The Great Escape

Amid a rash of women fleeing oppressive families in the middle east, the case of Princess Latifa, who has tried to run away twice, has been splashed across headlines around the world. In exclusive interviews with her friends and family, Marie Claire goes behind the scenes of her last attempt and their fight to #FreeLatifa.

Abigail Haworth
February 26, 2020, Marie Claire

Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, the daughter of the billionaire ruler of Dubai, was careful to avoid suspicion. On the morning of February 24, 2018, the then-32-year-old modern and sporty royal instructed her driver to drop her off at a shopping mall downtown so she could meet her close friend, Finnish personal trainer Tiina Jauhiainen, for breakfast. The two women had met at the same time and place several times before in order to give the impression that this was a normal Saturday. But this particular day was far from ordinary.

Once inside the mall, Princess Latifa went to the bathroom and changed out of her black abaya into a hoodie and sweatpants. She redid her hair and makeup, put on mirrored sunglasses, and threw her cell phone into the trash and destroyed the SIM card. Then, heart hammering, she slipped out an exit to Jauhiainen’s waiting SUV, which she hoped would take her on the first leg of a journey to long-desired freedom.

About a week earlier, Princess Latifa had secretly recorded a 40-minute video documenting why she wanted to flee Dubai, a city in the dazzlingly rich United Arab Emirates in the Persian Gulf. With her black hair casually pulled back in a ponytail, and wearing a washed-out blue tee, Latifa talked about the abuse, torture, and imprisonment she had suffered at the hands of her family, as well as her suffocating existence behind royal palace walls. “There is no justice here,” she said in a calm tone, sitting near a window with billowing cream-colored drapes in Jauhiainen’s Dubai apartment. “Especially if you’re a female, your life is so disposable.” The princess claimed that her father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Dubai’s 70-year-old ruler, who is also vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, was “the worst criminal you can ever imagine” and “responsible for so many people’s deaths.” She was recording her testimony as insurance to prevent a cover-up or being discredited, she explained, in case her escape failed. “If this thing kills me or I don’t make it out alive, at least there’s a video.”

Princess Latifa loved to skydive, which she enjoyed for the sense of freedom it gave her.

If this sounds like the makings of a movie plot, what happened after Latifa and Jauhiainen left the mall seems too outlandish even for Hollywood. The pair drove all day to the coast of neighboring Oman. From there, they rode over perilously high seas for four hours on a dinghy and Jet Skis to a private yacht, Nostromo, captained by a former French spy. The plan was to sail for about 10 days through international waters to safety in India. “We were so excited, we couldn’t resist taking selfies when we first set off,” says Jauhiainen, 43, who has long white-blond hair and pale blue eyes and once lived in Dubai. “I joked to Latifa that it felt like we were the characters in Thelma & Louise. She quickly replied that I shouldn’t tempt fate by mentioning that movie, because it doesn’t end well.”

The princess was right to worry. After eight tense days at sea, the yacht carrying the two women was stormed by a heavily armed commando unit sent by Latifa’s father. Jauhiainen, along with the yacht’s captain, Herve Jaubert, and three Filipino crewmen, were held with machine guns to their heads while Latifa was dragged off the boat. “She was fighting with all her strength. She shouted that she wanted political asylum,” recalls Jauhiainen. “When that didn’t work, she screamed over and over at the armed men to kill her. Her last words were ‘Don’t take me back to Dubai. Just shoot me here.’ ”

Cuffed and blindfolded, Jauhiainen and the others were arrested and transported to the UAE. They were interrogated in a secret Dubai prison for two weeks before being released amid international pressure, after the U.S. law firm that Latifa had entrusted with her video released it to the human-rights NGO Detained in Dubai. Jauhiainen, who now lives in the U.K., has not seen the princess or had direct contact with her since that day.

Today, 20 months later, in November 2019, sitting in her London home, Jauhiainen still gets emotional when she talks about her last glimpse of her friend. “There was no chance to say goodbye. The commandos were forcing my head over the side of the boat and threatening to shoot my brains out,” she says. “Latifa shouted at them not to harm me, and then she was gone.” The princess was flown out of international waters by private helicopter. She was not seen again until a series of photos of her emerged, in December 2018, in Dubai with former Irish president Mary Robinson. While the Dubai government used the images to claim that Latifa was safely back in Dubai with her family, Jauhiainen says she looked vacant, miserable, and heavily medicated. (Robinson did not respond to requests for comment.)

