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
A Lebanese-born woman with whom the Sheikh is said to have four daughters
Sheikha Hind bint Maktoum bin Juma al-Maktoum
Sheikh Mohammed’s senior wife, whom he married in 1979. She is the mother of 12 children, including the Crown Prince
Princess Haya bint Hussein
Has two children with Sheikh Mohammed and is in the process of divorcing him. She lives in London
‘People think, “Oh she’s just a spoilt princess,”’ says Tiina. ‘But she’s not. She’s like anyone who deserves a chance to be free. Some people say, she had access to money and was able to do a lot of activities – like skydiving, which she loved. But that was just a distraction from her reality. She didn’t want to stay at home. She didn’t even call her home a home. She called it a house, and hated it. She was treated like a minor, and felt like she was suffocating. Her mother was also very religious, so anything like dancing or music was haram (forbidden).’
Tiina, now 43, never imagined she’d ended up befriending an Arab princess. She was born in Finland, where her parents have a flower business, and went to university in London, before moving to Dubai in 2001. She first met Latifa in 2010, after being hired as her capoeira (a Brazilian martial art) instructor. The pair slowly became friends, learning skydiving together, with Latifa going on to become a qualified instructor, with more than 2,500 jumps to her name.
‘It gave her a sense of freedom, and adrenaline, and a reason to get up in the morning,’ says Tiina. ‘All she ever wanted was a normal life. To work. To study. To travel. Our goal was to see the world. I wanted to show her my favourite country, Nepal, and she was desperate to go to Hawaii. We used to talk a lot about what we’d do after our escape. But it did take years for her to trust me fully and open up. She’d lived such a difficult life. It was like she was a prisoner in a gilded cage, with no freedom.’
When Latifa, now 34, finally shared her story with Tiina, it proved to be an unthinkable contrast to the superficially luxurious appearance of her life as an Arab princess, living in her mother’s private palace, complete with a staff of 100 and its own gym. In spite of her wealth, she hadn’t left the country in over two decades, and claims she wasn’t allowed even to visit friends’ houses. She wasn’t permitted to study – ‘her dream had been to study medicine,’ says Tiina – and unlike most of her step-siblings, no plans had been made for her or her sisters to marry, which Tiina believes is due to her and her sister Shamsa’s previous attempts to flee.
Latifa had tried to escape once before, as a teenager, by riding into Oman on horseback. But after being captured at the border, she was imprisoned for three-and-a-half years, when she alleges she was tortured. ‘One person would hold her, and the other would cane her feet,’ says Tiina. ‘She was given no fresh clothes, toothbrush or anything to wash with.’
Her older sister’s story is even more harrowing. It appears Princess Shamsa tried to run away from her family’s Surrey estate back in 2000, when she was just 18, after being told she wasn’t allowed to go to university. But two months later, she was found in Cambridgeshire, and taken back to Dubai. It is now 20 years since Shamsa was last seen in public.
‘She was imprisoned for eight years after the escape in Dubai,’ says Tiina. ‘She and Latifa used to be really close, but when she was released, she was never the same. Latifa always wanted to help her though. Helping Shamsa was one of her motivations to leave in 2018, because you can’t help someone else until you help yourself.’
There has been huge interest in Latifa’s case, including a BBC documentary that was broadcast in 2018. Then, last year, a third princess changed the narrative in a case that has made global headlines. Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, the sixth wife of the Sheikh and one of Latifa’s stepmothers, managed to leave Dubai in July 2019, taking her two young children with her as she went first to Germany, and then the UK. She has now filed for divorce, and is living in a London mansion with her children, while fighting for their legal custody against the Sheikh in the High Court.
Unlike Princess Latifa, whose Algerian mother is considered one of the Sheikh’s ‘lower’ wives, Princess Haya has always had privileges and freedoms that many women in Dubai are denied. A princess in her own right, she was born to the late King of Jordan, and was educated at private schools Badminton and Bryanston, studied PPE at Oxford and is a renowned Olympic equestrian. She also claims she is the only woman in Jordan licensed to drive heavy trucks.
