Interview: ‘They told me they could do anything they wanted with me’ — Princess Latifa’s friend speaks out about trying to escape Dubai with the princess and the Irish connection

The ruler of Dubai is treated with deference in the Irish horse-racing community. Now a friend of his daughter Latifa is demanding that they act over his treatment of his family and is attempting to enlist Mary Robinson to her cause. Kim Bielenberg reports

Kim Bielenberg, Irish Independent
April 3, 2021

The last time Tiina Jauhiainen saw her close friend Princess Latifa of Dubai, she was being dragged away kicking and screaming by armed commandos from a boat off the Indian coast.

Latifa and Tiina had mounted a daring escape from the gulf state in February 2018 after the princess had her freedom heavily restricted by her father Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The princess had previously tried to escape in 2002, and has said that she was imprisoned for more than three years as a result.

Speaking from her home in London this week, Jauhiainen told Review how the pair of friends had almost got away in 2018. They drove to Oman, travelling out to a yacht by dinghy and jet ski, and then crossed the Indian Ocean.

“I got to know Latifa, because I was teaching her martial arts,” Jauhiainen says. “We started planning the escape in 2017. I didn’t feel sad about leaving Dubai, because she was going as well. She is a very kind person who puts others before herself and she is always supportive.”

Both women saw the escape bid as an adventure. But as they neared the end of the long ocean crossing, special forces from India and the UAE boarded the boat.

Latifa was grabbed, tranquillised, bundled away and flown to Dubai, where she has apparently been held captive ever since by her father.

The plight of Latifa and other women in his family has shone an unflattering light on Sheikh Mohammed, the stern billionaire who remains a powerful figure in Irish horse racing and one of Ireland’s biggest landowners.

Between the sheikh and his brother Hamdan Al Maktoum, who died last week aged 75, the family holdings amount to more than 6,000 acres spread across Kildare, Meath and Tipperary.

With his Irish base at Kildangan stud in Co Kildare, the man known as Sheikh Mo by his friends owns 4,500 acres, while Hamdan had a 1,500-acre holding.

Figures from the Department of Agriculture and other sources show that the Dubai ruler has claimed just over €1m in EU farm subsidies from his Irish land holdings over the past six years.

This would be small change to a man with six wives and up to 30 children whose family fortune has been estimated at just under €1bn. Perhaps the farm subsidies could be used to fuel his private 747 jet or his 162-metre yacht.

The large subsidies to the sheikh prompted Joe Healy, the then president of the Irish Farmers’ Association, to remark in 2019: “I doubt the sheikh has much experience on the combine or with the calving jack.”

Nobody in the close-knit world of Irish horse racing would ever show such disrespect. But perhaps it is time for the horsey set to pay closer attention to their patron.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, has described Princess Latifa’s detention in solitary confinement as a form of torture.

But in Irish racing circles, the sheikh is treated with extreme deference.

As one racing figure put it: “It’s all ‘Your Highness this’, and ‘Your Highness that’ when he’s around. He is surrounded by sycophants.”

Last year, one of the most damning verdicts on Sheikh Mohammed was delivered by the High Court in London in a family law case involving his ex-wife Princess Haya, who fled from Dubai with her daughter Al Jalila (12) and son Zayed (8) in 2019.

After hearing extensive witness statements about his family’s plight, the court found Sheikh Mohammed to have been responsible for the abduction and forced return of two of his adult daughters, Latifa (now 35) and her sister Shamsa (39). The judge found Latifa’s allegations of serious physical abuse amounting to torture to be credible.

Princess Shamsa fled the family’s British estate in Surrey in 2000 but was abducted in Cambridgeshire by agents of the sheikh and forcibly returned to Dubai, where she allegedly remains in captivity.

Princess Haya with her horse at the RDS where she competed

The judge ruled that the sheikh acted in a manner aimed at intimidating and frightening his then wife Princess Haya.

Adding another stain on his reputation was a secret video of Latifa, apparently filmed in captivity in Dubai and released by Tiina Jauhiainen and other friends in February.

