employees are women. Female leaders such as Reem Al Hashimy, Minister of State for International Co-operation, and Lana Nusseibeh, Assistant Minister for Political Affairs and UAE Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN, manage key files on behalf of the ministry.

Emirati women are dynamic and effective leaders who play a significant role in shaping and implementing foreign policy.

Ambassador Hend Al Otaiba welcoming President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed in France.

Ms Al Hameli:

In the UAE, we enjoy a progressive, moderate society where women hold leadership roles in all fields and industries — including government, military, business and society — and participate meaningfully in every facet of civic and political life.

Now, women are leading the formulation of policies at every level, including critical issues such as food and water security, public education, culture and advanced technology.

I want the world to know that Emirati women are courageous and innovative leaders in their fields, without exception. For example, Reem Al Hashimy, Minister of State for International Co-operation, has managed the international co-operation file since 2016. Her success in handling the historic Expo 2020 Dubai, which was the greatest show of human brilliance ever hosted in the Middle East region, demonstrated the leading role of Emirati women in the UAE’s international achievements and efforts to connect countries and peoples.

Moreover, Lana Zaki Nusseibeh, Assistant Minister for Political Affairs and UAE Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN, has represented the UAE in one of the world’s most critical international forums and has served as the voice of the UAE at the UN on issues as important as humanitarian aid, conflict resolution, counter-extremism and more.

One other example I would like to highlight is the women who took part in launching the UAE’s Mars Mission Hope Probe, which made the UAE the first Arab country to launch an interplanetary probe to Mars in February 2021. The probe was developed by a team of 200 Emirati engineers, experts, and researchers, of which 34 per cent were women, the highest in the world for such a project. Led by Minister of State for Advanced Technology Sarah Al Amiri, these women make our nation deeply proud and continue to inspire the next generation of female changemakers.

What misconceptions are there about Emirati women?

Ms Al Otaiba:

There are some widely held misconceptions about women in general and not only Emirati women. It is disappointing that people still hold these views despite the great strides made in women’s rights, especially in our country.

We are facing some of the biggest challenges that humanity has had to deal with, from pandemics to economic downturns and political crises. Women represent half of humanity and we need to be involved in planning the future. Studies have shown that countries with a greater proportion of women as decision-makers in legislatures have lower levels of income inequality.

We can fix these misconceptions by continuing to showcase the success of our women and engaging with wider and diverse audiences. Women make up 66 per cent of the UAE public sector workforce and they occupy 50 per cent of the Federal National Council’s seats.

Looking at public affairs specifically, one of the misconceptions that I would personally like for others to overcome is the role of women in foreign affairs. Women make excellent diplomats, particularly in the fields of conflict resolution and peace-building.

UAE Ambassador to France Hend Al Otaiba with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Ms Al Hameli:

Fortunately, Emirati women face few institutional barriers to advancement, but stereotypes persist that they are not as represented in fields that were once comprised mostly of men.

What is remarkable about the UAE is that women are not constrained by financial, legal or social limitations in their pursuit of higher education and professional advancement.

We go about changing stereotypes through action, which is what the UAE government has championed since its founding over 50 years ago.

In 2015, the UAE established the Gender Balance Council, tasked with increasing the role of women across all positions in government. Three years later, the UAE launched the 100 per cent women policy, which states that by 2021, the UAE foreign assistance policy would commit up to 100 per cent to bilateral and multilateral international development investments to either target or integrate gender mainstreaming and the empowerment of women and girls.

What were your biggest challenges?

Ms Al Otaiba:

Work-life balance remains one of the most important challenges for anyone, both women and men, who are pursuing a career. As such, finding the right support system at home and at work remains key and collaborating, delegating, trusting and opening doors to others is fundamental. This is even more crucial in our field of diplomacy where rallying forces and co-operation are core elements of our day-to-day job and success.

Access to mentors, partnerships and support networks is key to providing role models for the next generation of women leaders. Initiatives to share experiences, mentoring activities, meetings where other women can get expert advice from women who have progressed in politics or business will all make a difference in the future.

Ms Al Hameli:

One challenge I believe women are capable of overcoming is a lack of belief in themselves and their capabilities.

While it is sometimes easy to be discouraged by the work that remains to be done around the world to uplift women and ensure their representation, every woman has an important role to play to contribute to achieving gender balance.

I encourage women to set aside their hesitation and uncertainty and challenge themselves to take on opportunities that will help them advance in their fields. Women must also support each other in progressing both personally and professionally.

My advice is for every woman to find a female mentor who can provide insight and encouragement. When we work together to boost each other up, we can truly catalyse our growth and reach new horizons that wouldn’t have been possible had we done so alone.

What is your advice to other Emirati women?

Ms Al Otaiba:

As UAE Ambassador to France and a strategic communications expert, telling the story of the nation and championing the role of women in public life has always been one of my passions.

As previous media adviser to Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, and after establishing the first Strategic Communications Department at the Ministry, I discovered how our narrative is also unique and needs to be communicated to the world.

My advice to Emirati women is to pursue a career you are passionate about, dedicate time to your self-development and ensure you claim your rightful place.

I like the saying: “The top of one mountain is just the bottom of the next one.” To me, the trick is to keep climbing. I also strongly believe in the right for women to work and earn financial independence and to take up more prominent roles in the private and public sectors.

Ms Al Hameli:

As an Emirati woman, I have been fortunate to have received support from my country’s leadership, colleagues and community in pursuing my professional ambitions.

I consider it a significant honour to serve my country in this capacity, as it is due to the efforts of the UAE government that Emirati women have been able to thrive in all fields, from policymaking to international co-operation, advanced technology, health care, the space sector and more.

Notably, the UAE was ranked first in the region for gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, and women have been long recognised as equal partners in our country’s development.

At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, nearly half of all employees are women. Over the years, we have had prominent ambassadorships filled by women in countries and international organisations as varied as the UN, Egypt, France, Poland, Brazil, Germany, Finland, Denmark and Spain.

As such, my message to Emirati women seeking a career in this field is to take advantage of every opportunity granted to them in order to succeed. From education to employment, the UAE’s leadership has ensured that women are equipped with the necessary skills to advance in today’s changing world. For example, 77 per cent of Emirati women enrol in higher education after secondary school and make up 70 per cent of all university graduates in the UAE. Since the launch of its diplomatic training programmes in 2015, a consistent 60 per cent of graduates from the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy have been women.

This shows that countless opportunities exist for women in the UAE and women must feel empowered to leverage them to grow in their careers.

Updated: August 28, 2022, 12:33 PM