The Scotsman Wed 18 Dec 2002

Introducing Asma

Stephen Mansfield 

As a little girl "Emma" Akhras watched the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace with the same sense of excitement and wonder as any other little English girl. The thought that one day she would accompany her husband on an official visit to the Queen never crossed her mind. Yet yesterday afternoon as Mrs Asma Assad, the First Lady of Syria, she joined her husband, President Assad and followed in the foot steps of so many other wives of important men. To her many fans, she is nothing more than a brighter future for the Middle East. A bridge between two diverse cultures. The British born and educated banker is now devoted to aiding her husband as he attempts to lead Syria into the 21st century. While protests still echo around the country at Syria’s support for Islamic terrorists and the country’s alleged arming of Iraq, the image of her walking confidently beside Cherie Blair, casual in western clothes is being read as a positive symbol.

 n just two years she has emerged as a most glamorous companion for her husband, a man more comfortable with books than people. As President Assad struggles to reform a nation stagnating both economically and politically, the legacy of his late father’s decades of misrule, his new wife is being portrayed as his most valuable aide.

The journey to First Lady of Syria and tea at Buckingham Palace began in the suburbs of Acton, where little Asma Akhras was born in August, 1975 to Dr Fawaz Akhras, a heart specialist and his wife, Sahar. The couple were both Syrian but had moved to the United Kingdom in the early 1950s so that Fawaz Akhras could achieve his goal of a prized British education. Although the couple would go on to build their life in Britain where Dr Akhras has excelled in his profession, their indigenous culture remained crucial to them. At home Arabic was spoken, as Asma recalled: "I didn’t realise until I was seven that they could actually speak English." While at home Asma spoke her parent’s native tongue, beyond the family’s standard semi-detached home, with its traditional white trimmed door and net curtains she was the epitome of the little English girl.

 To her friends she was Emma and while raised Muslim, she attended a Church of England school, Twyford High, for two years before she began travelling to central London where she attended Queen’s College School on Harley Street. While other teenage girls frittered their time away in the pursuit of boys and make-up, "Emma" had little interest in either, instead she focused on hitting the books and devoted her leisure time to horse-riding and computing. As her old computer teacher recalled: "She was an incredibly bright and diligent girl and I have a clear memory of her staying behind after classes to do her homework." True relaxation would come during the family’s annual holidays back in Syria. Although her teachers felt she had an aptitude for the profession and even went as far as offering her a job, Asma’s goals were so much greater.


  After successfully completing her A-Levels, she moved on to King’s College in London where she studied computer science before moving on to a job with Deutsche Bank. The world of international business was a strong draw to a woman who was as intelligent and determined as she was attractive and within the first few years of her new career, she swept through offices in London, Paris and New York where she worked on mergers and acquisitions for JP Morgan. Although there was no lack of prospective suitors, anxious to take her out on a date, Asma would always politely decline and it was not until she quietly left her job with the minimum of fuss before Christmas 2001 that the truth emerged. 

The romance between Asma and Bashar had been slowly brewing for over twenty years since they first met as children during her annual holiday. As she recalled: "We have been friends for a very long time. I came to Syria every year since I was born. It is really through family and friends who know each other since childhood." The couple had started seeing each other in London when Bashar was training as an ophthalmologist in 1994. The couple were finally wed in a small low-key civil ceremony in Damascus on New Year’s Day 2001 and within a year she gave birth to their son, Hafez. Yet within the past two years any perception that she would take on the mantle propped up by previous ruler’s wives and be neither seen, nor heard was dispelled. For the first year of her husband’s presidency the couple had to keep a mandatory low profile during the traditional 12 month period of mourning. This allowed Asma to roam the country, not as the wife of a ruler, but as almost as a foreign visitor. "I wanted to meet ordinary Syrians before they met me. Before the world met me. I was able to spend the first couple of months wandering around meeting other Syrian people it was my crash course. I would just tag along with one of the many programmes being run in the rural areas. Because people had no idea who I was, I was able to see people completely honestly, I was able to see what their problems were on the ground, what people are complaining about, what the issues are. What people’s hopes and aspirations are. And seeing it first-hand means you are not seeing it through someone else’s eyes. I wasn’t to spy on them. It was really just to see who they are, what they are doing." 

At the end of one year’s mourning, Syrians were treated to their first view of the new Mrs Assad and seemed to take to the young woman with the honey-brown hair, cut in a stylish, flicked bob. The event was a state visit in March 2001 by the Bulgarian president and his wife and since then she has travelled to Tunisia and Morocco and was to have dazzled Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia during a state visit to Spain. Yet Asma has her own agenda to push and top of the list is education for women. In March this year she played host to an Arab business woman’s conference, designed to improve the training and access of women into senior business posts.

 Her new role and family has left her little time for her parents and siblings back in Britain. The sign that her allegiance has switched is that, instead of flying in to Britain using her British passport, as she is still entitled to do, she insists on sending her Syrian passport to the British embassy in Damascus for stamping.

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