It is one of those strange and heady days when you’re being driven towards New York, but the New York that you‘re being driven towards is not the one you love so much and lived in for five years, but a hamlet with a main road cutting through it like a vicar’s knife — not New York, New York, but the bucolic English one of the East Lindsey district of Lincolnshire in the parish of Wildmore in the Fens. My companion at the wheel here is someone I have known for fourteen years. We met in Dubai on our way then to a war zone. Dubai will feature in this story, but it is peacetime freakery, another story for another day, which brings us together here.
We are in the middle of a discussion. It is about an abduction which took place fifty miles to the south of here, nearly twenty-two years ago, in the university town of Cambridge. The weather is unseasonably hot and my friend opens the window. All this talk of abduction grates the soul. It sparks within me such a flurry of thoughts, I want to write them all down, maybe even explore the idea of making a film about them one day. This is because at the heart of this incident is a kind of self-inflicted wound whose pain is so sharp, so deep, it possesses an ability to transform what you think about a place.
This is why the eccentricity of where we are driving through — New York in England — somehow fits with a country increasingly uncertain about what it is anymore. There is even a token yellow cab and immaculate NYPD police car to our right. The giant Uncle Sam effigy, confusing as hell, glints in the noonday sun. It is like a page from a magical realist novel. Yet the topic of our discussion is real, not fiction at all. It is the Cambridge abduction of Princess Shamsa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, a terrible and swift prohibition of a young life which took place in England when the victim was a mere 19 years old. An incident brutishly exacerbated today by the failure of Cambridgeshire police to press any charges, albeit for reasons beyond their control.
I had forgotten how much I hated this case. We drive on in limited silence to the villages of Tumby and Haltham, in what feels like a disconnected cosmos. The story is still present because it remains unresolved. Usually, family abductions relate to the illegal removal of a child from his or her parents or guardians, rarely do they entertain the possibility of the forcible action of a parent on a child, more of which later. It is as if we are left with only a giant, uncomfortable void. The proverbial horse, if you wish, has already bolted.
Talking of which, none of this is helped by the fact Princess Shamsa is the daughter of the Queen’s very good horse friend and billionaire ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Dubai is of course the second largest Emirate in the UAE (United Arab Emirates), a federation of seven Emirates presently in sustained mourning over the recent death of former UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. As well as a popular citadel of luxury shopping, however, Dubai happens also to be where approximately 250,000 foreign labourers are alleged to live in conditions described by Human Rights Watch as ‘less than humane’. I have been there eight times. I have always been met with a kind of sweeping hospitality. I still can’t get my head around it.
In some kind of sick celebrity universe, I suppose you would have to describe Princess Shamsa as the least ordinary victim of a suspected kidnapping. If something similar had not happened later to her sister Latifa, it would still be bad enough. Princess Shamsa’s father’s net worth is approximately $14 billion. He is a successful man, an inquisitive and acquisitive human being. They say he is also a poet who was first published under fictitious names such as Saleet and Nedawi. All things not being equal, he will likely be a person who gets what he wants in this world.
Not only does the Sheikh possess a love of horses, he owns the magnificent Godolphin stables, including those admired so much by the Queen which are situated in Newmarket close to Cambridge. Indeed, these serve as the base for Godolphin’s entire British operations. Her Majesty will also no doubt enjoy the Sheikh’s use of the name Godolphin. It is after the Godolphin Arabian, a stallion from the desert that became one of the three founding stallions of the so-called modern Thoroughbred. In such circles, pedigree is all. Princess Shamsa liked horses too.
A wild hare darts across the field to our left and I find myself wondering if Princess Shamsa still has a fondness for horses. Even if hidden from the world, I wonder if she is permitted to race across shimmering sands and feel the warm desert sun on her face. There are online photographs of Princess Shamsa on horseback. These are from her teens when she appears untroubled and free. I wonder if today’s Princess Shamsa can go online, or find a way to do so. Could she perhaps even be reading this?
