JULY 28, 2011
It is often said that the age of the Washington hostess is dead. Gone are the days, we are told, of Katharine Graham and Pamela Harriman, who assembled Washington power players around tables where deals were struck and alliances forged. But that may not be entirely true. The name Rima Al-Sabah doesn’t ring many bells to people outside the Beltway. Inside, it rings a lot.
Al-Sabah is the wife of the Kuwaiti ambassador, Salem Al-Sabah. Since the couple arrived in Washington in 2001, she has become known as the issuer of invitations one doesn’t decline. In her regular appearances in the social pages of Washington Life, she cuts a striking figure: uncannily smooth skin, full lips, enormous brown eyes, and a thick mane of long gold hair. It would be impossible to list everyone who has attended one of her functions, but here are a few: Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. and Laura Bush, Colin Powell, Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, John McCain, Karl Rove, Rahm Emanuel, David Gregory, Tom Friedman, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Sandra Day O’Connor, Stephen Breyer, Alan Greenspan, Ben Affleck, Michael Douglas, and Angelina Jolie. (Also, weirdly, Michael Bolton.) Once, at a benefit that Al-Sabah was hosting for an Iraqi children’s hospital, emcee Charlie Rose surveyed the room and said, “This leaves me wondering, just who is having dinner with the president?”
In Washington, though, a party is never just a party. How did Al-Sabah acquire such influence, and—given Kuwait’s human rights record—how should we feel about it? It’s fair to say that such questions aren’t routinely pondered by people in the D.C. social scene, where proximity to power is often the most important currency. “It’s very difficult to say no to Rima,” says Anita McBride, former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush, “and it’s unwise if you do.”
AL-SABAH WAS BORN in Lebanon in 1962 and grew up in an upper-middle-class household. Before marrying her husband, a member of the Kuwaiti royal family, she worked as a war correspondent for United Press International. After the Gulf war, Salem took diplomatic posts in New York and South Korea before coming to Washington.
One reason that the Al-Sabahs’ parties are so popular is that they are lavish. The ruling Al-Sabah family is extremely wealthy, thanks to Kuwait’s oil reserves, one of the largest in the world. When I called Buffy Cafritz, a longtime D.C. socialite, she read me a menu she’d saved from a recent luncheon at the embassy. “She served asparagus vichyssoise and sea bass and pureed potatoes and a raspberry sorbet,” Cafritz says, adding, “I remember she had a pretty tablecloth.”
Georgetown doyennes like Sally Quinn have been complaining for years that socializing in Washington has become aggressively partisan. But Al-Sabah invites Democrats and Republicans, no matter which party is in power. During the Bush years, she arranged benefits to raise money for malaria and education of Afghan women, a cause that Laura Bush championed. In 2009, in line with the newly elected Obama administration’s focus on the environment, she hosted a benefit to celebrate Earth Day, where she honored Leonardo DiCaprio and Hillary Clinton. “She is very astute,” McBride told me. “She pays attention to the issues that are important to the White House at the time and really tries to support those issues, so she marries the social and substantive perfectly. People who are engaged in these issues at higher levels of government will be there.”
But the big draw is undoubtedly the guest list. Al-Sabah skillfully brings together heavyweights from all arenas—including A-list actors, corporate tycoons, and people from the nonprofit world—which guests say offers huge appeal compared with the dreary wonky affairs that pass for Washington social life.
For Kuwait, this socializing is serious business. Although the country is wealthy, it is also small, about the size of New Jersey, with a population of around three million. It is perpetually vulnerable to neighbors like Iran and thus in need of powerful friends. “Don’t forget she is working when she is having these parties,” notes Jacquelyn Fain Duberstein, a former TV producer at “Charlie Rose” and Washington producer for The Daily Beast. “She is making sure her guests are friends of Kuwait, and she is very accomplished at that.” “[Their role] should not be seen as how many parties they have,” Colin Powell told me. “It’s about information they pick up from Washington to report back to Kuwait and, at the same time, representing their interests to the United States.”
A little lost among the whirl of benefits, ladies luncheons, baby showers, and honorary dinners is the question of how official Washington should regard Kuwait. Kuwait has an elected parliament that includes women and a cradle-to-grave welfare state that provides citizens with health care and education. But it is not a democracy. The Emir appoints the prime minister and the cabinet, and can dissolve parliament at will, which he has done three times in the last five years. Although the press is freer than in other Gulf countries, criticism of the regime is monitored and curtailed. Recently, Kuwaitis have been jailed for criticizing the prime minister on a blog, criticizing the Bahraini and Saudi rulers on Twitter, and criticizing the Emir online, according to Human Rights Watch. At least half the Kuwaiti population is made up of non-citizens, many of them foreign laborers who sometimes work under harsh conditions and suffer from exploitation and abuse. This year, there have been protests by both citizens advocating for more civil liberties and non-citizens seeking equal status with Kuwaitis. Powell says the Kuwaiti government understands the need to assuage public discontent. “But there should be no illusions that this is a country like ours,” he says. “The people are well taken care of, but what the Arab spring shows is people wish more than to be taken care of. They want a say in how they will be governed.”
This doesn’t much seem to bother Al-Sabah’s regular guests. “I don’t think I am making a political statement by socializing with an ambassador,” says one journalist. “I suppose it would be strange to go hang out with diplomats associated with the Syrian government or North Korea.” A former East Wing aide said that socializing with diplomats from the worst authoritarian regimes might give people pause, but also observed: “During H.W., [Prince] Bandar was one of the go-to embassies, and Saudi Arabia definitely doesn’t want to give their people any taste of freedom.”
ARRANGING AN INTERVIEW with Al-Sabah turned out to be something of a diplomatic negotiation in itself. I was informed that we could not discuss politics, and Al-Sabah proved to be very guarded.
I visited the embassy residence one afternoon in July. Al-Sabah breezed in, dressed in a patterned sleeveless Roberto Cavalli top, jeans, and white platform sandals, carrying a white Chanel bag. She showed me the fountain room, where large parties are held (the intricate aqua-green, red, and turquoise floor tiles were imported from Positano when the embassy was built). We sat on an ornately upholstered sofa, and she served me Middle Eastern finger food. The seating plan for large functions takes three days to arrange, she says. Her rule is to place every guest between someone he knows and someone he would enjoy meeting, decisions that can require extensive research if she doesn’t know a guest. (“I Google,” Al-Sabah explains.) On the first day, she conducts a three-hour session with diagrams of twelve tables of twelve people. On day two, she makes strategic moves. Day three is for finalizing the plan and last-minute changes. The most important thing is not to delegate, she tells me: Embassy staff don’t know which Washingtonians aren’t on speaking terms, among other details.
Near the end of our conversation, the ambassador walked in. Relaxed and courteous, he politely discussed politics with me for a few minutes. I asked about the protests, and he said they were a positive reflection of Kuwait’s democratic characteristics. The journalists, he said, had been briefly jailed under court order for slander and not for criticism. By then, we had run past our allotted time and the Al-Sabahs were late for another engagement; they apologized profusely for drawing the interview to a close. Before leaving, I asked Al-Sabah for her final word on what it takes to be a successful Washington hostess. “You must love it,” she said, “and you must be in control of every detail.”
Eliza Gray is an assistant editor for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the August 18, 2011, issue of the magazine.