Latifa, pictured at her half-sister’s wedding, one
month before her last escape attempt.

Along with human-rights lawyers and advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch and Detained in Dubai, Jauhiainen has been campaigning ceaselessly for Princess Latifa to be freed. Although her method of escape was singularly dramatic, her case is not wholly unique. The past two years have seen a number of women from the Middle East flee their restricted lives in highly public fashion, including Saudi Arabian teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, who barricaded herself in an airport hotel room in Bangkok during a family vacation in January 2019, then tweeted her way to an offer of asylum in Canada. Two separate sets of Saudi sisters in their 20s, Dala and Dua al-Showaiki, and Wafa and Maha al-Subaie, also made successful dashes for freedom abroad last year. In early summer 2019, Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, Latifa’s 45-year-old stepmother and her father’s sixth and most high-profile wife, made headlines when she, too, escaped from Dubai, taking her two children with her to the U.K. She and Sheikh Mohammed are now fighting for custody of the children in a major-stakes battle that, at press time, is playing out in a high court in London.

Latifa’s flight was especially shocking because Dubai maintains a carefully cultivated image as the region’s most open and progressive society. A hugely popular tourist destination, it is crammed with high-rise hotels, shopping malls, theme parks, and party-ready beaches. Women drive, work, and study, and in some areas they excel. According to a 2017 figure from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 52 percent of university degrees are earned by women. Yet appearances are deceptive. “There’s a dark reality behind all the glamour and the veneer of tolerance and equality,” says Julia Legner, cofounder of the MENA Rights Group, a Geneva-based NGO that advocates for human rights in the Middle East and North Africa. “There is a record of severe human-rights violations in the UAE, including torture, disappearances, and prison sentences just for tweeting something critical of the government.”

The situation is particularly tough for women. “UAE law is heavily influenced by sharia, or Islamic religious law, and upholds a system of male guardianship that is almost as strict as Saudi Arabia’s,” says Legner. “Women need the permission of their fathers or husbands to work, travel, or enroll in further education. Male guardians can force women to marry against their will, and women often lose custody of their children in divorce cases.” Furthermore, UAE courts have permitted domestic violence in marriage as long as no physical marks are left. Rapes are woefully underreported, as victims can be charged for having sex outside of marriage. “Men can do almost anything they like, but women are tightly controlled because family honor rests on how they are seen to behave,” says Legner.

There are other invasive practices too. The “head of the household”—nearly always male—can opt to receive text messages when women use their credit cards or an ATM. Some colleges also require female students to text their male guardians when they arrive or leave campus. The UAE government boasts a Gender Balance Council, aimed at promoting women and chaired, ironically, by one of Latifa’s older half-sisters. But it does little to address inequalities—a fact illustrated in January 2019, when the council held a ceremony for gender-balance initiatives and all the awards were won by men.

In her pre-escape video, Princess Latifa hints that life might be strictest of all for women in royal households. As one of Sheikh Mohammed’s estimated 30 children—including two other daughters named Latifa—by at least six different wives, the princess grew up with her Algerian-born mother in a seaside palace. She rarely saw her father. Her opulent home, which Jauhiainen says included a gym, a spa, and a swimming pool, as well as access to private vegan chefs and beauticians, was a prison filled with constant menace. “I’m not allowed to drive. I’m not allowed to travel or leave Dubai at all,” she says in the video. She has assigned drivers, she adds, who also act as her father’s informants: “I have a curfew when I go out; the drivers report back to my father’s office where I go.” Jauhiainen says Latifa was forbidden to have boyfriends. She felt trapped. “Freedom of choice is something that, you know, we don’t have,” the princess says. “When you have it, you take it for granted. When you don’t have it, it’s very, very special.”

Sheikh Mohammed, the billionaire ruler of Dubai
and Princess Latifa’s father.

