History Project: The mother of UAE media, Hessa Al Ossaily

The UAE's most senior woman broadcaster talks about her life and career.

Hessa Al Ossaily was only a teenager when she took the first step towards becoming a broadcasting legend.

In 1965, a representative from the newly launched Sawt Al Sahel (The Voice of the Coast), an Arabic broadcast radio station in Sharjah that was operated by the British military, was looking for new talents.

Just 15, the Emirati, who had a reputation as a star speaker at her school’s morning assembly, was determined to take up the ­challenge.

“I always had an adventurous kind of soul, where I like to try new things and always try to do them well,” says Al Ossaily, now known as the “mother of UAE ­media”.

With a heavy fringe, fashionable at the time, and a big smile, her voice was heard on the radio waves introducing the latest social affairs, celebrity talk and entertainment. As well as the chance of a lifetime, it was a way to help support her family.

“I would present light segments, depending on the requests of the listeners who would write in, and we would sit and read the letters and see what they would like to hear,” she recalls.

Mostly listeners wanted legendary Arab singers and the latest releases by a new generation of singers, especially from the Gulf.

“It was a very simple time: people just wanted a break from work, to listen to something light and fun, as the time for news and politics was announced by the males and adults at the radio station,” she says.

Radio was and remains one of the most popular media outlets for the UAE and the rest of the Arab world. Pan-Arab sentiments were high in the late 1950s and 1960s, and a famous Egyptian station, the Sout Al Arab, or Voice of the Arabs, was dedicated to the political waves and breaking news, broadcasting the Pan-Arabist speeches of Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian ruler, to millions of listeners across the Middle East.

Browsing old photos and covers of magazines that featured her, it is possible to tell the date simply by Al Ossaily’s hairstyle. It ranges from the hippie style hair of the early 1970s to the “big hair” of the 1980s to a more conservative look that dominated the UAE from the 1990s onwards.

Coming from a family of poets, writers and traders, her parents supported her decision to continue her career in broadcast journalism. Later she set another milestone as the first female television presenter for the first TV station in Dubai, Kuwait TV – set up by Kuwait – and working there from 1969 to 1971.

Afterwards, she became the head of Abu Dhabi Radio and TV and their first female Emirati presenter, from 1972 to 1974.

The result was that the entire UAE grew up listening to Al Ossaily’s voice and saw her welcoming smile on their TV sets. They saw her first in black and white and then in colour broadcasts.

“I grew with the broadcasting medium, and I changed as it changed and progressed,” says Al Ossaily, who continued her studies while working, graduating with a diploma in Arabic literature and Islamic studies from Egypt’s Ain Shams University.

“I was lucky to be in the UAE, as our country had always respected and empowered its women. I didn’t get much resistance or backlash from our people, as our nation is founded on supporting women whatever they choose to embark on,” says Al Ossaily. “Women here always had a special place.”

Still, times have changed. “Media was not about showing off and sensationalism as it is now. I don’t understand why some women put on so much make-up and dress up and act silly on air, disrespecting this field and all the hard work of its predecessors who made it possible for journalism and the media to grow and be the power it is now,” says Al Ossaily.

“Dignity, honesty and professionalism is what I always remind the new generation of media professionals.”

From 1974 to 2000, Al Ossaily was head of exhibitions at the Ministry of Information and Culture, organising more than 150 national and international exhibitions. She was also appointed Expo general commissioner for the UAE, the first female to serve in that position in the Arab world, representing the UAE at its pavilions at World Expos in Seville, Spain in 1992, Lisbon in 1998 and Hanover, Germany in 2000.

“I am very proud of this period of my life as I was representing and introducing the UAE to the world. Exhibitions are an international window on our country and provide an opportunity for us to display our capabilities as Arabs and as women to the world,” she says. Recalling a special moment in her life, she says: “Someone had asked the late Sheikh Zayed, ‘Why is Hessa, a woman, representing the UAE abroad?’ And he said, ‘Hessa Al Ossaily is worth more than 10 men’.

“I will never forget Sheikh Zayed’s belief and trust in me, and whenever there were any difficulties or obstacles, I remember what he said and I push on.”

Always working, including on TV specials, she is now the general supervisor of programmes at the new Al Oula (The First) radio station on 107.4FM, launched this year by the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Centre.

Al Oula is the first radio station in the GCC dedicated to broadcasting programmes on national cultural values and heritage. Al Ossaily has her own segment, Al Oula with Al Oula (First with the First), a nod to her being the first in her field.

“I sit with older and newer generation of cultural and heritage figures in the UAE,” she says.

“I review their books, their poems, their work, and we discuss everything from current to past social cultural issues. It is a lot of fun,” she says. “Every time I go behind the microphone, or sit in front of the camera, it feels like the first time, full of hope and inspiration.”