Dubai’s disappearing princesses

The troubling plight of Dubai’s Princess Latifa has also revealed the worrying cases of other disappeared Emirati princesses

Bel Trew
February 18, 2021, The Independent

The words from Princess Latifa, the daughter of Dubai’s ruler, are chilling.

In a new secret recording smuggled out of the United Arab Emirates, the 35-year-old sounds fragile and frightened as she accuses her powerful father of holding her hostage in a “jail villa” in Dubai after she tried to flee the Emirates in 2018.

“Every day I am worried about my safety and my life,” she says in the video recorded in the corner of a bathroom and smuggled out to friends. “I don’t really know if I’m going to survive the situation.”

“The police threatened me that … I’ll never see the sun again.”

The United Nations has said it will raise her detention with her father, powerful Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is ruler of Dubai, the vice-president of the UAE and one of the richest leaders in the world.

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has called it “deeply troubling”.  There have been growing calls for a UN investigation.

The UAE did not respond to a request for comment by The Independent about the allegations concerning Latifa. Sheikh Mohammed has vehemently denied them and said he was acting in his daughter’s best interests. Dubai and the UAE have previously said Princess Latifa was rescued, is safe in the care of family and “looking forward to … building a happy and stable future”.

However, as troubling as the story of Princess Latifa is, her plight may not be unique. She is one of a string of Emirati princesses that friends or advocacy organisations, including the Free Latifa campaign which provided the most recent videos of Princess Latifa, believe are missing or have fled over the last few years. They include Princess Latifa’s own sister Shamsa, now 39, who according to a recent High Court judgment was unlawfully abducted from the UK in 2000, when she tried to escape as a teenager. She has not been seen in public ever since.

Their stepmother Princess Haya bint Al-Hussein fled to the UK in 2019 with two of her children and applied for a protection order and non-molestation order against her husband Sheikh Mohammed. She has raised concerns about Latifa and Shamsa.

Most recently in September, rights groups have raised the alarm about the plight of a woman who claimed to be Sheikha Zeynab Javadli, 29, the estranged wife of Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum bin Rashid al Maktoum, a  nephew of Sheikh Mohammed.

Here is a rundown of the missing royals: 

Princess Shamsa

Long before Princess Latifa’s story was first made public, there were concerns about her elder sister, Shamsa, known to be headstrong and somewhat of a rebel in the family.

At the age of 19 she tried to escape in the UK. She has not been seen in public for 20 years.

According to the UK High Court, she attempted to escape from her family in the summer of 2000 and was unlawfully abducted and forcibly returned to Dubai by her father, a charge he denies.

A 34-page report released in 2019 by the court’s president Sir Andrew McFarlane lays out the details of the harrowing story.  He found that she tried to stay in a Cambridge hotel but was taken in a car by several men who were working for her father close to his home in Newmarket.

In a 2001 message believed to be written by Shamsa, smuggled out of captivity and emailed to an immigration lawyer she approached in the UK, she said she was then heavily drugged. (Princess Latifa later said the same in a video message she smuggled out in 2018.)

Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum at Royal Ascot in June 2019 (EPA)

“He sent four Arab men to catch me, they were carrying guns and threatening me, they drove me to my father’s place in Newmarket, there they gave me two injections and a handful of tablets,” Shamsa’s email read.

“The very next morning a helicopter came and flew me to the plane, which took me back to Dubai. I am locked up until today… I haven’t seen anyone, not even the man you call my father.”

(The High Court ruling said the evidence of her being chemically subdued or injected was insufficient to find as fact, although there is no evidence to the contrary.)

British police records reveal that the investigating officer, DCI David Beck, spoke to an individual who purported to be Shamsa in March 2001. That person confirmed the story in the email.

Little is known about what happened next. Princess Latifa allegedly said in a 2018 video that Shamsa was being confined to one room and constantly supervised by nurses and a psychiatrist, while being given regular medication designed to “control her mind”. 

Tiina Jauhiainen, a Finnish fitness instructor who tried to help Princess Latifa escape in 2018  and who is now head of the Free Latifa campaign, said she briefly met Shamsa in 2011 and 2017.

