In new video, Dubai princess Sheikha Latifa says she is ‘hostage’

Kim Hjelmgaard
February 18, 2021, USA TODAY

The princess daughter of Dubai’s ruler is being held captive by her family and fears for her life after a foiled attempt to flee the wealthy emirate in 2018, according to new video evidence in a case that has been highlighted by USA TODAY.

“Every day, I’m worried about my safety and my life. I don’t really know if I’m going to survive this situation,” Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, 35, says in one self-recorded phone video. A transcript was provided by David Haigh, Tiina Jauhiainen and Marcus Essabri, Britain-based advocates working on her behalf who hope the Biden administration’s focus on human rights will pressure Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum – who is also the United Arab Emirates’ billionaire prime minister – to release his daughter. Essabri is Sheikha Latifa’s maternal cousin. 

“The police threaten me that they would take me outside and shoot me if I didn’t cooperate with them,” Sheikha Latifa says in the video. “They also threatened me that I would be in prison my whole life and I’ll never see the sun again.”

Sheikha Latifa’s family claim she is completely fine and recuperating safely at home after an ordeal that they insist was a failed abduction of the then 33-year-old royal. 

Princess Sheikha Latifa tried to flee Dubai: She left a video to prove it

Princess Sheikha Latifa tried to flee Dubai. (Stirling Haigh)

The video clips were filmed in the bathroom of a barricaded villa in Dubai where Sheikha Latifa says she is being held against her will and without access to the outside world. The footage was aired separately as part of a BBC investigation on Tuesday night. 

“I am a hostage and this villa has been converted into a jail,” she says in the video.

Haigh said the clips were filmed between early 2019 and early 2020 – so more than a year after Sheikha Latifa was captured and returned to Dubai. He said they were being released now because his team’s secret communications with Sheikha Latifa had dried up and there had been no recent confirmation that she was still alive. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is preparing to question the UAE about her.

Haigh would not reveal how a phone was smuggled to Sheikha Latifa. 

The family of Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist, last week thanked President Joe Biden after she was released from jail in the deeply conservative kingdom in another case that’s been decried by the UN and rights groups around the world. Biden has pledged to make human rights a greater priority than his predecessor, Donald Trump, who persistently ignored Al-Hathloul’s plight. The 31-year-old was arrested in 2018 after she posted videos of herself driving online. The videos were an act of resistance against the oil-rich kingdom’s longtime ban on women driving. 

Saudi rights activist freed from prison: Loujain al-Hathloul was sexually assaulted

Trump also largely overlooked the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkey. 

The new footage of Sheikha Latifa confirms previously reported details of her daring escape from Dubai and how she was forcibly returned to the UAE nine days after fleeing the area on a U.S.-registered boat. She was apprehended off the coast of India, in international waters, along with Jauhiainen, a Finnish-born capoeira instructor who gave Sheikha Latifa lessons in the Afro-Brazilian martial art before becoming her confidante.

Jauhiainen helped Sheikha Latifa plot the escape, which involved riding a small inflatable dinghy for 15 miles to join a sailing vessel waiting for them off the coast of nearby Oman. When the boat was later stormed by Indian commandoes, Jauhiainen and the boat’s French-born, American captain were beaten and threatened with execution before being released. Sheikha Latifa was forcibly returned to Dubai. 

Sheikha Latifa had planned her escape from Dubai’s ruling family for seven years, running away from what she said was her father’s oppressive and cruel treatment. USA TODAY reviewed emails, images, encrypted social media messages, ID certificates, satellite data and audio and video that substantiate what happened to her.

Her case originally came to the attention of human rights activists and international lawyers because she left behind a YouTube video with instructions for it to be released only in the event her plot to escape from Dubai failed. It was published in March 2018.

“I’m not allowed to drive. I’m not allowed to travel or leave Dubai at all,” Sheikha Latifa said in the YouTube video recorded before her escape. 

Prior to the release of the new video footage, Sheikha Latifa had not been heard from since December 2018, after she was brought back to Dubai, when her family released photos of her sitting next to Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland and ex-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In the photos, Sheikha Latifa appears dazed and confused. Robinson now admits that she was duped into believing that Sheikha Latifa was simply depressed and did not know she was being held captive in isolation. 

Robinson said she was “horribly tricked” by Sheikha Latifa’s family. 

In March 2019, U.S. attorney Lisa Bloom, who has built a career defending women against powerful men, joined Haigh, Jauhiainen and other rights activists in calling for legal scrutiny over what happened to Sheikha Latifa. However, Bloom said in an email that she has not worked on the case for some time because “it was difficult to conceive of a legal action I could handle from the U.S., especially while not having access to her.”

U.S. lawyer Lisa Bloom: Boycott Dubai over ‘captive’ Princess Sheikha Latifa

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum is one of the wealthiest heads of state in the world. Among his interests are a vast horse-racing empire that includes horse farms in Lexington, Kentucky. He often attends major horse racing events in the U.K. such as Royal Ascot, where he has been pictured alongside Queen Elizabeth II.

Dubai’s leader has six wives and 30 children. 

Sheikha Latifa is the second of her father’s daughters to disappear.

Her older sister, Sheikha Shamsa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, 39, was seized on the streets of Cambridge, England, after fleeing the Dubai royal family’s British estate in Surrey in 2000. A Scotland Yard detective tried to investigate.

The case hit a dead end when the family would not allow her to be interviewed.

Princess Latifa, Tiina Jauhianen and an unknown third person skydive above Dubai.

Sheikha Shamsa has not been seen or heard from in public since. 

In 2019, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum’s now-estranged wife Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, fled to London with the pair’s two young children because she started fearing for her life. 

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum has relentlessly portrayed Dubai as an enlightened, corporate-friendly city-state. It has world-class infrastructure, luxury shopping malls, a skyscraper-filled skyline and a large expatriate population.

But humanitarian groups such as New York-based Human Rights Watch and the U.K.-based Emirate Center for Human Rights, a non-profit organization, have long argued that Dubai has a dark side where those who violate its cultural restrictions are subject to torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and unfair trials.

Women are permitted drive, vote and own and inherit property in Dubai, but some aspects of a woman’s personal life are still strictly controlled by male guardians, such as who they can marry. Sheikha Latifa had ambitions to study medicine abroad. 

“No one of conscience should travel to Dubai or do business there,” Bloom said. 

Toby Cadman, a London-based human rights lawyer who for a time was involved with Sheikha Latifa’s case said it is concerning that the new recordings were done some time ago and that it’s not entirely clear if she’s still alive.

He said the UN may need to get new proof-of-life evidence from the UAE, something Britain’s Foreign Minster Dominic Raab requested on Wednesday. 

“The likelihood is her family has found out she’s been using a phone to communicate and they’ve either killed her or she’s in a situation far worse than before,” Cadman said.

Jauhiainen, who is currently in Finland, said the new footage of Sheikha Latifa was released this week because “we felt like we were running out of options” to save her.