RIYADH: High tea at the Ritz-Carlton is an extravagant and lavish occasion, enjoyed in exquisite surroundings fit for royalty.
On this occasion, however, the guests were not royals but the wives of ambassadors from a number of countries and UN organizations.
They were given a tour of the hotel and, over tiny sandwiches, scrumptious cakes and fancy herbal teas, they discussed issues close to their hearts, including feminism, women’s rights, religion and, of course, fashion.
Many of the women are working to help communities, and gather monthly to better understand the culture of the country in which their husbands are stationed, and their role within it.
They are split into groups based on the country or organization their husbands represent. There is also an executive committee, and each group has a coordinator, vice coordinator and treasurer.
“We organize activities,” said Nafisa Ahmed, the wife of the representative of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to the Kingdom. “The main object of the group is to make the stay of the families accommodating and comfortable — a support group, you might say. But our main objective is to strengthen our relations with the Saudi community, to learn more about them and to let them learn more about us. Who better than women to be socially active in this field?” During their monthly meetings, the women visit different parts of the city to add to their understanding of the country, and experience as much of it as possible.
Jo Allento, the wife of the Philippine ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, has been in Saudi Arabia since November 2017. She converted to Islam when she met her husband and, like other Muslims among the wives, feels blessed to be in the country of the Two Holy Mosques.
“I love this place, because in such short a time it has given me the opportunity to profess my religion,” she says. “I performed my Umrah — it was amazing. It is such a feeling, I can’t explain. “I’m enjoying Saudi Arabia immensely, although it's different and we have to understand the culture.”
Grisel Sandoval Schellenberg, wife of the Swiss ambassador, has been in Saudi Arabia for more than four years and has seen immense changes in social and environmental awareness.
“When I first arrived here, they were washing the streets with water,” she said. “This makes no sense. We live in the middle of the desert and water resources are very precious. But now, I see awareness and people are more conservative in their use of natural resources. Even the pool heater this year was turned off during the winter because saving energy was crucial.” Sabine Farra, whose husband is the Argentine ambassador, is a big fan of the Ritz-Carlton.
“The hotel reflects the generosity and hospitality of the Saudi people,” she said. “We have fond memories of it, especially when [soccer player Lionel] Messi and the Argentine [national soccer] team stayed at the Ritz. We had a wonderful dinner.” Gerrit Graef, the hotel's general manager, said: “It was an honor and pleasure to host these ladies and I’m glad that they enjoyed their tour of the Ritz-Carlton as well as the afternoon tea time and the cooking demonstrations at Azzuro we prepared for them. We look forward to seeing them again.”