The letter was written in blue ink in the neatly spaced script of a schoolgirl. It bore a London address and was dated September 16, 1999. “I was thinking of running away,” it read. “I know that won’t solve any of my problems — that’s why I considered talking to my mother again. But now I’ve realised that I’m still not fulfilled!”
These were not just any teenage musings. The letter was written by Sheikha Shamsa Al Maktoum, the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the billionaire ruler of Dubai and a friend of the Queen. It was addressed to Shamsa’s cousin, a young mother living in London who at the time went by the name Fatima Essabri. It described a desperate yearning to escape from her stifling yet luxurious existence in Dubai.
“Don’t worry, you’re not giving me ideas and you’re not encouraging me to do anything,” wrote the 18-year-old Shamsa.
“All I’m saying is that I’ve made up my mind and there’s nothing left for me to do here. I don’t know where I get this confidence from!! Just two weeks ago I wanted to kill myself!”
Less than a year later Shamsa would indeed run away. Taking a black Range Rover, she drove to the edge of her family’s sprawling estate in Surrey and escaped, abandoning the car. Her disappearance triggered a huge manhunt that ended two months later when she was allegedly kidnapped and taken back to Dubai on her family’s orders.
She has not been seen in public since. Her supporters, including her sister, claim that she has been kept drugged and against her will in one of the family’s palaces in Dubai.
For the first time, a close member of the family has spoken publicly about their lives inside the golden cage — and what really persuaded Shamsa to risk everything to run away from her family. Today The Sunday Times can reveal how her glamorous Algerian mother, Houria, found out about her escape plans and how Shamsa at one point considered taking her own life.
The revelations come weeks after Dubai’s royal family was hit by yet more scandal. Princess Haya bint Hussein, 45. one of the sheikh’s six wives and the liberal face of the monarchy, is in Britain after allegedly fleeing her husband. Court proceedings over the welfare of their two children are set to begin later this month in London.
Speculation is rife that the Oxford-educated Haya, the half-sister of Jordan’s King Abdullah, left because of disagreements over the sheikh’s treatment of Latifa, 33, Shamsa’s younger sister and confidante. Last year Latifa released a 40-minute video describing how she and Shamsa, 38, had been held prisoner by their family after trying to escape years earlier.
Latifa, who enjoyed sky diving and martial arts, had devised an escape plan. She made the video as a security measure, to be released only if she were caught. With her close friend Tiina Jauhiainen, a Finnish martial arts instructor, she meticulously planned her escape on a yacht to India. But as they were about to reach the coast of Goa last year, Jauhiainen claims, Emirati and Indian soldiers stormed the boat and captured them.
Jauhiainen was later released. With David Haigh, of the FreeLatifa.com organisation, she has since campaigned relentlessly for Latifa to be freed.
That aborted escape came nearly two decades after Shamsa’s. But they were intimately connected. Latifa never stopped being angry about her sister’s treatment.
Few details have been made public about her motives for the escape attempt, and nothing in her own words. But in 1999, in her letter to Essabri, her cousin on her mother’s side, Shamsa spoke of her anger and disappointment after her father told her that she would not be allowed to go to university.
“You know that he didn’t even ask me what I was interested in [studying],” she wrote. “He just said no . . . I don’t regret asking him because now I have my answer. Im [sic] glad he was straightforward about it, I don’t have to waste any more time waiting.”
Essabri was close to Shamsa, who was 11 years her junior. Born in Morocco to an Algerian family, Essabri had come to live with her aunt in Dubai after the latter had married Sheikh Mohammed. Family legend holds that her aunt met the sheikh when she was waitressing in a cafe and he fell wildly in love with her. For two years, between the ages of 12 and 14, Essabri lived in a Dubai palace with Shamsa and her siblings. “We played,” said Essabri last week. “Shamsa was very naughty . . . We were spoilt as kids.”
Sometimes they would mess around taking pictures of one another sitting in the Rolls-Royces parked outside the house, or be taken on holidays to the desert. More than anything, Shamsa loved horse-riding. Sometimes the sheikh would visit. “It wasn’t like the loving relationship or the dad that was always there,” recalled Essabri.
