Dr Reem El Mutwalli

The Zay Initiative is the brainchild of Dr Reem El Mutwalli. Understanding the cultural and historical significance of the Zay Initiative will be almost impossible without getting to know her first.


“Iraqi by birth, Western in education and upbringing, Arab in spirit and Emirati in passion.” Reem came to the UAE in 1968 – the same year oil was discovered – as a young girl of five, when her father started working as the economic consultant to Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, then the Crown Prince of the Abu Dhabi (UAE).

Reem spent her childhood and formative years surrounded by the women and children of the ruling family and has many fond memories of the time. “I was exposed to the lifestyle in the UAE back in the day, which was such a privilege.


Reem’s passion for textiles and clothing started at a young age when she fell in love with the women’s dress in the UAE. Reem’s passion has always been the woman’s life in this country and she soon realised that she had a unique insight into an enclosed lifestyle that was not being documented.

“When the UAE began to open to the world through globalisation, it was important that this closed society is recorded, registered and documented before it was gone. With all the changes that were happening even the indigenous people of the area have forgotten certain details of their past and heritage. It was important that we document it. I find it a way to give back to a country that adopted me.”


After completing a degree in Interior Design and Fine Art in the USA in 1984, Reem returned to the UAE to join the newly founded Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi where she continued to work for the next twenty years.

During this time, she was not only in charge of exhibitions but started and built the Foundation’s own art collection, advised on the art collections for members of the ruling family, initiated art workshops and eventually became Deputy Head of the foundations Arts and Exhibitions Department.

It was also during this time that Reem conducted a full survey of all of Abu Dhabi’s forts as part of her master’s degree in Islamic Art, architecture and archaeology. She also published the architectural survey of the fort, Qasr Al Hosn, recording the historic, architectural and social attributes of the building. The book is unique as it includes the first published interviews with the members of the Al Nahyan family who last resided in it.


Reem’s position at the Cultural Foundation became one of the cornerstones of her current role as guardian of traditional Arab dress. “As I was representing the government, I felt that I needed to dress in UAE traditional dress, in order to better represent the position I was in.  Over the years I began collecting pieces from different friends and older relatives, members of the ruling family commissioning pieces to be made, and slowly a collection began to accumulate.”

Her precious collection of traditional dress became the focus of Reem’s PhD in Islamic Art and Archaeology. “I began to look at my collection more academically. Whatever I had amassed needed to be organised, catalogued, properly chronicled. Then I could see where I needed to fill holes in the collection, looking for specific pieces that I knew needed to be added to make it a proper historical collection.”

Reem had to learn how the dresses were made, their history, the construction, the techniques used, the materials, how they were measured by hand, how they related each body part to the design, and how each was tailored by hand or machinery.

The collection currently consists of 180-pieces, with some of the dresses dating back to the 1950s, from the pre-oil era all the way through to today. Key pieces include two dresses, one embroidered with gold coins and one with silver. “These pieces are very valuable, and they came from members of the ruling family. This is how the women carried their wealth, keeping their bank account close to their heart because they lived a nomadic life, but only people from the wealthier echelons of society would be able to commission something like this. The dress would probably be worn a few times before a daughter or sister would borrow it or it would be deconstructed and reworked into something new.”

Reem’s collection and PhD thesis culminated in the publication of the Sultani Book, a work of art in its own right. This 600+ two-volume tome contains detail background and research on the geographical, political and cultural influences on UAE dress, detail information in the construction of garments, the textiles and embellishments, as well as in-depth analysis of the different items of traditional dress including headdress, body covers, underwear, and footwear. It also features unique and never before seen images of women in UAE national dress through the years.


The Sultani Collection, as Reem’s dress collection became known, now forms the foundation on which The Zay Initiative will be built. By sharing her knowledge and precious collections, and by using her distinct design style, exhibition-planning experience, and access to important role players, Dr Reem El Mutwalli is building a legacy. Not just for herself but also for the wider Arab region, and ultimately, the world.

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