‘Latifa isn’t free — she’s just in a bigger prison than before’

The ex-wife of Dubai’s leader has reason to doubt the tale of his prodigal daughter — she too was held captive by him, she claims

Louise Callaghan, The Sunday Times
September 19, 2021

Reclining by a window in her hilltop residence outside Beirut, Randa al-Banna took a puff of her slim cigarette and looked out over the Mediterranean. The former wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai needed all her ingenuity just to make it here.

The house, where she lives with two chihuahuas, a Yorkshire terrier and a Pomeranian, is one of the few places she feels safe, decades after her split from the billionaire prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. His sporadic financial support, coupled with what she says was a recent three-month spell kept in effective house arrest in Rome, has enmeshed Banna, 66, in her former husband’s world, but it has not silenced her, even though she still fears she could be targeted for speaking out about one of the Middle East’s most powerful men.

She first told her story to The Sunday Times two years ago, but the plight of Princess Latifa, one of the sheikh’s daughters by another wife, has prompted her to speak out again. This month, Banna picked me up in her car in Beirut — looking, as ever, like a character from a Fellini film, in sunglasses and a silk scarf.

“Darling,” she said. “I have never acted badly towards someone if they didn’t do something to me.”

Latifa was detained on her father’s orders and returned to Dubai after trying to escape the desert emirate on a yacht in 2018. She released videos this year saying she had been imprisoned. A few months ago, however, she began appearing in Instagram photographs that purported to show her, free and happy, out with friends. The campaign calling for her release has been closed down. Sioned Taylor, a former teacher of Latifa’s and an erstwhile employee of the Dubai royal family, who posted photographs of herself with the princess, told me that Latifa “just wants to be left alone”.

In a statement from Latifa issued on Friday by her British lawyers, she said: “The allegation that I am not free is completely untrue. I am free to travel and am living the life I wish. I would ask that my privacy is respected so that I can live my life in peace.

Banna is unconvinced. She is the first family member to break ranks publicly on the recent developments in Latifa’s case. “If Latifa is free, why haven’t we heard from her?” she said. “She’s just in a bigger prison than before. If she’s really free then let her come out and say so. I will believe she is free when she comes out and talks, like she was brave when she came out of her prison with that video.” She said of Maktoum: “He will release her when he decides.”

Pictures posted on Instagram showed Princess Latifa, centre, out with friends, but many are still concerned for her welfare

Banna also questioned why Shamsa, Latifa’s sister, has not been heard from publicly in decades. She was kidnapped in Cambridge in 2000 after running away from her father’s Surrey estate.

Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the family division of the High Court in London, has ruled that Maktoum orchestrated the abduction and forced captivity of Shamsa and Latifa. He denies the claims. In a video released in 2018, Latifa said Shamsa has been imprisoned and drugged since being returned to Dubai.

Marcus Essabri, a cousin of Shamsa’s who had called for her release, has changed his mind. He told me this summer that Shamsa had “moved on with her life, is a practising Muslim, she is at peace”. He also appeared in a photograph with Latifa after travelling with her, and others, to Iceland on holiday.

“Was amazing to see her and happy that she is well,” he wrote to me.

Many of Maktoum’s critics believe there is more to the story. If anyone knows the dangers of being an outspoken female member of the house of Maktoum, it is Banna.

“I have been treated very badly,” she said. “Very badly.”

Maktoum paid for her house in London for a time and gave her a monthly stipend — which has since stopped. He also paid for her daughter by her third former husband to leave Libya and travel to Italy to give birth after having a difficult pregnancy. But amid the acts of generosity, something went horribly astray.

Today Banna asserts publicly for the first time that for three months from September, she was kept in effect under house arrest at her flat in Rome by officials from the city’s Emirati embassy, allegedly on her ex-husband’s orders. A spokesperson for Maktoum denied the allegations. She says her passports were taken, her phones monitored and her movements tightly controlled.