Presumably, Princess Shamsa knows Newmarket well. The stables are close to the estate to which she was reportedly driven by four armed men — just imagine such a thing — on the night of her reported abduction. Could it also be possible that her abductors in the course of going about their business disturbed the horses? Our solid-hoofed friends can sense a thing or two when it comes to fear or untowardness.
It is good galloping terrain here in Lincolnshire. As the very English flatlands yield to yet more blue sky, my friend and I feel an antithetical chill still thinking about Princess Shamsa. It is reported that she was put on a helicopter from Newmarket, perhaps even at five o’clock in the morning. This was to somewhere in northern France from where she was transferred to a Dubai-bound private jet. As the fertile lands of Europe gave way this time to the occasionally oil-rich sands of the Middle East, what were Princess Shamsa’s thoughts? Was she sleeping?
The high life, indeed, I am thinking, as a passenger jet in the sky leaves a far less menacing trail.
These chills don’t go away, either, and that’s the problem. My friend and I feel a second one learning on my phone that she is described by a cousin as ‘cheeky and full of life and adventure’. I feel another because initially she fled from her family’s Longcross Estate in Surrey on a day just like today, unexpectedly warm and upbeat. I feel a fourth because England is a country she partly grew up in and knew very well, and which has, in all important respects, badly let her down. ‘She really loves England,’ writes sister Latifa, in a letter to Cambridgeshire police, ‘all of her fondest memories are of her time there.’
An investigation was eventually begun by Cambridgeshire police a year after the abduction. This was only after Princess Shamsa made contact somehow through an immigration lawyer. Unfortunately, Cambridgeshire police officers were then blocked from travelling to Dubai to follow this up.
This is where it all starts to get very murky. Especially if we care about justice. There were Freedom of Information requests made to the UK foreign office, now the FCDO, about why exactly the decision was made to halt the investigation. But these attempts were rejected outright, the refusals on the basis that the UK and UAE relationship could be harmed.
Institutions and relationships aside, I defy anyone today not to feel at least a shudder of pain thinking about the nervous heartbeat of a young female foreign national, apparently wanting to make a difference for women in the Arab world especially, a guest effectively not only in this country but now at the mercy of this country, being instantaneously abducted in the middle of an unsuspecting night out with friends — the lightness of her youth, in one final swoop, made eternally burdensome, dark, leaden, and eventually lost.
Yes, Princess Shamsa’s world at the time was a million miles from our own — opulent, otherwordly, lavishly appointed — but this is no reason to forget that abduction is unacceptable. Abduction, let us remind ourselves, means the taking of a person against their will. Ask the Ukrainians abducted in Russian-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine what they think about abduction. They say it cuts irreparably deep into our sense of place in the world. It shatters everything we know and we love. I don’t know of any other high-profile missing persons whose case has been made to disappear, along with the missing person.
In 2019, the plot thickens further. A UK High Court judge formally rules that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum has abducted not only Princess Shamsa but also Princess Latifa. This is after a boat 20 miles off the coast of India in international waters is seized in 2018 with Princess Latifa on board. She is with Finnish friend Tiina Jauhiainen. Latifa, just like her sister Shamsa, is whisked straight back to Dubai, where ‘hostage’ footage is later released. ‘I don’t really know if I’m going to survive this situation,’ she says. ‘I don’t know what they’re planning to do with me.’ Even former Irish president Mary Robinson describes her role in the case of Latifa as the biggest mistake of her life after she previously describes Latifa as ‘troubled’. Mary Robinson, it should be remembered, was also a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and now openly believes Princess Latifa is being held against her will.
Because Princess Shamsa is seized in England, it falls under English Law. Because it took place in Cambridge, it remains like a gauntlet slapped down right in front of Cambridgeshire Police. Even human rights lawyer David Haigh claims to have new evidence on the case but is still getting nowhere. The last heard of this fresh attempt was in October 2021 when it was reported that arrangements were still being made to have it presented. This is the same indomitable David Haigh who himself was in contact with the United Nations working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances.
