Dubai princesses and sisters Sheikha Shamsa al-Maktoum and Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum have not been seen in public since their failed escapes from the palace
‘Her last words were, ‘don’t take me back to Dubai. Just shoot me here,’’ Princess Latifa’s best friend, Finish personal trainer Tiina Jauhiainen revealed in the BBC documentary Escape from Dubai: The Mystery of the Missing Princess.
That was two years ago, and Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, has not been seen since.
Tiina was with Princess Latifa, then 32, and was aware of her longing for a progressive life of study, travel and gender equality. She tried to escape in 2002 aged 16, but she was quickly caught, brought home, and reportedly beaten and placed in solitary confinement. Why was she so desperate to leave? ‘There is no justice here,’ she said a 40-minute video she secretly recorded before her escape. ‘Especially if you’re a female, your life is so disposable.’
The second escape from Dubai on February 24 2018 was the result of a seven-year plan that involved driving into Oman, taking a dinghy into international waters before plans to fly to the United States and claim political asylum. But after eight days at sea, the boat was stormed by a heavily armed commando unit sent by Latifa’s father. ‘She was fighting with all her strength. She shouted that she wanted political asylum,’ recalls Jauhiainen, who now lives in the UK and has not seen the princess or had direct contact with her since that day. ‘When that didn’t work, she screamed at the armed men to kill her.’
On February 28 London’s High Court ruled that the princess was abducted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, and he is responsible for the abduction and forced return of two of his daughters from another marriage. Tiina told the BBC she believes this is a ‘step towards’ her being free.
The Sheik has an estimated 30 children with at least six different wives, and as a former resident of Dubai, I saw the influence of the billionaire everywhere. His face is painted onto buildings and glittering, tall towers are named after him.
Dubai’s image is one of the most modern and progressive in the region, and this rings true, as it is a popular tourist destination and I saw firsthand women thrive there, in terms of study and careers. But the reality is that law is heavily influenced by Islamic religious law, and despite it’s party scene for expats, the city upholds a system of male guardianship that sees women enjoy less benefits than men. And take into account that Princess Latifa and Sheikha Shamsa are royalty, it means they were not at liberty to, well, liberty.
Sadly, Princess Latifa’s story is not the first. Her elder sister, Sheikha Shamsa al-Maktoum, is now 38 – but she has not seen in public since she disappeared aged 19. In 2000 she was on the run for two months before she was tracked down in Cambridge by Sheikh Mohammed’s guards, and in her video Latifa claims she has been living under medicated house arrest for 19 years.
Also in the pre-escape video, Princess Latifa documented why she wanted to flee Dubai, citing abuse, torture, and imprisonment she had suffered at the hands of her family. She explained she was recording her testimony as insurance to prevent a cover-up or being discredited, in case her escape failed.
She was not seen again until a series of photos of her emerged, in December 2018, in Dubai with former Irish president Mary Robinson. While the Dubai government used the images to claim that Latifa was safely back in Dubai with her family, Tiina – who has been campaigning tirelessly for Princess Latifa to be freed, using advocacy groups and an active #FreeLatifa campaign on social media – says she looked vacant, miserable and heavily medicated.
Meanwhile, London’s high court has published a Fact Finding Judgement (FFJ) in favour of one of the Sheik’s estranged wives, Princess Haya, who fled Dubai last year, along with her two children, telling friends she was in fear of her life. This means her children cannot be forcibly returned to Dubai and the news has been welcomed by human rights campaigners.
For sisters Sheikha Shamsa and Princess Latifa, their fate is unknown – but the world is watching, and this may help shape their future.