Justine McCarthy: Mary Robinson must lead on search for missing Princess Latifa

The former president can use her global influence to pressurise Dubai

Justine McCarthy
February 21, 2021, The Sunday Times

For those of us who celebrated Mary Robinson’s election as Ireland’s first woman president in 1990 the vapour trails of euphoria lingered long after she had left Aras an Uachtarain seven years later. She was a feminist who did not just talk the talk; she had walked the walk to Leinster House and the Four Courts as a senator and a senior counsel, chipping away at the patriarchal edifice to carve out improvements in women’s lives. Her election as the head of this state came at the end of a decade of horrors for Irish females, most notably the medieval evisceration of Joanne Hayes at the Kerry Babies tribunal; the tragic death of Ann Lovett, 15, with her newborn baby at the feet of a statue of the Blessed Virgin in Granard; the court-approved dismissal of Eileen Flynn from her teaching job in Wexford for cohabiting with a married man; and two viciously fought referendums on abortion and divorce when women’s feelings were hurled around like rocks by warring cavemen.

In a delicious irony it was a sexist attack on Robinson by the former EU commissioner Pádraig Flynn the weekend before the presidential election, when he accused her of portraying “a newfound interest” in her family during the campaign, that ensured her victory. As president she often aligned the office with vulnerable women, particularly by visiting refuges for survivors of domestic abuse. Her ultimate act of feminist symbolism was when she visited the Pope on International Women’s Day, eschewing the Vatican’s requirement that women dress from head to toe in black and, instead, sporting a sprig of mimosa, Italy’s women’s-lib emblem, on a vivid green dress. Her visit as president to famine-blighted Somalia, where she made a point of privately meeting women community leaders, catapulted her into the role of UN high commissioner for human rights.

Watching Robinson’s apologia on last week’s BBC Panorama programme about the kidnapping, captivity and disappearance of Princess Latifa of Dubai was like watching one of your heroes fall from grace. When someone damages the very cause that had enticed you to invest your respect in them, the shattering of that regard is gut-wrenching.

Robinson has, at long last, conceded she was used as a patsy by Dubai’s billionaire ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum in an international propaganda exercise to conceal his crimes. He had his daughter abducted by armed commandoes on board a yacht off the coast of India after she tried to escape his tyrannical clutches in 2018. “My father is the most evil person I have ever met in my life,” she said in a video she secretly recorded. Latifa was back under lock and key in Dubai when Robinson, while attending a conference in Paris, received an invitation to lunch in the glittering Arab emirate from Latifa’s step-mother, Princess Haya. One of the sheikh’s six wives and mothers of his 25 children, Haya had become friendly with Robinson before her marriage, during a sojourn in Ireland working with horses in the 1990s. She paid for Robinson’s flight to Dubai.

Latifa has said Haya told her that, if she passed the test of sitting docilely at lunch, she might enjoy greater freedom. The younger woman knew nothing about this “Mary” who came to lunch and said that, had she known she was a former human rights commissioner, she would have confided in Robinson. Instead, the conversation at lunch was about sport, veganism and the environment. Robinson has said Haya told her Latifa was suffering from bipolar disorder and that she did not discuss this with the younger woman, having no expertise in the condition.

On Christmas Eve Dubai issued photographs and film footage of the occasion to rebut international concerns that Latifa was being held prisoner. When the BBC challenged her about her role in December 2018 Robinson said Latifa was “clearly troubled” but she was “in the loving care” of her family.

Last week the Irish woman admitted she had been duped. “I was misled, initially by my good friend princess Haya, because she was misled.” The unanswered question is why Robinson has waited until now to admit her mistake. Four months after the images of the lunch were released Haya herself fled Dubai with her two children and petitioned for a divorce in London. She told the court she was “terrified” of her husband, that he had intimidated her with guns, and planned to marry off their 12-year-old daughter.

Haya said she began to see through his lies about Latifa’s mental health when she visited the young woman in a locked and guarded house on December 6, 2018. That was nine days before Robinson came to lunch. Yet there is no indication that the human-rights champion protested at the release of the film and photos a further 10 days later.

The sheikh did not testify in court. Instead, he brazenly hosted an international conference on women’s rights, which was addressed by Ivanka Trump, a daughter of America’s then president. While it is almost understandable that someone whose father is a self-confessed “pussy” grabber would give her imprimatur to a misogynistic regime, one expected better from Robinson. She would know that Dubai’s laws discriminate against women in regulating marriage, child custody and inheritance. Naivety cannot explain her behaviour, because she is far from naive.

On March 5, 2020, the London court ruled that Latifa was held for three years on her father’s instructions after her first attempt to escape in 2005, and that he had ordered her abduction and forced return to Dubai in 2018. The judgment also stated that Sheikh Mohammed had arranged the kidnapping of her older sister, Shamsa, from Cambridge in 2000. She has not been seen in public since.

I believe Robinson remains sincere in her beliefs about women’s rights and suspect she feels devastated at being exploited, to the endangerment of Latifa, who has vanished since that lunch. Haya and Robinson are, to different extents, victims of the tyrant sheikh too. The Irishwoman, however, has the global influence as well as the cultural and jurisdictional independence to make amends.

Robinson’s biography on the website of the Elders, an international elite formed by Nelson Mandela which she chairs, describes her as “a forceful advocate for gender equality, women’s participation in peace building and human dignity”. Sadly, she needs to prove it, all over again. She can do that by leading the charge to find Latifa and her sister Shamsa, and by forcing the rest of the world to stop turning a blind eye to wealthy tyrants.

Meanwhile the rest of us might think twice about holidaying in Dubai, thus contributing to the tourism revenue that helps immunise a wicked father and leader against any threat to his authoritarian hold on his country.