Jauhiainen, who gave oral and written evidence to the family court, told The Independent that she was first introduced to Shamsa in 2011 and she “seemed like she had been sedated and was not looking well”. In 2017 she saw her at a family wedding: “she was in a nice dress” but again appeared out of sorts.

Princess Latifa allegedly told Jauhiainen that Shamsa was being locked up in the villa of their mother, Houria Ahmed Lamara, who is Algerian.

The Independent could not independently verify this. The UAE did not respond to The Independent’s request for comment about Shamsa.

Sheikh Mohammed denies the allegations. He told the UK family court that he was unable to produce his daughters for the court process but claimed he spoke to them in August 2019 about it. “Both Shamsa and Latifa were adamant that they did not want to do this. I gave them both the opportunity to take independent legal advice, so that they could take an informed decision about whether and how to become involved in these proceedings,” he told the court.

The  UK court, which ruled against the 71-year-old billionaire, refuted what he said, believing that the powerful ruler “continues to maintain a regime whereby both these two young women [Shamsa and Latifa] are deprived of their liberty”.

Sheikha Maitha

Inspired by Princess Latifa’s attempted flight, a woman claiming to be a minor Dubai royal called Sheikha Maitha in 2018 contacted David Haigh who is part of the Free Latifa campaign and founder of Detained International, a legal advocacy NGO. The ex-Leeds United managing director was himself jailed in the UAE for fraud for 22 months between 2014 and 2016, where he claimed he was tortured.

The woman shared a video detailing her allegations and said she had been looking to escape her oppressive family life.

The attempt was apparently unsuccessful. Haigh said he believes she is being held by her family and lost contact with her.

Further details about her situation are not known. The Independent was unable to verify her identity and allegations, or make contact with her family. 

An attempted escape in 2002 ended in Princess Latifa being caught off the coast of India and brought back to Dubai. (EPA)

Sheikha Zeynab Javadli

Then, as concerns mounted about Princess Latifa last year, a young woman claiming to be Sheikha  Zeynab Javadli, a former Azerbaijani gymnast and estranged wife of a nephew of Sheikh Mohammed, posted a video to her Instagram account in September. It apparently showed a “raid” on her home by people linked to her husband.

The harrowing footage was widely shared online by campaigning groups including the Free Latifa campaign and Detained International. In it, she shouts that she is being persecuted. She claims to have been refused food and water and that her parents were being arrested.

The Independent could not independently verify the video or the allegations. There is no further information about her case. While she has not posted any photos on Instagram since, she has apparently had some social media activity. 

Princess Latifa

Finnish fitness instructor Jauhiainen met Princess Latifa in 2010 when she reached out for capoeira lessons. They quickly became friends, and the princess opened up about her gilded cage.

Jauhiainen told The Independent that Latifa said she could not drive, or leave the country and had not seen her passport since her last trip in 2000, when her older sister Shamsa had unsuccessfully attempted to run away and had been caught, allegedly drugged, and then returned to Dubai from Cambridge. 

Latifa told Jauhiainen she tried to run away in June 2002 by crossing the border to Oman to raise awareness about Shamsa’s plight.

(In a 2018 video Latifa speaks about that experience, saying that she was caught and brought back to Dubai, where she was jailed for over three years until October 2005, kept in solitary confinement and tortured.)

By 2016, Jauhiainen says Princess Latifa started asking her for help escaping again. The princess had apparently already been in touch with Herve Jaubert, a French businessman and a former French special forces officer, who had successfully escaped Dubai after being convinced in absentia of embezzlement years before.

Latifa recorded a video before leaving (that was later released after her disappearance) and with Ms Jauhiainen crossed to Oman in February 2018. The pair took a dinghy and then jet skis dozens of miles out to sea to Jaubert’s boat from where they planned to head towards India. Several days into the journey the boat was boarded by Indian Special Forces.

This undated image taken from video in an unknown location shows Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum (AP)

“We started hearing these loud sounds from the upper deck, heavy boots, and banging and something that sounded like gunshots,” Ms Jauhiainen described.

“We locked ourselves in the bathroom, the cabin started filling with smoke. It seemed like stun grenades. We were eventually forced to go to the upper deck and were met by these commandos with guns.”

She said her hands were tied behind her back, the men threatened to shoot her and there was blood on the floor.