A quick look at everything written about Princess Shamsa makes for uncomfortable reading. We are reminded for example that Conservative politician Alec Shelbrooke once accused Tony Blair’s government of what he called ‘backroom deals’. An even more precise article alleges it was then foreign secretary Robin Cook — famous for his so-called ethical foreign policy — who shut down the inquiry. There is even one uncomfortable reference in the Express newspaper of Princess Shamsa having been tortured in Dubai.
Or have I got this all wrong? Could it still be the simple case of a caring father worried about a missing daughter, who finally gets to find her? The Shiekh’s only official comment on the story is to register relief at having found what he calls his vulnerable daughter.
Alas, whatever else we believe, the waves created from all this still crash heavily on the credibility of the British Establishment. I personally find it painful to contemplate that aides acting for the Sheikh made representations to the Foreign Office, and that these clearly made a difference. In a land constantly telling the rest of the world of its triumphs of justice for the rights and freedoms of its people, we really are a sham at times.
Back in London, I weigh up the practicalities of both an article and a film. I find I am less confident about the latter. The main challenge would be in telling a story of someone who is not here. I made a one-hour documentary for the BBC about a sculptor who through illness couldn’t speak. That was hard enough. Films prefer their leads in them. Yet I know Princess Shamsa’s ‘presence’ in a film could, if done well enough, be her very absence — and her resultant enigma, if you like, acting like a kind of muse. I learn that the BBC through Panorama have already made a film — others too — and I am left wondering if mine should not appeal more to the poet in the father than the cage in the child.
Out of growing frustration, I ask one or two friends why they think no charges have been brought. The consensus of opinion is that Dubai and the UAE are just too important to London for the relationship to be jeopardised. (Witness the long succession of powerful mourners from this country that have been visiting the UAE over the past few days.) One friend suggests the UAE is essential ‘strategically’ in the region. Someone else points out that we do sell an awful lot of arms to them, almost £350 million’s worth since Boris Johnson became PM.
Then why, I ask my friends, did the UAE abstain the day before in what was the first ever United Nations vote on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? ‘I thought you said they were our allies,’ I say. Later, when the UAE welcomes President Assad of Syria — Assad’s only other trips outside Syria during the war have been to Iran and Russia — a lot of people are left more than scratching their heads.
That evening at sundown, mistakenly thinking I have read just about everything on the subject of the abduction, I find for the first time one small mention by the BBC that they spoke to someone who had regular contact with Princess Shamsa in Dubai. ‘You didn’t need to be a doctor to know that [she] was tranquillised all the time,’ they say.
Unsettled now, I meet up with a BBC producer friend. He is recently out of hospital but knows the case well and he even smiles when he remembers I like to wear my heart on my sleeve in my work sometimes. By contrast, it is a bleak Soho afternoon. Avoiding the delicious artisan scones, cream cakes and cheesecake at Maison Bertaux, we sit down at our small table and drink coffee. Because of the close proximity of the other tables, and our own deliberately low voices owing to the sensitivity of our subject, it is impossible to hear each other properly. My friend leans forward and whispers loudly into my ear as a result that the best way to justify any new stab at the subject is to get a quote from someone in the police or Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) at the time. Get them to admit they were lent on, he is effectively telling me. Then you have yourself a film. A tall order, I suggest back. Sounding like an old-fashioned insurrectionary, he suggests that any such complicity must always be confronted.
Half an hour later, I hold the door open and we head back into the cold of Greek Street. ‘We owe it to the princess to keep her story alive,’ concludes my producer friend. I can’t work out if this is a commission or not but promise to send him a pitch document anyway.
Inspired by now, I track down another friend, someone I want to see anyway. Like my producer friend, I have also been ill. This, along with the pandemic, is why this friend and I have so much catching up to do. Incidentally, this man once worked for the Crown Prosecution Services (CPS). Perhaps he can guide me, I am thinking.
We arrange to meet on the top floor of Tate Modern, a recent successful location in Netflix’s ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’. Staring down at the Thames and London Millennium Footbridge, I ask out of genuine curiosity what it was like ‘back in the day’ working for Keir Starmer, the former boss of the CPS.
‘He was always on top of his brief,’ says my friend. ‘But he wasn’t what you would call a dazzler.’
