Fears grow for kidnapped princess’s safety

Gilded cage: Latifa (left) is one of 25 children of Sheikh Mohammed (right) from several marriages.

Does the liberal West have a right to condemn Dubai? A BBC exposé about the plight of Princess Latifa has triggered a worldwide outcry against her father’s tyrannical behaviour.

Princess Latifa thought she was safe. So far, her plan to escape Dubai by yacht had gone smoothly. The boat was fast approaching India; from there it would be relatively easy to reach the US, where she hoped to claim political asylum. Then, suddenly, came the sound of a violent disturbance on the upper deck. The yacht was being boarded by commandos.

Latifa, then 32, fought for all she was worth, kicking her abductors and biting one until he screamed – but to no avail. She was injected with a tranquilliser and taken to a rendezvous with a private jet. When she woke up, she was back in Dubai, held prisoner in a villa with barred windows and doors, guarded by police.

That was in February 2018. This Tuesday, details of her captivity were revealed in a documentary that included videos made on a phone she had secretly been given. The friends who released the videos said that they had heard nothing from her in recent months, and feared for her safety.

There is no question about who was responsible for her kidnapping: Latifa’s father. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is the ruler of Dubai, vice-president of the United Arab Emirates, and one of the richest heads of state in the world.

It was not the first time Latifa had tried to escape Dubai. In a video from 2018, she claimed that she had been imprisoned for over three years and subjected to physical abuse after a failed attempt in 2002. “I'm not allowed to drive, I'm not allowed to travel or leave Dubai at all,” she said.

Nor is she the only member of the family to have suffered in this way. In 2000, her sister Princess Shamsa – then aged 19 – fled from a family estate in Surrey, only to be kidnapped in Cambridgeshire by the sheikh’s agents and forced to return to Dubai.

Details of the sheikh’s terrifying grip on his family emerged in 2019 after Latifa’s stepmother, Princess Haya fled to Britain with her two children and fought successfully for custody of them in a London court. The court accepted her evidence that Latifa and Shamsa had been abducted, and ruled that the sheikh “continues to maintain a regime whereby both these two young women are deprived of their liberty”.

It also accepted that Princess Haya had received numerous threats after having an affair with a bodyguard. On one occasion a pistol had been left on her pillow; on another, the sheikh had told her: “You and the children will never be safe in England.”

The official story from the palace is that Latifa is bipolar and has been held in confinement for her own safety, while the friends who helped her try to escape were out to extort money. The one foreigner who has seen her since – Ireland’s former president Mary Robinson – did not raise any concerns.

But Robinson now says that she was duped. And the fact that Sheikh Mohammed set out to use such a distinguished international figure as a pawn in his game proves, in many people’s eyes, that he is prepared to stop at nothing.

Does the liberal West have a right to condemn Dubai?

Rattling a sheikh

Some say, no. It has long been clear that Dubai has no respect for human rights, yet Westerners flock to its hotels and cheer the sheikh’s racehorses, while their governments compete for investment and arms deals. They cannot speak out now without deep hypocrisy. And in Britain, there are also families who try to control young women’s lives and sometimes murder them for seeking freedom.

Others argue that if Sheikh Mohammed goes uncriticised, we are accepting that rich and powerful people are above the law. How would we feel if the Queen kidnapped Prince Harry and Meghan? The sheikh’s appalling treatment of his own family is only part of it: Dubai has been built by labourers working in terrible conditions, and the UAE has often been accused of channelling funds to terrorists.

You Decide

  1. If you were offered a highly paid job and a luxurious home, would you be happy to live in a country where you could be put in prison without trial?
  2. Is it right to give Latifa’s case so much attention when so many non-royal women have suffered even worse treatment?

Activities

  1. Dubai is a city as well as a state, with different districts for different activities – a conference district, a hospital district and so on. Draw a map of your nearest town or city, showing how it might look if reorganised along the same principles.
  2. Imagine that you have been kidnapped and kept prisoner in a villa. Write a diary entry for the third anniversary of your imprisonment.

Some People Say...

“A good deal of tyranny goes by the name of protection.”

Crystal Eastman (1881 – 1928), American lawyer and political activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Sheikh Mohammed has helped create a modern country but rules it like a Medieval kingdom. To compensate for its dwindling oil reserves, he has focused on making it an international trade, finance and tourism centre. He has overseen a vast construction programme, including the world’s tallest building and largest shopping centre. But expatriates have described it as a police state in which nobody dares criticise the regime.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether anything can really be done to help Latifa, if she is still alive. The United Nations has said that it will raise her case with the Dubai government, but Sheikh Mohammed clearly does not care much about what the world thinks of him. Economic sanctions would have little effect on such a wealthy ruler, but a cultural boycott – for example, of the Emirates Literature Festival – and demonstrations at sporting events such as Royal Ascot might strike a nerve.

Word Watch

Political asylum
Protection granted by a state to someone who has left their home country as a political refugee.
Rendezvous
An arranged meeting; it can also mean the place where the meeting is to happen. It was originally a French imperative meaning “present yourselves”.
Friends
They include Tiina Jauhiainen, a former martial arts instructor, who accompanied Latifa in her escape attempt.
United Arab Emirates
A country in the Middle East consisting of a federation of seven states. Its capital is Abu Dhabi.
Richest
The sheikh’s wealth has been estimated at $14bn. He is also one of the world’s biggest and most successful racehorse owners.
Princess Haya
Sheikh Mohammed’s sixth wife until their divorce in 2019. At 46, she is 25 years younger than her ex-husband. She is the half-sister of the King of Jordan, an Oxford graduate and a former Olympic showjumper.
Abducted
Kidnapped. It derives from a Latin verb meaning to lead away.
Bipolar
Also known as manic depression, bipolarity is a mental state in which people alternate between periods of depression and periods of elation.
Mary Robinson
A lawyer who was elected as Ireland’s first female president in 1990. After the end of her term she became the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights.

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