Her marriage to the Sheikh, which took place after the death of her father, was said to be a love match: they bonded over their interest in horses. It isn’t known exactly why she made the decision to leave, but it is believed that she was recently made aware of information concerning Latifa’s story, and that could have caused her to flee out of concerns for herself and her own young children. There are reporting restrictions on Haya’s court case, but it is known that she has applied for a forced marriage protection order – to protect her children from being sent to Dubai and forced into marriage – and a non-molestation order, designed to protect against violence or harassment by a partner, ex-partner or family member.
The only proof Tiina has that Latifa is alive are some photos of her taken in Dubai in late 2018 – she is with Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, who is a friend of Princess Haya’s. Latifa looks confused and doesn’t seem to be aware of the photos being taken. Tiina believes that until recently, Princess Haya may have believed the Sheikh’s version – that Latifa was making up her claims. But not any more. ‘I’m obviously hoping this unfinished case will have an impact. If Haya talks about her reasons for leaving, it gives her leverage to help Latifa.’
David Haigh, a human-rights lawyer who helped Tiina create the #FreeLatifa campaign, adds, ‘We’ve spent a lot of time helping Haya and her legal team. We’re hopeful that when she’s able to talk publicly about what happened to her and her reasons for leaving, that she’ll be able to help Latifa in the way we have helped her and her family. For us this is a huge step. She’s one of the most high-profile women in the Arab world.’
It is the first sign of good news that Tiina has had in the last two years. She has been living with friends in south London, without a stable job, while her life has been taken up with trying to campaign for Latifa’s freedom. ‘Anniversaries and birthdays are hard,’ she admits. ‘Nothing is happening. It’s sad. It’s changed my life completely. I’ll never give up hope. But it’s coming to a point now where I have to think about myself too.’
Tiina hasn’t suffered any repercussions from Latifa’s family, but she claims that many of her friends in Dubai were arrested and questioned during the time she was detained. One close friend, she says, was even deported. She’s now concentrating on human rights work to help other women who are oppressed in the Middle East. It’s something that she and Latifa discussed doing together after their escape, and something Latifa touched on herself in her video. ‘There’s only so much you can do when you’re trapped in a country and trapped by all these restrictions,’ says Latifa in the film. ‘I’m feeling positive about the future and I’m feeling like it’s a start of an adventure. It’s a start of me claiming my life, my freedom, freedom of choice. I don’t expect it to be easy, nothing’s easy, but I expect it to be the start of a new chapter in my life and one where I have some voice, where I don’t have to be silenced.’
Tiina now hopes that Latifa’s story will move other Arab women to speak up about the way they are treated. ‘Latifa isn’t the only one who is suffering. There are many other women in similar situations, being oppressed because of inequality, not having the choice to study or work. She’s one of those women. It’s pretty normal over there for a female to be under house arrest for rebelling. And if Latifa as a princess is treated like this, imagine how they’re treated?
‘I hope Latifa’s story sparks a new movement. It’s time for a Me Too of no longer tolerating this kind of abuse in the Gulf. I think it’s time for women to speak out. I know it’s what Latifa would want. In her video, she says even if her escape attempt wasn’t successful, she didn’t want it to be in vain.’
Latifa’s story has already inspired a fourth former Dubai princess – another woman once married to Sheikh Mohammed – to speak out. Randa al-Banna, from Lebanon, met the Dubai ruler in 1972 in Beirut when she was just 16. She married him shortly after and they had a daughter together. But within a matter of years she left him. She was able to divorce him but says that her ‘punishment’ was not being able to see her daughter Manal, now in her 40s. She stayed silent ever since out of fear of repercussions against herself or the children she later went on to have. But she was inspired to speak out after hearing of Shamsa and Latifa. It has been reported that she repeatedly texted the Sheikh begging him to release Latifa. He never replied.
‘First Shamsa, then Latifa, and now Randa,’ says Haigh. ‘They all have similar stories. “I was abused, I had my daughter taken off me, they threatened me, they did this and that.” And these are the ones we know about. How many more are there that we don’t?
‘It’s about time we looked beyond the façade and glitz and glamour of Dubai, and questioned what’s really going on.’