The Spy, the King, & the Missing Princess

William Langley
May 2019, The Australian Women’s Weekly

Last year, Dubai’s Princess Latifa made a bid for freedom. She was returned to the palace by force and hasn’t been heard from since.

Shielded from the swirl and dazzle of Dubai, the Zabeel Palace, home of the city-state’s billionaire ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al-Maktoum, presents a reassuring image of serenity. Peacocks wander over velvety lawns, tethered lions snooze beside reflecting pools, and the gilded domes and arches evoke the Tales of the Arabian Nights. Yet from behind the palace walls comes a real-life story of a more disturbing kind.

The sheikh’s 33-year-old daughter, Princess Latifa, has not been seen in public since last March when she was seized aboard a yacht in the Indian Ocean while attempting to “escape” from Dubai. Before fleeing, Latifa wrote to a friend: “All my life I have been mistreated and oppressed. Women are treated as sub-humans here. My father can’t continue to do what he has been doing to us all.”

From the first sketchy details of her disappearance has emerged an astonishing saga of subterfuge, intrigue and high-seas daring, featuring a Mission: Impossible-worthy cast of characters including a former French spy and a sky-diving martial-arts instructor. In the months since she was returned to Dubai, the dark-haired princess has become a global cause célèbre, pitting high-profile campaigners for her freedom against the powerful Maktoum dynasty’s determination to protect its interests.

No one outside the royal household can say exactly where Latifa is, or what conditions she is living under. In late December, the palace released a set of photographs of her meeting Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, who is an old friend of the sheikh and his wife, Princess Haya.

Dressed in a maroon sports top and jeans, Latifa appears heavy-eyed and unsmiling, conspicuously avoiding looking into the camera. In an interview, Mrs Robinson later described her as “vulnerable and troubled”, and said that she was receiving psychiatric help. But her visit – at the royal family’s expense – has been widely denounced as serving the Maktoums’ attempts to conceal the real story.

“There is no evidence to support the suggestion that she has mental problems,” says Radha Stirling, a London-based Australian lawyer who heads #FreeLatifa, a group campaigning for the princess’s freedom. “The photographs were a stunt, intended to make her look fine and stave off some of the pressure, but from what we know she is kept in solitary confinement, and probably drugged. Or worse.”

From an early age, Latifa, one of the sheikh’s six daughters by his numerous wives, had shown an unusually adventurous streak. Annette Morrisey, a British dance teacher who attended Dubai’s prestigious International School with the princess, remembers her being insatiably curious about the world beyond the tiny Gulf kingdom.

“If you had a fashion or celeb magazine, she’d be desperate to borrow it. She just seemed amazed and enthralled by this idea that people could actually have these kinds of lives. She was barely in her teens then, and you could just sense her chaffing at her situation.”

Latifa was 16 when she first attempted to leave Dubai. The plan, such as it was, involved crossing into neighbouring Oman, finding a lawyer and somehow heading on to a third country. But she had no travel documents and was stopped at the border, returned t