I went to Rome in the autumn after hearing that Banna was having problems and found her flat, in a handsome house on a cobbled street. Something was wrong. Banna had answered my messages only with an all-caps “AM WELL THANK YOU FOR ASKING”, rather than her usual voice notes. When I rang the bell, I was told by the person who answered that everything was fine and Banna was resting. Much later, after repeatedly failing to make contact with her, I received a text. “Louise, I went through hell since September. Please make sure I’m safe,” Banna wrote.

She says she rented the flat with her own funds and was surprised one day to find an Emirati woman at the door. The woman said she was from the embassy and would be staying there to help her. “I was shocked,” Banna said.

It soon became clear that the woman was not going to leave. Banna says she was blocked from going out alone.

Banna was interviewed by The Sunday Times two years ago at a Knightsbridge hotel
Banna was interviewed by The Sunday Times two years ago at a Knightsbridge hotel

Despite being an Italian citizen, she feared going to the authorities, believing they might be allied with Maktoum. She was terrified she would be forced to go to Dubai.

Later, Banna said, a man came to the apartment, introducing himself as an employee of Maktoum. He gave her a document to sign: it said she would not speak to the media or the Free Latifa campaign, nor contact her own daughter, and that she would cancel the publication of her memoirs. Banna said she initially refused but in the end, desperate, signed a watered-down version. It is understood that Maktoum denies any involvement.

Her passports were returned and she left for London. There, she says, she received phone calls from a woman with a British accent who claimed to be an employee of the sheikh. She told her that the stories about Latifa being imprisoned were untrue and that the princess was ready to talk to her. Banna said Latifa could call her if she wanted, since she had her number. She became suspicious when the woman asked her if Latifa had been in touch.

“I told her you had no right to ask about that,” she said. Four months ago, the woman stopped contacting her.

The house arrest in Rome was just the latest chapter in a life marked by high drama and tragedy. Banna was 16, and recently expelled from convent school, when she first met Maktoum, six years her senior, after he saw her in a Beirut nightclub. They were soon married.

She was his first wife, though he would reportedly go on to marry at least five others. The couple embarked on a whirlwind life together, flying around the world and planning their future. But just a few years later, she was back in Beirut, divorced and forced to leave five-month-old Manal, her daughter with Maktoum, behind in Dubai. After an abusive marriage with a Lebanese militiaman during the country’s civil war, she escaped with her two other children to Rome, where she wanted to become a fashion designer.

She hoped Maktoum would one day allow her to see her daughter. Yet despite what Banna says were his repeated promises to unite them, it never happened. In 2005, she tried to take matters into her own hands by travelling to Manal’s wedding in Dubai. Days before she was to leave for the Emirates, she was attacked by an assailant with a baseball bat. Banna now has eight metal screws in her back. Maktoum paid for her medical treatment after the attack.

Banna says she has left four names of people she accuses of being involved in the attack with two lawyers — one American and one Italian — to be released in the event of her untimely death. She refused to share the names with me. “If I die in a suspicious way, then I accuse these persons of carrying out the attack,” she said.

Banna stayed quiet and refused media requests for decades after leaving Dubai, in the hope that she would be able to see her daughter. “I’ve been accused of wanting to be famous,” she said. “Famous for what? If I wanted to be known that I was the mother of his daughter I would have done that years ago. Why wait?”

She relented nearly two years ago after Latifa’s thwarted escape bid, when we met at a Knightsbridge hotel. Banna said she did not know Latifa well but hoped that speaking out would help her and Shamsa.

She also hoped that by talking to me, her daughter would know that she missed her and might make contact. Manal al-Maktoum is one of the most powerful women in the Emirates — head of the Dubai Women Establishment, she is married to the UAE deputy prime minister. But she never got in touch.

Banna said: “I want to meet Manal with Sheikh Mohammed to have a debate. Then, whatever the truth was, she is going to know it. I want to know from him: why did he do this to me? What did I do to him? It’s my right.”