In the video filmed in a villa in the middle of Dubai, the princess says: “I’m a hostage, I’m not free… I am enslaved, imprisoned in this jail, my life is not in my hands… I have been by myself in solitary confinement with no trial and no charge.”

The British Horseracing Authority expressed concern about the footage but no senior figure in Irish horse racing has stood up to deliver even the mildest rebuke to the sheikh.

He remains an honorary member of the Irish Turf Club, the organisation that regulated Irish racing until recently. The body has been largely subsumed into the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board in recent years, but continues as a private club. So far, there have been no moves to expel the sheikh.

It has not gone unnoticed that while trainer Gordon Elliott was banned from racing for a year by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board after posing for a photo on a dead horse, nobody has even commented publicly on the Latifa scandal in Irish horse-racing circles.

Latifa’s friend Tiina Jauhiainen, who has been campaigning for the release of the princess

Jauhiainen says it is now time for people in Irish racing to take a stand. “It’s very worrying how he seems to be so powerful in Europe,” she tells Review. “It’s almost as if people are scared to express their opinions or take some action.”

She called for Sheikh Mohammed to be banned from Irish racing after the evidence about him that emerged from last year’s British High Court finding and the recently publicised videos of Princess Latifa.

Owners of thoroughbred racehorses in Ireland are regulated by Horse Racing Ireland, which receives €67m in annual funding from the taxpayer.

While the quango unreservedly condemned the notorious photo of Elliott on the horse, it declined to comment this week on the controversy surrounding Sheikh Mohammed. There was also silence from the Turf Club.

Mary Robinson became embroiled in Latifa’s case when she was pictured with the princess in December 2018

Jauhiainen said she hoped to enlist the support of former president Mary Robinson in demanding action from Irish racing authorities.

Robinson became embroiled in Latifa’s case after she flew to Dubai in December 2018 at the request of her friend, Princess Haya, for a lunch at which Latifa was present.

Nine days later, the UAE’s foreign ministry published photographs of Robinson with Latifa, which it said was proof that the princess was safe and well. The former president was in effect used as cover by an authoritarian regime holding a young woman captive.

Robinson said earlier this year she was tricked, and that she was surprised when photographs of the lunch went public.

Jauhiainen says she was upset to see the pictures at the time, but she has recently been in touch with the former president.

“She is a well-connected person and can use all her contacts so I am hoping that she is going to help us,” she says.

She says she hoped the former president would back a ban on the sheikh from racing.

Robinson stopped short of supporting a ban on Sheikh Mohammed from the sport this week. However, a spokeswoman said that she had been in contact with Jauhiainen and the Free Latifa campaign.

The spokeswoman added: “Both the campaign and herself are working on parallel tracks towards the shared aim of ensuring safety and securing freedom for Sheikha Latifa in the near future. She is committed to doing all that she can to further Latifa’s interests and is taking what she considers to be the best steps.”

Sheikh Mohammed’s Kildangan Stud has been described as a cross between the Blackrock Clinic and a luxury health farm, such is the opulence in which his horses are born and reared. He bought the estate, with its Victorian Jacobean-style mansion, in 1986 from Roderic More O’Ferrall, a descendant of the Gaelic chieftain Rory Og O’More.

The Dubai ruler used to be a more frequent visitor to Ireland. He would normally fly to Dublin on his jet for these trips, traversing the country in a helicopter and dropping into the Curragh for big events such as the Irish Derby and the 2,000 Guineas.

Sheikh Mohammed’s brother Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum is believed to have chipped in €5m towards the redevelopment of the Curragh

While he is seen as a forbidding and somewhat taciturn figure, his brother Hamdan was considered more affable. The sheikhs were considered one of the first ports of call for those connected with racing seeking charitable donations.

After one of his horses won the Irish Derby in 1995, Mohammed gave £350,000 to the Kildare St Vincent De Paul Society and there have been similar six-figure donations over the years.

The largesse won him plaudits, but close observers have noticed that in recent months opinion has quietly turned against him.