“I saw Latifa screaming repeatedly that she is seeking political asylum, they were not listening to her. They dragged her off,” she said.

Jauhiainen said she was held for three weeks in a high security facility before being released.

The next time the outside world saw Latifa was in a photo taken in mid-December 2018, where she appears with her stepmother Princess Haya of Jordan, and former UN human rights commissioner Mary Robinson, attending a now controversial lunch. Robinson said she had been told by Princess Haya that Latifa had psychiatric problems and was unwell. Princess Haya later escaped to the UK and, according to Robinson, told her she had been tricked about Latifa’s condition.

At some point in 2019, an unknown person reached out to Jauhiainen claiming to be in touch with Princess Latifa behind bars, in what Latifa would later call in a video message “a jail villa”.

The Free Latifa campaign believes the complex is located in the heart of Dubai near the popular tourist hotspot of Jumeirah.

A phone was smuggled in, and Princess Latifa was able to keep up contact with Jauhiainen and David Haigh, as well as her maternal cousin Marcus Essabri.

“The phone was like a lifeline – she wanted to know what was happening in the outside world, we tried to keep her positive,” Jauhiainen told The Independent. “It was very hard, when another week passes and month and nothing happens.”

She said Latifa was not allowed outside, and spent her days watching local TV channels as there was nothing to do.

David Haigh said she was not provided with proper clothes or a toothbrush.

“It’s dehumanising treatment intended to break people. She is locked in a room, with a toilet. She is allowed to go to the kitchen to get her food,” he told The Independent.

Tiina Jauhiainen attends an Amnesty demonstration to free Princess Latifa al-Maktoum, in Helsinki in October 2019 (Martti Kainulainen/Shutterstock)

At some point in 2020 the messages stopped getting through and so Jauhiainen, Haigh and the cousin Marcus decided to go public with the videos Latifa had recorded.

“The same day that she went missing, I was sending her pictures from Cornwall to keep her spirits up,” Haigh added.

Jauhiainen said: “I’m very very worried about Latifa. We hoped releasing these videos would help her situation, we would never do something to risk her safety.”

In December 2018 the Ruler’s Court in Dubai sent a letter to the United Nations saying: “Her Highness Sheikha Latifa is alive, safe and in the loving care of her family at their Dubai residences. We strongly refute the allegations you reference in your 6 December letter. She was and has never been arrested or detained.”

Princess Haya

Princess Haya of Jordan, 46, was the youngest and most public of the six wives of the ruler of Dubai. But suddenly in 2019 she fled to the UK with her two children, daughter Al Jalila, then aged 11, and son Zayed, then aged 7, claiming to be in fear of her life.

It prompted the septuagenarian Emirati prime minister to apply for his children to be returned. The princess responded by calling for the children to be made wards of the court, while also applying for a forced marriage protection order for her daughter.

Alongside the rulings, Princess Haya called for a series of statements of fact to be made, including that Sheikh Mohammed had played a part in the kidnapping and detention of Shamsa and Latifa, sparking the 2019 High Court judgement.

The daughter of the late King Hussain and a former Olympic equestrian married Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai in 2004.

She initially believed her husband’s explanations of what had happened to the two princesses Latifa and Shamsa: namely that they had been rescued and were now safe with their family members.

But by early 2019 she said she started to have doubts, while at the same time her marriage was failing. She began an adulterous affair with her bodyguard. Unbeknown to her, her husband divorced her under sharia law. 

The judge ruled that Sheikh Mohammed had conducted a sustained campaign of fear and intimidation against his ex-wife. It was “aimed at intimidating and frightening the mother, and that he has encouraged others to do so on his behalf”, the ruling read.

Princess Haya said there had been threats to remove her to a remote desert prison, and in May 2019 she said her husband told her “you and the children will never be safe in England”.

In a statement issued after the judgments were published, Sheikh Mohammed said: “This case concerns highly personal and private matters relating to our children.

“The appeal was made to protect the best interests and welfare of the children. The outcome does not protect my children from media attention in the way that other children in family proceedings in the UK are protected.

“As a head of government, I was not able to participate in the court’s fact-finding process. This has resulted in the release of a ‘fact-finding’ judgment which inevitably only tells one side of the story.”