The Middle East’s Progressive Darling Abuses Its Women

What the harrowing saga of a Dubai princess reveals about her country’s international reputation.

Ola Salem
February 22, 2021, Foreign Policy

In a series of recently released videos, Latifa Al Maktoum, a Dubai princess who was missing for more than a year, recounted her harrowing capture by around a dozen commandos who raided a boat she was sailing 30 miles off the coast of India. After a struggle, one tranquilized her, and she fell unconscious. The princess eventually woke up, finding herself back in Dubai—the very place she had been trying to escape.

She now lives in solitary confinement in a villa converted into a prison, guarded by five male police officers on the outside and two female officers on the inside. She said they told her she would not be charged with a crime, but she would never see the sun again. Her captor, she said, is her father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, and one of the Middle East’s most powerful leaders.

The basic facts of Princess Latifa’s ordeal are shocking enough on their own. But they have been especially surprising for anyone familiar with Dubai’s reputation as one of the region’s most progressive countries. Princess Latifa’s mistreatment at the hands of her father has focused attention on the chasm between the oil-rich city-state’s image as a safe haven for women and its dangerous reality, including for those from the most privileged households.

After the recent videos surfaced, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said it would question the UAE about the princess, requesting proof of life. Both the United Kingdom foreign secretary and the U.S. secretary of state said they would follow the U.N. investigation into her case closely. Meanwhile, the Dubai royal family has said the princess was being cared for at home—claims that hold little weight after previous attempts at a cover-up in December 2018, the last time questions were raised of the princess’s whereabouts, quickly came apart under scrutiny.

Princess Latifa was seen in public in 2018 when her stepmother, Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, arranged for her to have lunch with the former U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson. The stage-managed meeting’s main objective was to prove the princess was still alive. A few months later, Princess Haya would herself depart the palace along with her two biological children and seek refuge in the U.K. In court proceedings at the U.K. High Court where Princess Haya was seeking custody of her children, it was determined that Dubai was holding Princess Latifa against her will in Dubai and had previously done so to her older sister Princess Shamsa, making Princess Haya the third woman from Sheikh Mohammed’s immediate family to run from his grip.

“Haya introduced Mary. Never said she was a former U.N. head of human rights. Never. If I knew that, of course I would have said everything,” Princess Latifa, who is now 35 years old, said in one video. “It was all a setup. It was like they tricked me.”

The slow drip of information on Princess Latifa—from her thoroughly planned, though ultimately failed, escape to her torturous captivity—has raised questions about Dubai, a tourist destination and business hub that has been known internationally for its culture of easy living and tolerance. This progressive image of the country is drawn from reality, at least relative to many countries in the region. Women have access to health care, education, labor markets, and can drive without issue. Women can travel, live, and go about their lives without needing to provide a male guardian’s permission, particularly if they are foreigners. A recent report by the World Economic Forum noted that the UAE was the second-best country in the Middle East and North Africa region—after Israel—in gender equality.

For years, the UAE has been a draw for many women in the region. In a 2010 study, more than 1 in 8 Arab women had ambitions to migrate to the UAE, a higher rate than men. Safety and ease of movement were often cited by women as factors attracting them to the country. The UAE has empowered women to join policy life and appointed females to its quasi-Parliament and to head ministries. International rankings were important for the country and were celebrated when their women empowerment ambitions were recognized.

But even with these strides, the big picture is the UAE is still lagging behind. It is currently at 120th place out of 153 countries worldwide in gender equality, showing just how much work is still needed both in the country and in the region.

In the UAE, many of the problems go beyond what can be fixed by simply engaging women in public policy. Family life is still largely governed by Islamic law. Just like its Persian Gulf neighbors, the UAE allows men to serve as guardians of their female relatives, giving men the power to make life-changing decisions. Women from traditional households can find their rights usurped. Unlike a man, a woman needs permission (typically from her father) to marry and a court order (from her husband) to be granted a divorce. This has opened the door for routine blackmail, where husbands tell their wives they will grant them a divorce at court only if they forfeit any rights to assets or their dowries. Oftentimes, a woman will consent just to get out of an abusive marriage.

Domestic violence against women was still acceptable as a form of discipline until as recently as 2019, as confirmed by a 2010 Supreme Court ruling. A recent law rectified this by stipulating that physical violence did not need to leave a mark to be considered abuse (while also establishing a path for women to acquire restraining orders against abusers). However, the new law defines domestic abuse as any physical act, verbal abuse, or threat committed by a family member against another family member that exceeds an individual’s guardianship, jurisdiction, authority, or responsibility, leaving plenty of room for individual judges to make their own call on cases. Indeed, the cultures of UAE courts are still notoriously regressive, and judges usually show leniency to those who commit domestic violence.

A U.S. government report noted that the UAE government “did not enforce domestic abuse laws effectively, and domestic abuse against women, including spousal abuse, remained a problem.” At the current rate of progress, a World Economic Forum report said it would take approximately 150 years to close the gender gap in the region. And that’s assuming the country’s leadership is truly committed to its stated goals. For example, it was Sheikh Mohammed who championed and expedited a law to protect children after a 2012 case came to light where a father and stepmother tortured their daughter to death. Now that he has himself been implicated in potentially torturing his own children, it’s fair to question his sincerity.

For ordinary women from the UAE, such instances of abuse are widespread with few channels to voice their grievances or attain their most basic rights. Alaa al-Siddiq, a UAE national and human rights activist, said there were many other cases as dire as that of the princesses. “We were really shocked [to hear of the case]. Everyone wishes for a princess life and to be in her [shoes],” she said. “Each case is different, but the ending is the same. Why do they reach this end? Lack of protective law and separate institutions in the country.” Siddiq recalled the case of Hind Mohammed al-Bolooki, an Emirati mother of four who ran away from Dubai when she was threatened by her father, uncle, and brother for asking for a divorce from her husband.

The tales of the princesses show that even the most progressive of the region’s rulers remain oppressive in their own households, and women cannot count on state-led reforms to protect them. Such brave women still need international outlets to help them pursue their rights or at least tell their stories. If seemingly privileged women like Princess Latifa are treated this way, what chance do other women in the region have?