One racing figure said: “Nobody is going to say it publicly, but I detect a huge change in attitude in the last couple of months. The Princess Latifa case has resonated with people.

“People aren’t going to speak out because so many people in racing depend on him for their livelihoods, from trainers to vets to jockeys to staff working in the yard.”

Irish racing’s dependence on the potentate’s patronage was shown in the recent revamp of the Curragh, the headquarters of Irish flat racing. Sheikh Mohammed chipped in €5m towards the redevelopment, and Hamdan is believed to have donated the same amount.

But the account of the fractious break-up with Princess Haya, outlined in the British court reports, has tarnished his image.

Haya moved in horsey circles in Ireland for a time in the mid-90s, training at stables of the renowned showjumper Paul Darragh in Co Meath. The daughter of King Hussein of Jordan was seen as likeable and charming by those who met her. Although she had set up the meeting with Robinson by the spring of 2019 she said she had become concerned about her situation and the plight of Latifa and Shamsa.

She had also begun an adulterous affair with her British bodyguard. She was reported to have suffered a campaign of intimidation by Sheikh Mohammed’s agents. The British High court heard that a gun was twice placed on her pillow with the safety catch off.

A helicopter landed outside her house and the pilot said he was there to take her to a remote desert prison.

Princess Haya fled Dubai, along with her two children, telling friends she was in fear of her life.

Apart from horses, one of Sheikh Mohammed’s passions is poetry, and this enthusiasm is indulged with reams of doggerel verses, published on official websites and in books.

As the drama of the marriage split played out, he posted a poem on Instagram that seemed to be directed at Haya, You Live and Die: “You traitor, you betrayed the most precious trust, you exposed your games and nature,” he wrote. “You no longer have a place within me, go to who has kept you occupied… I do not care whether you live or die.”

Before the relationship ended, Sheikh Mohammed and Haya shared their enthusiasm for horses.

Long before they married, Haya jumped in competition at the 1996 RDS Dublin Horse Show, and her 27 faults did not dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd.

Two years later, Sheikh Mohammed came to Ireland to participate in the equestrian sport of endurance riding, where competitors ride long distance.

He won a contest riding through the Wicklow Hills around the village of Donard and donated £98,000 towards the construction of a local community hall.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum won an endurance contest riding through the Wicklow Hills in the late 1990s

But his career as an endurance rider has not escaped controversy. In 2009, he was banned from competing in endurance races for six months when a tribunal found his horse Tahhan had tested positive for a hypertension drug and the steroid stanozolol.

Doping was also a problem at one of his racing stables. One of his racing trainers, Mahmood al-Zarooni, was at the centre of one of the biggest doping scandals in history in Britain when he administered anabolic steroids to 22 horses and received an eight-year ban from racing.

The British Horseracing Authority, in a report on the affair, said the trainer had acted “autonomously and was the sole person responsible”.

The Dubai government did not respond to requests for comment on the case of Latifa and Shamsa this week. In the past, the Dubai royal court has said that Latifa was “alive, safe and in the loving care of her family”.

The story of the missing princesses is just one dark aspect of life beneath the glitz and glamour of Dubai. Human Rights Watch has highlighted the track record of the UAE authorities with enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture and the ill-treatment of political dissidents.

Human rights campaigners are also highly critical of laws and practices that deem men the legal guardians of women and allow families to deprive women of their liberty.

As she builds a new life in London, Tiina Jauhiainen will not give up the campaign to secure her friend’s release of her friend.

After her capture on board the yacht as her escape with Latifa was foiled, she was herself interrogated by the Emirati authorities.

She says she was told that she could not contact her embassy and her family.

“They told me they could do anything they wanted with me — there were threats about getting the death penalty or a life sentence.”

In the three years after she was released and left Dubai, the Finnish martial arts instructor has spent most of her time trying to secure her friend’s release.

It remains to be seen if anyone in Irish horse racing will stand up and support her in putting pressure on Sheikh Mohammed to free Latifa.