Our view from the table includes a particularly sun-slapped St Paul’s Cathedral. As we continue catching up, I am thinking about the famous whispering gallery in the cathedral’s dome where two people can confide in each other while facing in opposite directions, and have their whispers return all the way back to them, full-circle, so to say. Unfortunately, it feels a bit like a whispering gallery that I have conjured up here. I say this to my friend in the naive hope that I am not being disingenuous by suddenly mentioning the case of Princess Shamsa. My lawyer friend is relaxed, even more so than I remember. He is also right and proper. He acknowledges only the strange case of Princess Diana’s butler Paul Burrell who was discovered with more than £4 million of Princess Diana’s possessions and trinkets, including images of Charles and her children in the bath. (To which, Princess Diana’s mother, as reported by Tina Brown in ‘The Palace Papers’ recently, commented: ‘I hope his balls burn.’) Anyway, my friend asks, without prejudice, if Burrell’s charges were not suddenly dropped? ‘Are you suggesting something?’ I say.
My next stop is Cambridge, where the story for Princess Shamsa so regrettably began. I meet up with my driving companion who picks me up at the station. We are pleased to see each other. On the back of what the BBC producer said, I mention that I have just been reading on the train a report by Georgia Goble in the university magazine Varsity from October 2021 on how it was alleged that the British Foreign Office ‘lent on’ Cambridgeshire Police to halt the investigation. This was to avoid what this time is called ‘diplomatic embarrassment’. (Naturally, the Foreign Office have denied having any involvement in the investigation or its outcomes.) Over and over, I have read different versions of this moment and am still getting nowhere.
Interestingly, Varsity’s article is written at the same time as the University of Cambridge called off a record donation of £400 million from the United Arab Emirates. The change of mind is to do with the UAE’s alleged use of Pegasus spyware, a revelation that comes after The Guardian’s well known Pegasus Project shows a leak of more than 50,000 telephone numbers which it believes are connected to people of interest to clients or customers of NSO Group. This is the Israeli corporation behind Pegasus, a company advised, no less, by Cherie Blair, whose husband’s government just so happens to have been responsible for the halt in Princess Shamsa’s case in the first place. These two facts are not considered related.
Importantly, though, the primary government in the Pegasus case that is accountable for selecting hundreds of UK numbers appears to be the UAE.
So not everyone can be lent on, I am thinking. This is the takeaway moral behind the £400 million being turned down. I also wonder what government thinks of standards.
My good friend and I enter the street leading to the University Arms Hotel where on August 19 almost twenty-two years ago, Princess Shamsa was staying. Here it is, right in front of us, the rebuilt elevation like a cleaned-up wound after its fire in 2013. I forget for a moment that this is not only where Princess Shamsa stayed but also where up to four of her father’s operatives had arrived.
We swing into the comparative innocence of a university car park and I cannot believe how swiftly some of these new academic buildings are being constructed, even assembled. Life moves on. Not everything is retained. The bad things in life are often edited out. If you don’t remain awake you might wake up in a world you no longer recognise.
I am here to introduce my friend to a professor at the university, and the three of us proceed with a friendly stroll past academic building after building, including a veterinary centre where we are told advancements on equine cancer detection are progressing well. ‘If your horse gets paid £50,000 a shag,’ smiles my professor friend, ’you’re going to want him fit.’ I wonder if the nearby Godolphin Stables with their capacity of up to 115 horses are in any way involved. I am also thinking about Princess Shamsa’s sister Latifa appealing directly to Cambridgeshire police to re-investigate the kidnapping of her older sister, and again how she was for a while held in solitary confinement — in what another BBC report describes as a ‘jail villa’. As the sun reflects generously on a very English stretch of reeded water, I watch a group of young students sat happily together in the sun. Today, Shamsa will be almost 40 years old, her own youth long since snatched in this very town.
