Three princesses in Dubai’s mega-rich royal family have fled the glittering realm of the powerful, but secretive Sheikh al Maktoum. Here’s why.
First it was Princess Shamsa, then Princess Latifa and last month Princess Haya fleeing lives of luxury and untold wealth enjoyed by Dubai’s royal family.
The domain of powerful, multi-billionaire ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai is the jewel in the crown of The United Arab Emirates.
The glittering oil rich realm is a playground of luxury shopping, stunning ultra-modern architecture, resorts and a lively night-life.
But first one, then two and now three of its princesses have tried to flee the feudal kingdom.
The first two princesses — both daughters of the Sheikh — were dragged back, with Shamsa reportedly imprisoned in the almost two decades since to keep her silence.
The latest to escape is the Sheikh’s wife, Princess Haya who fled Dubai last month with her two young children, aged seven and 11, seeking asylum in London.
The university educated, glamorous 45-year-old fled Dubai with $56m and is living in the Dubai royal family’s $150m mansion, with heavy security, across the road from Kensington Palace.
Brewing in the British courts now is one of the biggest royal divorces the world has ever seen.
Princess Haya reportedly escaped via private jet to Germany, helped by foreign diplomats.
Channel 9’s 60 Minutes has interviewed an insider to spill the beans on what is going wrong in the cloistered world of this most secretive of the world’s royal families.
Himself a member of Dubai’s royal clan, Marcus Essabri also had to flee the regime and says if he hadn’t he might not have survived.
A royal cousin, Marcus grew up as a girl named Fatima, and only transitioned to a man 10 years ago.
“If I had stayed there, if I had been kept there, I don’t think I could have survived,” he said.
“Because I don’t fit in. I don’t tick their boxes.”
Essabri told 60 Minutes that under the powerful control of Sheikh Mohammed, “there’s no freedom”.
He said the liberty of the women in the royal family is severely restricted and there are torturous consequences for those who dare to defy those in power.
He said, as a friend of princesses Shamsa and Latifa, he is breaking his silence because he fears they are in danger.
He said that Shamsa told him “that she would rather die than carry on the life there.
“For me is very tough to talk about this, because I feel I’ve let her down.
“I’m another hope. I believe that everything that anybody does will help Latifa and Shamsa,” Essabri said.
In July 2000, 18-year-old Princess Shamsa was holidaying at her family’s $130m estate in Surrey, England.
She managed to escape the compound and was free for several weeks while in hiding.
But the powerful clutches of the Sheikh found her and took her forcibly back to Dubai.
Princess Shamsa now allegedly lives as a prisoner in Dubai’s gilded cage.
Essabri said Shamsa was imprisoned back in Dubai for eight years on return.
Her sister Latifa says Shamsa is “surrounded by nurses, they watch her take her pills, they make sure that she takes all of her pills.
“These drugs to control her mind, I don’t know what they are. So her life is totally controlled.”
Last year, Princess Latifa, 33 also tried to flee Dubai.
She and Shamsa are full sisters; Sheikh Mohammed has 30 children from six wives.
Her elaborate escape plan by boat to India was foiled when armed commandos raided the vessel and dragged Latifa away at gunpoint, returning her to Dubai.
Latifa went missing off the coast of Goa after her daring seaborne bid to escape Dubai.
In March last year, a video was released of Sheikha Latifa in which she claimed she was fleeing from her family, and made allegations of imprisonment, abuse and torture.
Her family insisted she was safe and released a video of her late last year at home with former Irish President Mary Robinson.
London human rights lawyer, David Haigh, told 60 Minutes he believes Haya might have fled Dubai after she finally learning the truth about what happened to Latifa.
He led the chorus of international condemnation, but for months, all he received in return was silence and describes the sheikh’s regime as “a dictatorship”.
In the 38-minute video made by Latifa, she makes serious allegations which could help derail her father’s looming custody battle with Princess Haya.
In Latifa’s video, which was released on YouTube, she said she had also tried to flee Dubai when she was a teenager, but was caught and punished.
“I was in prison for three years and four months . It was constant torture, “ she says staring into the camera lens.”
Princess Haya, the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan and half-sister of the current Jordanian king, is attuned to the duties and the cloistered world of Islamic royal wives.
She is nevertheless, an Oxford University graduate, and an accomplished equestrian, having represented Jordan at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
She married Sheikh Mohammed in 2004, becoming his sixth wife.
She was often seen by her husband’s side at regional and international functions, greeting dignitaries and delivering speeches, unusual for the wife of a Persian Gulf ruler.
After she ran for her life, the Sheikh filed a lawsuit against her in a UK court, which next week will begin hearings into a custody battle over the estranged couple’s children.
60 Minutes reported that a clue to Princess Haya’s state of mind before fleeing came in a radio interview she gave in January.
In that interview Haya said she rejected any suggestion of ill-treatment to Latifa and “if I thought for a single second that any shred of this was true, you know, I wouldn’t put up with it, or stand for it”.
Marcus Essabri said he believed Haya left her husband because she finally realised the truth about what had happened to Latifa.
“It’s very sad. It is … somebody’s taken her life away from her,” he said.
“The opportunities of her life, it’s like you are living, but you have no right to live.
“Is she being locked up? Is she being beaten? Is she being fed?
“I wouldn’t treat even an animal the way she has been treated.”
He also said a photo released last year of Latifa was disturbing.
“Somebody that was there, but not there,” he said.
“There was something missing. It’s like there was no life.
“I don’t know if she was drugged or despair. Emptiness.”
The sheikh’s wife-on-the-run has now been asked to help free Latifa.
A friend of Princess Latifa, Tiina Jauhiainen, who helped in the failed Goa escape bid, launched a Free Latifa campaign and has begged Princess Haya to help.
“We would urge Princess Haya to use her global power and influence to help free Latifa, who is and suffering because of her own father’s treatment of her,” Ms Jauhiainen said.
“She may be a princess, but this is about freedom and equality.
Aged 69, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is worth more than £9 billion ($15b) and is a keen racehorse owner and acquaintance of the British royal family.
David Haigh said the sheikh’s power was waning.
“We’re … seeing people that were around the family … for the first time ever are prepared to speak, because his power is falling.
“People are no longer as scared of him as they once were.”