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How Rima Al-Sabah became a force in Washington’s social scene

The Kuwaiti ambassador’s wife took a final bow at her annual fundraiser for United Nation refugees

Rima Al-Sabah speaks at the 2022 Kuwait-America Foundation gala dinner. (Tony Powell)
5 min

For Rima Al-Sabah’s last big gala, she scored another huge VIP: first lady Jill Biden.

Biden was the guest of honor at the annual fundraiser thrown by Al-Sabah, this time raising $1 million for a United Nations program assisting Ukrainian refugees.

“You and Rima have been such good friends to us over the years, as well as being humanitarian leaders,” Biden told her hosts at the Kuwait-America Foundation’s dinner Wednesday. The first lady spoke on the heartbreak of refugees on the eve of her trip to Romania and Slovakia to meet with displaced Ukrainians, a high-profile global message to the world on Mother’s Day.

But it was also the official swan song for Embassy Row’s premier hostess: After 21 years, Kuwaiti Ambassador Salem Al-Sabah is retiring, and the couple will become private citizens. While the ambassador focused on traditional diplomacy, his wife charmed, cultivated and cajoled presidents, first ladies, administration officials and movie stars — turning what had been a low-key embassy into a social and fundraising powerhouse.

Wednesday’s guest list boasted Biden, CIA Director William J. Burns, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, actor Ben Stiller, Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova, members of Congress and corporate executives. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to give remarks, but he canceled at the last minute after testing positive for the coronavirus.

“She is a force of nature — there’s no doubt about that,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “She is totally energized, totally engaged, always thinking about how she can advance the work that she and her husband are here to do.”

Al-Sabah’s parties are sought-after invitations, he said, and she makes clear how much she wants her guests to be there. Not that Blunt would ever turn one down: “I’m confident she was totally capable of twisting my arm, but I never wanted to find out.”

Ask anyone in her orbit, and you’ll find a common theme: It’s easier to say yes than no. In 2015, Secretary of State John F. Kerry raced from an overseas mission to the annual gala 30 minutes after landing at the airport. “The greatest crisis of all, folks, would have been if I had not made it back tonight,” he joked, calling his hostess “Typhoon Rima.”

The one Washington dinner John Kerry was afraid to miss

Like presidents and first ladies, the collective efforts of ambassadors and their (unpaid) spouses can elevate an embassy into a major player. Most diplomatic couples entertain beautifully but remain relatively low-key. After arriving in 2001, the Al-Sabahs quickly became A-list networkers through their “soft” diplomacy — a.k.a. courting the power brokers of Washington.

A few notables: Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump. First ladies Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Melania Trump and Jill Biden. Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde, Queen Noor, Maya Angelou, Roberta Flack and White House social secretaries Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard. Oh, and Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie, Michael Douglas, Ben Affleck and Marvin Hamlisch.

And the affection goes both ways: When she was pregnant with her fourth son in 2007, there were four VIP baby showers in her honor.

“I have embraced Washington, and it has embraced me back,” she says. “All you have to do is reach out and embrace. This is the most philanthropic, the most open, the most friendly town. It has been an amazing, fabulous ride. I’ve loved every minute of it.”

She launched the gala in 2007 to raise money for humanitarian efforts — a personal mission after she, her husband and young sons fled Kuwait when Saddam Hussein invaded the country. The annual fundraiser has raised $20 million to date, thanks to large donations from oil companies such as BP, Shell and Chevron. In 2015, Al-Sabah was named a national goodwill ambassador for the U.N. Refugee Agency.

The dinner returned Wednesday after a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic. In addition to the first lady and other administration officials, she tapped CBS “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan to serve as emcee and Stiller — also a U.N. goodwill ambassador — to bring a little Hollywood stardust to the night.

Stiller and Al-Sabah met through the United Nations, and her dinner invitation to him was more command than request. “She WhatsApp-ed me,” he explained. “She is unstoppable. And I realized she wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”

During his remarks, Stiller turned to the Ukrainian ambassador: “I just wanted to give my support and tell you how much the world is with you. We appreciate the struggle you’re going through and are inspired by your leadership and how you’re fighting for your freedom. And,” he said with a grin, “as a Jewish actor, I look up to your president very much.”

The evening concluded with performances by the Coalition of the Willing (a garage band with former diplomats and administration officials) and Dana Al Fardan, a singer-songwriter from Qatar.

Fair warning, Washington. Al-Sabah is not done.

“Although tonight is the last gala I will be hosting as wife of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S., this annual gala will go on. I’ll be hosting in my capacity as goodwill ambassador for UNHCR.” The evening, she added, is “the perfect example of what you can accomplish with relentless determination, an incomparable team, and the support and generosity of amazing friends and partners.”

And she had a special message for the corporate sponsors in the room: “Keep me in your budget.” It got one of the biggest laughs of the night — but just let them try to say no.