Conversely, I go on to watch as a cluster of older academics move silently from one thought to another while entering the Fellows’ dining room of a prestigious Cambridge college. Even the lawn outside looks gifted. When I quietly mention the abduction of Princess Shamsa over food to those sitting around the large and erudite table, I am careful to mention it in the same breath as the refused £400 million by Cambridge University. At first, the person opposite jokes with affection that any university donation is really just money-laundering put to good use. I say that I rather admire the ethical stand taken by the university over Pegasus and the UAE, even if we do still have the problem of the case of Princess Shamsa.
At this moment, a distinguished figure to my left, enjoying a healthy but delicate vegetarian curry, acknowledges that they themselves once sat on such committees and enjoyed doing the right thing. This, too, is strangely gratifying, reminding me that principles really are like second nature to some.
Everyone seems to agree that the outgoing vice-chancellor at the time — Stephen Toope — did a more than decent job in suspending the £400 million. By coincidence, even Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s recent divorce from Princess Haya of Jordan was in part because of Pegasus revelations, The Guardian saying that the phones of Princess Latifa and Princess Haya, who fled to the UK in 2019, both appeared in the data.
After dessert, our conversation shifts to militancy among the young, and it is agreed — for some reason in the context of South Africa — that the young today accept the status quo far more readily than their predecessors ever did. I happen to say I discovered this very point myself in Johannesburg when meeting members of the ANC there — humbling, elderly men, imprisoned with Mandela.
Are we experiencing something similar here, I am allowed to wonder? My friend drives me back to the station. Why else is there is no protest among the students that we drive past in the street over the abduction? Is it left only to older academics these days to fight such battles? Or is it now felt that it is the important matters of race and our relationship with the past that needs addressing first?
At least human rights lawyer David Haigh is still trying to keep it real. Importantly, he is not critical of Cambridgeshire police at all. ‘A brazen offence has been committed on a British street,’ he has recorded in one statement: ‘It’s astonishing that this case hasn’t been solved after more than 20 years, but credit to the police for not giving up. They can rely on us for all the help and evidence we can give to bring the kidnappers to British justice.’
Retired DCI David Beck from the Cambridgeshire police told the Sunday Mirror recently that he has no idea why he was prevented from investigating the case, but did mention ‘significant sensitivities’.
Despite Mary Robinson’s registered regret, the UN Human Rights Council on February 18 this year tweets an image of Princess Latifa in Paris next to new UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet. Unfortunately, the timing is thrown into doubt by the presence of Christmas lights in the background, with some sceptics even suggesting it is a publicity ploy to help the Dubai and UAE Expo still taking place at the time.
I am afraid to say the Anglo-UAE relationship suffers yet another pounding last week with news that French authorities are opening a case against Interpol President Ahmed Nasser Al-Raisi of the UAE over what seems to be worrying accusations of torture against British citizens Matthew Hedges and Ali Issa Ahmad, detained when Ahmed Nasser Al-Raisi was a senior security official in the UAE.
Today, the writer of this piece sends genuine condolences to the people of the Emirates over last week’s death of their long-unwell ruler Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Offering his own condolences, MI6 Chief Richard Moore tweets that he is visiting the UAE for what he calls ‘discussions with our excellent Emirati strategic partners and friends’ and I can’t help but wonder if Princess Shamsa features in the conversation. It is certainly true that with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) formally elected now as the new president of the UAE, there is a great opportunity for some kind of a serious reboot and, indeed, fresh chapter. His presidency grants him power over all seven Emirates, including Dubai.
Whatever the truth about Princess Shamsa, whatever the truth about Anglo-UAE relations, it is an uncomfortable irony that the only person of innocence involved in the abduction remains the only person being held. I do hope that by the time I next go to New York, whichever New York it is, Princess Shamsa is ‘free’. The media has been achingly quiet since October 2021. No cameras, not even mine, are presently whirring. There are other subjects in the big bad world out there also crying for attention. Even with Covid attempting at long last to exit the world stage, it is the existential despair of Ukraine dominating much of the world news. Afghanistan for example doesn’t even get a look-in.
As for the still unresolved case of Princess Shamsa, England’s lost princess, the painter Wyndham Lewis, a man with a dodgy enough reputation of his own, once said that the English pride themselves in never praising themselves. Well, it saddens me to say, there is little to praise here anyway.