Four faces that ask us what we stand for

Brutal punishments: Four victims of repressive regimes in the Gulf.

Is the West complicit in the barbarism of Middle Eastern leaders? As details emerge about the fate of the region’s rebels, some say democracies should drop links with their autocratic allies.

A teenage girl is strolling through the streets of Cambridge on a summer’s day in the year 2000, dreaming about what the future holds. Seconds later, four men bundle her into a car. The next day, she is in Dubai. She is never seen in public again.

A man walks into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to collect the papers he needs to marry the love of his life. Within minutes, he is dead; his body tortured, beheaded, then finally dismembered. He is never found.

A woman is sailing to freedom in the Indian Ocean, desperate to escape the man who has made her life a form of living hell. Then the soldiers arrive. She lashes out, screaming and biting, so they tranquilise her. When she wakes up, she is in Dubai. A villa – the windows barred shut – becomes her prison.

Several hundred metres away, Love Island stars are relaxing on the beach, drinks in hand.

Meanwhile, back home in Britain, the Queen is tending to her favourite racehorses. They are a gift from an old friend, keen horse rider and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.

Today, this friendship is hugely controversial. Sheikh Mohammed is the father of two princesses, Shamsa and Latifa, who share a remarkable story.

Two decades apart, both women decided to break free from their father’s control. Both attempts ended in dismal failure. Both princesses were recaptured on the orders of the Sheikh.

Now Latifa, still imprisoned in Dubai, has shed light on her sister’s suffering. In a letter released yesterday, Latifa begs the UK police to reinvestigate the kidnapping of her older sister from a quiet English city 21 years ago.

“I tried my best to save her but I couldn’t,” she writes. “I was only 14.”

But Shamsa and Latifa are not the only victims in the Middle East, and Sheikh Mohammed is not the only oppressive leader.

As a candidate for US President, Joe Biden declared he would make another Gulf state, Saudi Arabia, the “pariah that they are”, following the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Yesterday, he began to do just that, releasing a confidential report on the death. Its contents were no surprise: CIA officers concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s murder at the consulate in Turkey.

For human rights activists, the publication is a step in the right direction. But the report has come too late to save Khashoggi. Nor will it save the thousands of others who have fallen victim to brutal regimes in the Middle East.

Still imprisoned in Saudi Arabia is Samar Badawi. Her alleged crime? She campaigned to reform the country’s male guardianship system.

One victim who survived to tell the tale is Matthew Hedges, a British PhD student who was detained for months in Dubai on suspicion of being a spy.

“These kinds of actions do not happen in a vacuum,” he said after his release in 2018. “Western governments’ complicity, primarily by way of silence, gives authoritarian rulers confidence in their actions.”

Is the West complicit in the barbarism of Middle Eastern leaders?

Turning a blind eye

Definitely, say some. It is outrageous that the UK continues to ally itself with, and even sell weapons to, Saudia Arabia, a country that is well known for human rights abuses. By continuing to put its economic interests ahead of its moral responsibilities, the West is putting a price on human lives. And the influencers who continue to party in Dubai? They need to find a new holiday destination.

The truth is more complex, say others. The Middle East is an unstable region. It is vital for the West to have allies in the Gulf if it is to see off threats from ISIS or Iran. UK officials say it is possible to trade with nations and still condemn the actions of their governments. Meanwhile, in the US, Joe Biden may ensure America’s autocratic allies no longer receive such a warm welcome.

You Decide

  1. Is it wrong to go on holiday to Dubai?
  2. Should the West stop trading with Saudi Arabia and the UAE?


  1. Draw and label a map of the Middle East. Then add one interesting fact about each country to your map.
  2. In pairs, imagine you are reporters interviewing Princesses Latifa and Shamsa. Write out five questions you would ask them about their experience.

Some People Say...

“The value of profit over people impedes human rights across much of the world.”

Opal Tometi (1984 – ), American human rights activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that economic interests are a major driving force behind Western countries' continued support of autocrats in the Middle East. The Gulf states, with their huge oil and gas reserves, collectively make up the UK’s third biggest trading partnership. Saudi Arabia imported just over 60% of its arms from the US, and 20% from the UK, between 2013 and 2017. And Shamsa and Latifa’s father Sheikh Mohammed has a UK property empire worth over £100m.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether Western governments should impose sanctions on Middle Eastern countries over human rights abuses. In 2020, the UK government did impose sanctions over the Jamal Khashoggi assassination, but they targeted individuals, not governments. Sanctions are often used by governments who want to force change abroad without any direct confrontation; but others say they do not work in the short term and would end up costing the West as well.

Word Watch

A city and one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates.
To have all its limbs cut off.
Princess Shamsa, 39, was captured two months after escaping from her father’s estate in Surrey.
Princess Latifa, 35, tried to escape from Dubai by boat in February 2018.
Social outcast. Saudi Arabia is well known for human rights violations, including torturing and executing prisoners.
Jamal Khashoggi
The journalist was once close to the Saudi royal family but he fell out of favour in 2017.
Male guardianship system
Saudi women must gain permission from a man to marry, exit prison or enter a domestic violence shelter. As of 2019, they can apply for a passport and travel without permission.
To be involved in an activity that is unlawful or morally wrong.
A system of government that enforces strict obedience at the expense of personal freedom.
A ruler who has absolute power.

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