Two years ago, Princess Latifa staged an escape from her repressed life in Dubai. It failed and she hasn’t been seen in public since
When we got in the car on the day of our escape, I turned to Latifa and said, ‘We’re like Thelma and Louise,’ says Tiina Jauhiainen, with a small smile at the bittersweet memory. ‘But then Latifa cried out, ‘No, no, don’t say that! Their story doesn’t have a happy ending.’’
That was two years ago, on 24 February 2018, the day that Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, tried to escape her life as a Dubai princess, with the help of her best friend Tiina.
At 32, it was the first time Latifa had ever been in the front seat of a car, having always had a driver and travelled in the back. The escape was the result of a seven-year plan that involved driving into Oman, taking a dinghy into international waters, and boarding a yacht to Sri Lanka, from where Latifa hoped to fly to the United States and claim political asylum.
‘Latifa was initially relieved when we got to the boat, but every day she was growing increasingly worried that her father might already be after her,’ says Tiina. ‘At times the days on the boat felt really, really long. It got hotter the closer we got to India and the boat was full of cockroaches. Escaping on a yacht sounds glamorous, but it was the opposite. We spent most of our time downstairs, trying to contact journalists on our phones, as Latifa felt that might protect her.’
But after just eight days on board the yacht, captained by Hervé Jaubert (a Frenchman whose help Latifa had enlisted after she read about his own escape from Dubai), the princess’s short-lived freedom came to an abrupt end off the coast of Goa, when the two women heard gunshots from the upper deck. ‘Latifa immediately realised they’d come after us,’ recalls Tiina. ‘We were downstairs hiding in the bathroom. We were scared, hugging each other. There was nowhere to go.’
The cabin began to fill with smoke – ‘We later realised they were stunt grenades,’ explains Tiina – and the pair were forced on to the upper deck, where they were met by several commandos pointing machine guns at them. ‘It was pitch black with the red lights of the laser sights pointed at different parts of our bodies. I was pushed to the floor, in a pool of blood [several crew members had been injured]. They tied my hands, and shouted, “Close your eyes! Don’t move or we’ll shoot you.”
‘We were taken back to Dubai. That was the last time I saw Latifa. She was being dragged off the boat, kicking and screaming, yelling that she was seeking political asylum. They ignored her. The whole situation was so unreal. I wish I’d said something, but I was paralysed. They threatened to shoot my brain out if I spoke. It was shocking. It was beyond my comprehension.’
Along with Jaubert, Tiina was taken to a national security prison, where she was kept in solitary confinement for several weeks. ‘[I was] in a cell, which was freezing cold with the fluorescent lights always on. There was a hatch in the wall that they’d open to give me food,’ she says.
‘It was mental torture. I was sleep deprived and the guards told me I’d “stabbed the ruler of Dubai in the back”, so I’d get the death penalty, or a life sentence. They tried to make me do a false confession, saying I’d tried to cheat Latifa into escaping. Sometimes they’d get so angry I felt like they were about to hit me.’
Tiina was released after a video that Latifa had made prior to the escape went up on You Tube, and it was made public that she’d tried to leave the country with her. The powerful film, which Tiina helped her make and which has since been seen by more than four million people, begins, ‘If you are watching this video… Either I’m dead or I’m in a very, very, very bad situation.’ She goes on to recount what happened to her after her previous escape attempt, and describes her father as ‘the most evil person I have ever met’.
There has never been any response to the video, except a short statement from her family, released in December 2018. ‘Her Highness Sheikha Latifa is now safe in Dubai,’ it claimed.
Sheikh Mohammed, 70, is largely credited with turning Dubai into the global, glamorous city it is today. A keen equestrian who was partly educated in England, he is the founder of the Godolphin racing stable, owns a £75 million estate in Surrey and is an acquaintance of the Queen. Since he began ruling Dubai in 2006, he has launched a number of major businesses including the Emirates airline and the Jumeirah Group, making his family’s worth an estimated $4 billion, all while managing to regularly post his own poetry on Instagram to his 4.9 million followers.
Yet behind his public image as a progressive ruler of a forward-thinking country lies a more controversial side. Campaign group Human Rights Watch has called the UAE ‘hypocritical’, and says that any attempt to paint the government as tolerant ‘is laughable.’ In recent years, there have been a number of high-profile cases of people, including British citizen Matthew Hedges, being imprisoned and allegedly badly treated at the hands of the country’s security services.
The country’s laws are also some of the strictest in the world: people can be detained for free speech-related offences, and sodomy carries a 10-year prison sentence. The Emirates also enforces the law of male guardianship, where women can effectively only work with their husband’s permission, must have a lawful excuse if they refuse to have sex with their husband, and must grant full custody of her children to her husband if she wants to divorce him and remarry. Rape victims are also often ostracised for going public.
The strict oppression of women in the UAE appears to extend to the royal family itself. Each of the Sheikh’s wives has her own separate home, and they are not encouraged to mix with each other. In some ways, the expectations of them as royals mean they have even more restricted lives than local UAE women – Latifa has alleged she had no freedom to travel, work, or even have relationships.
The Sheikh and his wives
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum
The ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates has had six wives, who between them have produced between 23 and 30 children. Of the six, two have divorced – or are in the process of divorcing – him
Sheikha Randa bint Mohammed Al-Banna
The Sheikh’s first wife, now in her 60s. She divorced him but has never been allowed to see her daughter Manal
Houria Ahmed Lamara
An Algerian-born woman with whom he had three daughters, including Latifa and Shamsa
Greek-born Grigorakos is believed to have a daughter with Sheikh Mohammed