WASHINGTON — When it comes to D.C. action heroes, Rima Al-Sabah of Kuwait is the Xena Warrior Princess of the capital’s social scene.
“Washington is a political town, and I’m a political animal,” says Al-Sabah, whose most recent social coup was a blockbuster party at the Kuwaiti embassy featuring First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Hollywood headliners Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. George Stephanopoulos emceed, Rice played the piano, and Roberta Flack crooned for the crowd. And by establishing herself as the single power hostess able to lure White House insiders from their social bunkers, this super-chic ambassador’s wife proved that George W. Bush’s bubble could be popped, at least a little bit.
“She’s brilliant at networking,” says social veteran Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, voicing what many Washington hostesses most admire about Al-Sabah. “She has everyone there and she is not polemical or judgmental. She really knows who everyone is and what they do.”
Al-Sabah is also fearless about pushing the social envelope on Embassy Row. At one of her parties, she had Karl Rove blushing as a sexy Arabic folk dancer writhed in front of him in her less-than-seven veils. For another, held in honor of the Swedish ambassador, Jan Eliason (who had just been named president of the U.N. General Assembly), she hired a live band to sing Abba classics. Then there was last spring’s party for Colin Powell and Angelina Jolie, which was timed precisely at the moment the actress made headlines all over the world for her relationship with Brad Pitt.
Now, the wife of the Kuwaiti ambassador Salem Al-Sabah is getting a lot of notice herself. As one Washington social puts it: “In the early days, a lot of the other embassy wives tried to compete with her. Now, everyone else has given up.”
Her gift, friends say, is in wrangling celebrities, mixing Republicans and Democrats, and making them feel welcome — even if the First Lady and the secretary of state refused to show up until all had taken their seats. Perhaps so they wouldn’t have to confer with the hoi polloi or possibly deal with pesky questions about what Rice subsequently described as the administration’s “thousands” of “tactical errors” in Iraq.
Not that any of these questions would come from the party’s hostess, who says that the war was never a subject of major controversy in Kuwait. “Everyone [in Kuwait] believed there were weapons of mass destruction,” she says simply. “All intelligence pointed to that. My husband worked at the United Nations from 1991 to 1998 and everyone in the Security Council believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
In fact, it’s Kuwait’s position as the Middle East’s staunchest supporter of the war in Iraq that has give Al-Sabah her muscle with members of the Bush administration.
“Everyone at my party is a friend,” says the 40-ish, self-professed workaholic, who with her penchant for Dolce & Gabbana jeans and Jimmy Choo stilettos, has done plenty to dispel the stereotype of shy Arab women peeking out from behind the veil. A party like the March 8 celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the United Nations Children’s Fund and International Women’s Day, she explains, “takes amazing planning. I only do things when I’m passionate about them. A big dinner for me becomes like choreography. It’s a production.”
Still, it doesn’t hurt to have the President tout your cause on network television just days before the gala you’ve been planning for months.
Last year, as the Iraq war raged on and critics seethed that America had ignored the victims of its earlier war in Afghanistan, Al-Sabah lined up corporate underwriters ChevronTexaco, The Dow Chemical Co., ExxonMobil and Shell International and raised $1 million to help build a school for girls in Afghanistan. On March 1, a week before Al-Sabah’s party was scheduled to take place, the President made a surprise five-hour visit to Afghanistan. Stepping out onto the tarmac in Kabul, where he was greeted by President Hamid Karzai, Bush said: “We like stories of young girls going to school for the first time so they can realize their potential.”
The realization of Al-Sabah’s own potential did not just come from being a “wife-of.” A native of Lebanon and a former journalist herself, she worked as a stringer for the UPI, or United Press International, where she interviewed Church of England envoy Terry White in 1997, shortly before he was kidnapped in Beirut by Muslim extremists.
She and her husband, a member of the ruling class, whose family sits atop one-tenth of the world’s oil reserves, they met years before at the American University in Beirut where they were both studying political science. They married in 1998 and moved to D.C in 2001, just three weeks before September 11.
“If I hadn’t married my husband, I would have loved to have been a war correspondent as a way to highlight the plight of people who suffer,” she says, before adding that she hopes her latest dinner will have a similar effect, turning the spotlight on the hardships of the Afghan people, 70 percent of whom she says cannot read.
Al-Sabah, a regular invitee to Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women’s Summit, also has some of her own scores to settle when it comes to establishing the sophistication credentials of Arab women. She was 13 when she and her brother were sent to live with her cousins in Paris for two years to study and avoid the worst of the fighting in Beirut. “The kids used to ask me where I parked my camel,” recalls the mother of four boys.
Today, the idea that anyone would say such a thing is more than a little surprising, given her taste for the most refined and westernized designer clothes a platinum card can buy. “Nobody cuts pants like Chloé,” she says. “Ungaro mixes colors like no one else, and Alexander McQueen, I love his short suits and dresses.” She also favors Dior suits and Gucci bags.
“I’m not trying to convince people that all Arab woman are like me,” she says a minute later. “But I would like people to see me as just one of many different types of women they would see if they visited an Arab country.”