The UAE’s First Female Film Director: How Nayla Al Khaja Is Breaking Into Hollywood As An Emirati Woman

By Charlotte Burney

Nayla Al Khaja knows that movies and storytelling could stand to be a whole lot more diverse. Because of this, she became the first female film writer, director and producer in the United Arab Emirates. Being the first anything in 2023 is daunting, but Al Khaja attributes her success to the fear she overcame by exercising her creativity. “All my life I’ve been watching stories told from the outside about my culture, and it’s time we share our perspective,” Al Khaja told Entertainment Director Charlotte Burney during the Forbes 30/50 Summit in Abu Dhabi last month. “My challenge wasn’t just being a woman. My challenge was being in a space that does not acknowledge what I am doing.”

Despite being a double minority in the global entertainment landscape, Al Khaja’s accolades are not few and far between: she was named one of the Top 50 Most Powerful Personalities in Arab Cinema and received the Visionary of the Year Award at the Arabian Business Awards, to name a few. She has written and directed several films, all of which have been presented and awarded at various international film festivals.

Growing up, her family warned her about being a filmmaker. Being the first female Emirati filmmaker and director meant she did not have other role models who looked and sounded like her. With that, she also knew that telling her own dramatized personal stories proved to be cathartic. Al Khaja struggled as a child, so she likes to tell stories that feel real and reflect her “neurotic, dark and grim childhood.” These stories have an evergreen relatability to them, which is partly why her work has received such a positive reaction from the Western world of cinema. “I find myself as a bridge between the East and the West, and you can see that in my films,” she says.

Now, her work is being picked up by Academy Award-winning directors and producers. Her first feature film, Three, is coming out later this year and can also be seen at the Cannes Film Festival this summer.

Although the UAE is a relatively young country, Al Khaja has already positioned herself as a female power player in the industry, an achievement that has taken decades for female directors alike, even in the United States.