The story of Latifa, Dubai’s fugitive princess

A story by The New Yorker has brought renewed attention to the plight of Sheikha Latifa, daughter of Sheikh Mohammed, Dubai’s Emir. Latifa had tried to escape the clutches of her father in 2018, but her attempt was foiled and she was recaptured off the coast of Goa.

Arjun Sengupta, The Indian Express
May 4, 2023

A long report in The New Yorker that is being widely read around the world has brought renewed focus on the plight of Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, the daughter of the Emir of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

The article by Heidi Blake titled “The Fugitive Princesses of Dubai” recounts the story of Latifa, her rebellion against her father, attempted escapes from Dubai, kidnap, and capture. In doing so, it paints a sorry picture of Dubai’s “espousal of gender equality” and the Emir’s modernist visions.

Everything but freedom

Latifa’s predicament, writes Blake, is the same as many women of Dubai’s royal family. On the outside, they have “everything”, moving around in high circles in London and living a life of opulence and splendour.

But what they allegedly do not have is the freedom to determine their own lives, to step beyond the restrictive boundaries of Dubai’s royal family and, most importantly, to disobey the Emir, Sheikh Mohammed.

“In any family, if you break the rules of your culture, it’s not going to be a great experience,” a nurse who served as Latifa’s minder for two years, told The New Yorker.

Prior to Latifa’s well-documented escape attempt, her sister Shamsa had tried the same. Latifa has alleged that Shamsa was imprisoned for years after being caught and “was a shell of her former self” when released, having made multiple attempts to kill herself during her imprisonment.

Latifa herself was photographed in public places in Europe in 2021, and appears to now live in Dubai after having struck a compromise with her father. She did not speak to The New Yorker. The report has used older videos in which she has been seen speaking, and her correspondence with her friends.

The report also tells the story of Latifa’s aunt, Bouchra, who was married to Sheikh Mohammed’s elder brother, three decades her senior, while still in her teens. She was never able to make peace with the limitations of life in Dubai and, when her transgressions got too difficult to bear, she was allegedly killed on the orders of Sheikh Mohammed.

The story of Latifa’s escape

Latifa first attempted to escape the clutches of her father in 2002, while still in her teens. She planned to cross over to Oman and get help from a lawyer to free her sister Shamsa, who was imprisoned at the time. On being caught, she was beaten by her captors – all of them her “father’s men”, according to The New Yorker – and kept in captivity for over three years.

Even after being released from the captivity of her prison cell, Latifa was not free. She was under constant surveillance and all her meetings were strictly monitored. Undeterred, Latifa planned to escape again. But this time she would be better prepared.

She underwent rigorous physical training, cultivated a relationship with an ex-escapee from Dubai who promised to help her, and made meticulous plans.

Finally, in 2018, after years of preparation, Latifa, along with her capoeira instructor and close friend, Tiina Jauhiainen, made a daring attempt to flee Dubai. She travelled in the boot of a car to Oman where the duo braved inclement weather on a rubber dinghy to board their escape vessel, a rundown yacht called Nostromo.

Prior to boarding Nostromo, Latifa recorded a number of videos criticising her father, and accusing him of multiple crimes, including the murder of Bouchra, kidnap and confinement of Latifa and Shamsa, and torture, among others. These videos later went viral and were crucial for Latifa’s escape getting the global attention it did.

The plan was for Latifa to make her way to India and Sri Lanka, where she would use her fake passport to fly to the US and seek asylum. However, the plan was foiled. Upon realising that Latifa had escaped, Dubai authorities went into overdrive to locate and bring her back. The yacht was finally located, approximately 50 km off the coast of Goa.

After locating the yacht, “Sheikh Mohammed spoke with the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and agreed to extradite a Dubai-based arms dealer in exchange for his daughter’s capture. The Indian government deployed boats, helicopters, and a team of armed commandos to storm Nostromo and carry Latifa away,” according to The New Yorker article.

While Latifa was allegedly tranquilised and taken to her father, her accomplices were detained for around a week before being let go. Jauhiainen went to England, where she has continued to fight for Latifa’s freedom.

Failure to hold the Sheikh to account

Latifa’s story, in The New Yorker‘s telling, is as much about her attempts to escape her gilded prison as it is about the failure of British authorities, other countries and global organisations to hold the Sheikh to account. As Dubai and the UAE are embraced by the world as hubs of modernity in the Middle East, the repression of its people, in this case from within the privileged royal family, has been ignored, the report says.

It points out that these women have been left hanging, even after reaching out for help, multiple times. Shamsa reached out to British authorities repeatedly in the early 2000s, when she escaped and was captured. She tried to obtain asylum and when picked up by Emirati operatives, even managed to convey to authorities that she was being “taken back to Dubai against her free will”.

When Latifa’s story got international attention, she was visited by Mary Robinson, the former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to “assess her condition”. Robinson would later tell the BBC that Latifa was a “vulnerable”, “troubled” woman who had “made a video that she now regrets”. Robinson’s account reportedly left Latifa, at the time confined to a villa in Dubai, “flattened” and “used”.

The New Yorker story also talks about the Sheikh’s alleged sexual perversions, including the torture and rape of multiple women, even underage girls.

Even when a 26-year old woman reported being held captive at one of the Sheikh’s many properties in the UK, and repeatedly raped by a member of the Dubai royal family, the British response was tepid, the report says. The investigating officer told The New Yorker that the Special Branch called him up and said that the matter had been resolved “government to government”.

All this while the Sheikh continued to frequent British racetracks and even found himself in the Royal Box at Ascot with the Queen, the report said.

A veneer of modernity

The Sheikh has worked hard to “counter the perception of the U.A.E. as a repressive autocracy”, the report says.

But in reality, much of the “progressive” changes are not much more than “window dressing”, it says. “Within Dubai’s ruling family, women inhabit a wrenching dual role: they are exalted as emblems of female advancement while privately obligated to ‘carry the honour’ for the dynasty.”

But as Latifa’s story shows, behind the veil of modernity lies a deeply regressive and repressive reality, where women continue to remain under male guardianship and freedom is something to enjoy within rigid boundaries laid out by powerful men, says The New Yorker.