“Iraqi by birth, Western in education and upbringing, Arab in spirit and Emirati in passion.” Dr Reem El Mutwalli arrived in the UAE in 1968, the year oil was discovered, as a five-year-old, when her father was appointed as an economic consultant to, then crown prince, now the ruler of the UAE.
Reem’s lifelong infatuation with textiles and Emirati women’s dress started while growing up surrounded by the women of the UAE royal family. She understood early on that she had a unique insight into the mostly enclosed lifestyle of Emirati women.
“When the UAE began to open to the world, it was important to record and document this closed society before it was gone. It was my way of giving back to the country that adopted me.”
Before starting the research for her PhD in Islamic art and archaeology, Reem already owned a collection of Emirati dresses either commissioned by her or gifted by friends and relatives. “I studied my collection academically. It needed to be organised and catalogued. Only then could I see where I needed to fill holes and find specific pieces to make it a proper historical collection.”
Her close relationships with the women of the royal family gave Reem access to unique examples from private collections. Today the collection consists of 180+ pieces, with some of the dresses dating back to the 1950s’ pre-oil era all the way through to today.
Reem’s collection and PhD thesis, published as The Sultani Book, is a work of art in its own right. This 600+ page two-volume tome contains background and research on the geography, politics and culture of UAE dress, information on the construction of garments, the textiles and embellishments, and analysis of the different items of traditional dress including headdress, body covers, underwear, and footwear. It also features never before seen images of women in UAE national dress over the years.
The Sultani Collection forms the foundation of The Zay Initiative. By sharing her knowledge and collection, and by using her design style, exhibition-planning experience, and access to important role players, Dr Reem El Mutwalli is building a legacy for herself, for the wider Arab region, and for the world.