Amid the opulence there were occasional flashes of violence. Two adopted sisters, Essabri claimed, were treated as servants rather than siblings. One day, when she was standing in the palace gardens, she saw a senior royal beating a servant with a horsewhip.
The women in the family held little power. But Shamsa was an exception. When she was a teenager, she decided that Latifa should move back in with the family. Almost since birth Latifa had lived with another branch of the clan — a common practice, said Essabri. Shamsa went to their palace herself and brought Latifa home.
A year after Shamsa’s attempted escape, Latifa, then 16, also tried to run away. She wanted to tell the world what had happened to her sister. But she was stopped and, according to her video testimony last year, imprisoned and tortured by her family. “Basically, one guy was holding me while the other guy was beating me, and they did that repeatedly,” she said, adding later: “They told me that ‘your father told us to beat you until we kill you — that’s his orders’.”
After two years in Dubai, Essabri was transferred to a boarding school in Britain, where for the first time she had a taste of “normal” life. But her cousins remained in Dubai, stuck in a perpetual cotton-wool childhood. As they grew older they chafed at the stifling conventions of court life. “They had more freedom when they were younger,” said Essabri. “When we were older and I went to visit them . . . they would stay in the cars; they wouldn’t be seen.”
A few weeks before the letter was sent, Shamsa had confided to Essabri over the phone that she wanted to escape — that she was miserable and disgusted by Dubai’s poor record of human rights and what she called the “lies” of the palace. Essabri claims she discouraged her, telling her that her life would be extremely hard if she left her family. “When Shamsa rang me and asked me to help her . . . to me she was [just] a teenager wanting to run away,” said Essabri.
Concerned, she offered to call Shamsa’s mother, her aunt, and ask her to loosen the restrictions she had imposed on Shamsa. It did not go well.
“I didn’t think it was asking something big,” she said. “But it backfired. And my aunt went mental.” Not long afterwards, Essabri claims her name was taken off deeds to family properties and her allowances were cut off.
It was during the fallout from the telephone conversation that Shamsa wrote her letter to Essabri. She apologised for her mother’s reaction and thanked her cousin for trying to help. Amid the furore, Shamsa said, she had found strength in herself.
In a note attached to the letter she included a code to enable Essabri to write back via one of Shamsa’s friends. A few weeks later Essabri replied, encouraging her to stay strong.
That was their last contact. Wary of hurting Shamsa further, Essabri did not try to get back in touch. More than a year later she saw a small news item that Shamsa had tried to run away and had been caught. “What am I going to do? Who am I to fight them?” she recalled thinking at the time.
Almost nothing is known of what happened to Shamsa after that. In 2017 she made contact with Cambridgeshire police. Officers confirmed to The Sunday Times in December that they had reopened the investigation into her disappearance after receiving further information.
In December, Latifa was shown in a series of remarkably stilted photographs taken during a lunch in Dubai with Haya and her friend Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland.
On her return Robinson described Latifa as “clearly troubled” but in the “loving care of her family”. To Essabri and Latifa’s friends campaigning for her release, it was nothing more than a blatant PR exercise by the Dubai government, hoping to get away with the imprisonment of a young woman.
“I believe that if I’m quiet, this is not ever going to stop — it’s just going to carry on,” said Essabri of her decision to speak out. “It’s going to be Latifa and maybe others. So I can ignore it or I can do something about it.”
COUSIN CHANGES GENDER – AND BREAKS SILENCE
For nearly 15 years Marcus Essabri has lived a quiet life in Gloucester as a community police officer. After decades of struggling with his identity, he changed his name from Fatima and started a new life as a man, leaving the secrets of the Maktoum family behind.
Today Essabri, 48, is working with refugees in his community.
He decided to speak out after being contacted by the group FreeLatifa.com, which has campaigned for Latifa and Shamsa’s release, and after seeing Latifa’s video. It left him sleepless.
“I remembered that time where I let Shamsa down, and having heard what happened to her, I feel I played a part in that. I could have done more for her,” he said.