Princess Latifa fled her father’s gilded cage and went on the run

Unheard voice notes from the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai

Patricia Nicol, The Sunday Times
March 17, 2024

In February 2018 a young Emirati princess, Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, fled the gilded cage of her Dubai palace and disappeared. Her last known location had been a yacht off the coast of India.

The media was alerted to Latifa’s flight by the release of a video made before her escape. It anticipated that her father, Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, might never let her go. “He will kill people to protect his reputation,” she claimed. “If you are watching this, it’s not a good thing: either I’m dead or I’m in a very bad situation.”

Six years on, Latifa, now 38, seems to be alive, but it is hard to know her situation; she has previously claimed torture and imprisonment. The Runaway Princesses, a four-part podcast, retells the story of Latifa’s getaway, involving jet skis, Ikea flat-pack furniture and international accomplices. But that bid for freedom ended when commandos took her back to the UAE.

The podcast also explores the fate of three other Emirati princesses who sought another life. Sheikha Bouchra, the Moroccan-born wife of Dubai’s previous ruler, Sheikh Maktoum, died in 2007, aged 34. In 2000 a nanny had called the UK police to allege that Bouchra and her children were being kidnapped from London, aboard a private jet bound for Dubai. In 2019 Sheikha Haya, Mohammed’s second official wife and Latifa’s stepmother, claimed sanctuary in London, where the High Court has since declared her a victim of domestic abuse. Her legal team tried to call Latifa and her sister Shamsa as witnesses.

Shamsa’s case is, like Latifa’s, a sad tale of boldness and betrayal. She was 18 when she first made a brave bid for freedom from her father’s Surrey estate, Longcross. A princess, she nonetheless contrived to disappear, staying at a hostel in southeast London. She consulted an immigration lawyer. But she made the mistake of contacting Grant Osborne, one of her father’s British security guards. He double-crossed her and she was hustled out of the UK.

Recounted by the former Sunday Times investigative reporter Heidi Blake, this podcast features many accounts of female abuse. Before we even get to the princesses’ plights there are grim allegations from chauffeurs of whimpering, bleeding young prostitutes being driven from the sheikh’s UK estates. One retired police officer alleges that in 2001 one reported being kidnapped and repeatedly raped. Calls, he claims, came from on high to stand down the investigation. Other such claims about British government and Special Branch cover-ups and collusions are made. India’s government, meanwhile, made a deal to allow Latifa’s extraction. Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and a former UN high commissioner for human rights, says she made a “terrible mistake” in agreeing to the Dubai ruling family’s request that she be photographed with Latifa in December 2018 as proof of life.

This podcast stems from an article Blake wrote for The New Yorker, and her interlocutor is Madeleine Baran of the In the Dark podcast. It is obvious it was not originally conceived as a podcast, and there is a stilted feel. But what the podcast does have is previously unpublished voice notes from Latifa.

The stories here are made more compelling by Emirati wealth and influence already being in the news, with the UAE’s autocratic government’s bid to buy The Telegraph. The Arabian Gulf state’s influence in sport was the central theme of episode two of The Sports Agents, a confident younger sibling to Global’s The News Agents, with the hosts Gabby Logan and Mark Chapman. In the run-up to Anthony Joshua’s big bout in Saudi Arabia they examined how the desert kingdom had wrested boxing from Las Vegas, pouring money into the sport (Francis Ngannou, the loser, was offered $20 million to face Joshua).

Chapman asked if there was an argument for sport as an agent of progress. Logan countered: “Can women leave the country without the say of their male guardian? No, an app goes off.”

Sarah Shephard of The Athletic weighed in: “I find it conflicting, but I know a lot of boxing fans don’t. They’re all in on the Saudi project: these are the fights they’ve been wanting to see for years.”

Money talks, then, but these podcasts allow for informed listening.