BEIRUT, Lebanon — The princess known as Sheikha Latifa had not left Dubai, the glittering emirate ruled by her father, in 18 years. Her requests to travel and study elsewhere had been denied. Her passport had been taken away. Her friends’ apartments were forbidden to her, her palace off-limits to them.
At 32, Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum went nowhere without a watchful chauffeur.
“There’s no justice here,” she said in a video she secretly recorded last year. “Especially if you’re a female, your life is so disposable.”
So it was with a jolt of astonishment that her friends overseas read a WhatsApp message from her last March announcing that she had left Dubai “for good.”
“Is this real,” one of them, an American sky diver named Chris Colwell, messaged back. “Where are you.”
“Free,” she responded. “And I’ll come see you soon.” She added a heart.
Her escape — planned over several years with the help of a Finnish capoeira trainer and a self-proclaimed French ex-spy — lasted less than a week.
Within a few days of setting sail on the Indian Ocean in the Frenchman’s yacht, bound for India and then the United States, the sheikha went silent. She has not been seen since, except in a few photos released in December by her family, which says she is safely home after surviving what they said was a kidnapping.
Yet thanks to the video she made before fleeing, her face and voice have made their way around the world, drawing more than two million views on YouTube, spurring avid news coverage and marring Dubai’s image as a world capital of glitz and commerce.
Like the young women who have fled Saudi Arabia’s restrictive regime, Sheikha Latifa has made sure no one can forget how few freedoms are allotted to women in the Middle East’s most conservative societies — or how costly crossing Dubai’s ruler can be.
For all its megamalls, haute cuisine and dizzying skyscrapers, Dubai can flip at speed from international playground to repressive police state. It has drawn headlines in the West for detaining foreigners for holding hands in public and drinking alcohol without a license.
Last year, it was widely condemned for holding a British academic, Matthew Hedges, after accusing him of being a British spy. In recent years, the authorities have also intensified a crackdown on internal dissent.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re an ordinary Emirati citizen or a member of the royal family or an expat from a close ally like the U.K.,” said Hiba Zayadin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If you’re harming that carefully tailored image,” she added, “you will face the consequences.”
Over the video’s 39 stark minutes, her voice composed and forceful, Sheikha Latifa described in fluent English her life of constricting privilege and stunted hopes. She hoped it would change if she could win political asylum in the United States.
“I don’t know how, how I’ll feel, just waking up in the morning and thinking, I can do whatever I want today,” she said. “That’ll be such a new, different feeling. It’ll be amazing.”
Fearing for her life if she was caught, she said she was recording the video in case she failed.
“They’re not going to take me back alive,” she said. “That’s not going to happen. If I don’t make it out alive, at least there’s this video.”
Sheikha Latifa first faced rigid restrictions after her sister’s failed escape attempt years earlier.