It doesn’t help to be a princess in the Gulf

Anchal Vohra
July 18, 2019, Observer Research Foundation

Saudi Arabia, a regional ally of the UAE, is infamous for the treatment of its female population.

Being a princess in the Emirates is the last thing any girl would ever dream of. In July 2000, Sheikha Shamsa Al-Maktoum, one of the daughters of the ruler of Dubai and the Prime Minister of the UAE, attempted to escape from the family’s holiday home in England. She was located by the Sheikh’s men and has not been heard of since.

In February 2018, Shamsa’s stepsister Sheikha Latifa fled the UAE on a yacht and was found off the coast of Mumbai and handed over to her father. Her fate is as obscure as her sister’s.

The latest royal to run away from the palace of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is his sixth wife Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein. She fled to the United Kingdom and is reportedly living at a prime property in London worth a whopping 85 million pounds, albeit in fear. She is also a half-sister of Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

While the princess herself has not yet officially revealed why she left the gilded abode of her billionaire husband, some reports suggested that she had found out about the treatment meted out to Latifa, the princess that Indian authorities delivered to the Monarch.

A pre-recorded message by Princess Latifa is seen as her testimony — dismissed as outlandish by the monarchy, but widely received as a spine-chilling account of what goes on inside the palace.

However, matters get further complicated as Princess Haya had once tried to assure the world herself that princess Latifa was being taken care of after she was brought back and her escape foiled.

But a pre-recorded message by Princess Latifa is seen as her testimony — dismissed as outlandish by the monarchy but widely received as a spine-chilling account of what goes on inside the palace.

“If you are watching this video either I am dead or in a very very bad situation,” she had said in the video she recorded before she escaped. “He is the evilest person I have met in my life. There is nothing good in him. He is responsible for so many deaths,” she added about her father, the Prime Minister and monarch.

A man who is not only duty-bound to guard the wellbeing of all his people but also sits on the hightable of global politics, called hits on people he does not like, imprisoned and tortured his daughters who dared to seek some freedom, said Princess Latifa.

This dark tale of palace intrigue has once again hit the international newspapers as his wife, Haya, fights a legal case against him in a court in the United Kingdom — both the Sheikh and his wife are believed to be good friends with the Queen of England.

The stories of these privileged women threw light on the lives of the women of not just the UAE but the Gulf.

The hearing in the case might be as early as later this month and possibly shed some facts about what forced princess Haya to leave. However, a poem posted in June by the Sheikh’s associates has further baffled observers.

“O you who betrayed the most precious of trust,

My sorrow revealed your game.

Your lie, let it be known, its time has passed.”

While the verse indicated towards a tale of betrayal, the reporting has alluded to the palace as a prison for its royal women, Princess Shamsa and Latifa, as perhaps being the push factors behind Haya’s abandonment of what many termed a fairy tale of a life.

The stories of these privileged women threw light on the lives of the women of not just the UAE but the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, a regional ally of the UAE, is equally infamous for the treatment of its female population.

Last year, Crown Prince Mohamad bin-Salman — MBS — as he is colloquially known, allowed Saudi women to drive. Soon after, however, several women’s rights activists were put behind bars.

Princess Haya’s testimony in the upcoming case would be crucial not just for herself, but also the fate of her stepdaughters Shamsa and Latifa as well as hundreds of thousands of women in the Gulf. Will she bring down the monarch to his knees or succumb to his might?

Wafa al-Subaie and Maha al-Subaie, sisters, fled from Riyadh to Istanbul before landing in Georgia and seeking asylum in the west. They said they escaped because of constant abuse and a dictatorial guardianship system in the country. Every woman in Saudi Arabia needs the permission of a male relative to step out of the house and certainly the country or to even possess a passport.

Dua and Dalal, also sisters, escaped as they dreaded that they might be married off to much older men, a threat made by their father. The case of Rahaf al-Qanun, now Rahaf Mohammed, made international news at the beginning of the year. She revealed her plight on social media, fought against deportation demands and finally sought refuge in Canada.

These are just the cases that have come to light, of the princesses and ordinary women. While they have managed to display exceptional courage, their stories are mainly emblematic of the struggles of the women in the Arab world, caged in their homes and brutalized if they asked for the simplest freedoms.

The question, however, is if anyone is listening? As the monarchs of the oil-rich Gulf sign deals worth billions with the developed world, will any of the human rights promoting western countries speak-up for them and demand answers?

Princess Haya’s testimony in the upcoming case would be crucial not just for herself, but also the fate of her stepdaughters Shamsa and Latifa as well as hundreds of thousands of women in the Gulf. Will she bring down the monarch to his knees or succumb to his might?

Another verse posted by the associates of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum — the ruler, the PM, the monarch, the husband — said of Haya: “You no longer have a place with me.”

It might be easier for her to get a divorce but the future of the ordinary women folk in the Gulf is unlikely to get better anytime soon. There should be outrage in the world over the cases of the imprisoned princesses and of the women forced to run away from their homes from Saudi Arabia. Sadly, global support has been muted. Thankfully, Nicki Minaj has refused to perform in Riyadh.

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