Latifa wasn’t the only girl in her family to find her caged existence unbearable. In 2000, at the age of 18, her older sister Shamsa ran away. The family was visiting their multimillion-dollar estate in the British countryside when Shamsa jumped into one of her family’s black Range Rovers, drove to an open gate, and fled on foot. In letters she sent to her cousin before her escape, Shamsa, an equestrian who loved to travel, wrote that she was unhappy that her father would not allow her to go to college. She was on the run for two months before she was tracked down in Cambridge by Sheikh Mohammed’s guards. “She was on the street and a bunch of guys in a car just drove up. They grabbed her,” says Latifa in her video, claiming that Shamsa was then drugged and flown on a private plane back to Dubai, where she was locked in a palace. Shamsa has not been seen in public since. She has been living under medicated house arrest for 19 years, according to Latifa. An investigation by the Cambridge police stalled when they were not allowed to interview Shamsa.

Deeply traumatized by the fate of her big sister, Latifa began to have her own difficulties at around the same time. In 2002, at the age of 16, she staged her first escape attempt in a bid to get help. She planned to go to Oman to find a lawyer for Shamsa. “I was very, very, very naive … I didn’t have Internet to research … I didn’t have anyone to talk to, to give me advice.” She was quickly caught. On her return home, she says, she was thrown in prison and tortured by her father’s guards. “One guy was holding me while the other guy was beating me. They told me, ‘Your father told us to beat you until we kill you. Those are his orders.’ ” She remained in prison for the next three years and four months, enduring regular torture. She slept on a thin, stained mattress and was left in pitch-blackness in solitary confinement for so long, she lost track of the days. When Latifa was released, her mother, who practiced a strict form of Islam, did not console her. “She didn’t show me compassion at all. [She] kind of looked at me like, ‘You did this to yourself.’ ”

Dubai’s government press office did not respond to requests to interview any of Latifa’s immediate family in the UAE. In a prior statement, it said Latifa is “now safe in Dubai.” Latifa’s U.K.-based cousin on her mother’s side, Marcus Essabri, however, confirms that cruelty and indifference to suffering were the norm when he was growing up in the Dubai royal household. “There was no family atmosphere, no warmth,” says Essabri, 48, who is now estranged from his family. “The children were brought up by servants, and my aunt treated the staff like slaves. Underneath all that wealth and power, it was a very unkind place.” Along with her numerous half-siblings, Latifa has three full siblings—Shamsa and another older sister, Maitha, and a younger brother, Majid. For the first 10 years of her life, Latifa was brought up by her father’s sister in the main Zabeel Palace. “It was quite common to give children away to another family member, especially if the sheikh demanded it,” says Essabri. Fourteen years her senior, Essabri had little contact with Latifa. But he was close to Shamsa, becoming her confidant when she grew unhappy as a teen.

Sheikh Mohammed did not visit Latifa’s mother or his children at their household very often, Essabri says, but when he did the mood grew even more tense. “He was a tyrant, on both a small and large scale. He had a bad temper and made everyone nervous around him. He always smelled of alcohol and shisha [water-pipe tobacco].” In her video, Latifa alleges that her father had one of her uncle’s wives killed because “she was too talkative” and that he is responsible for many other murders. “Everyone knows it,” she said. Essabri says he doesn’t have any firsthand knowledge of this, but he does say he witnessed the Dubai ruler violently abusing his servants, or anyone else who displeased or disobeyed him. “He liked to break people who crossed him, and that included his own daughters.”

Essabri understands what it’s like to be a young woman kicking against a rigid existence. In a way, he has his own escape story. He was born a woman, Mita, and lived as a female until he was 33. He married young and had three children before his sexuality and desire to change genders brought his conventional family life to an end. He now lives in the British city of Gloucester, where he worked until recently as a community police officer. “My aunt said I was evil and going straight to hell,” he says. Essabri believes the only way to survive as a sheikh’s wife or daughter in Dubai is to take the riches and toe the patriarchal line. “If you like the lavish lifestyle and are prepared to sacrifice all your individuality and personal dreams, you will be fine,” he says. “But that is not realistic for strong, modern women like Latifa.”

After Latifa was released from prison, it took her a long time before she could trust another human being, she says in the video. She took refuge in her love of animals, spending all her free time in the company of her horses, birds, and cats. She also took up new forms of exercise, which is how she met Tiina Jauhiainen. “Latifa contacted me in 2010 because she wanted private instruction in capoeira,” says Jauhiainen, who moved to UAE from Finland in 2001 to work in tourism and later became a fitness trainer. She ran group classes in capoeira, a lively Brazilian martial art, and at first tried to e