Princess Sheikha Latifa tried to flee Dubai. She left a video to prove it

Kim Hjelmgaard
March 8, 2019, USA Today

It’s not what you expect a modern-day princess to say. 

“My name is Latifa bint al-Maktoum,” the statement to the camera begins. “My father is the leader of Dubai” and “I am making this video because it could be the last one I make. Pretty soon I am going to be leaving – somehow.”

Less than a minute later in the video, which was uploaded to YouTube in March last year, Latifa, 33, known for her love of skydiving above Dubai, a glitzy modern state in the United Arab Emirates federation and close ally of the United States on the Persian Gulf’s southeast coast, gives a further warning.

“If you are watching this, it’s not such a good thing. Either I’m dead or I’m in a very, very, very bad situation,” she says. 

Like the princess, many who criticize or otherwise run afoul of regimes in the Middle East have for years been vanishing in places like Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Sometimes they are detained or disappear while peacefully advocating for reform or for speaking out against corruption or violations of international humanitarian law. Often, the reasons for the detentions are not clear. 

Princess Latifa, left, and Tiina Jauhiainen appear in a selfie while driving in Oman.
(Photo: Tiina Jauhiainen)

The brazen killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last year brought intense scrutiny to the kingdom – a longstanding U.S. security partner in the Middle East that President Donald Trump has defended – and the length it is prepared to go to silence opponents and critics.

The CIA concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman either directly ordered Khashoggi’s murder or was aware of the plot to do so.

Since 1980, the United Nations has documented more than 55,000 cases in 107 countries of “enforced disappearances.” These typically are when a person is abducted or imprisoned by a state or political organization, which refuses to acknowledge the fate of that person or what the person did wrong. Under international rights law, such disappearances are classed as a crime against humanity.

Walid Fitaihi, 54, a Harvard-trained doctor who is a dual Saudi-U.S. national, was among 200 high-ranking government officials, princes and prominent businessmen temporarily imprisoned in the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh in 2017 as part of what Saudi authorities described as a sweeping crackdown on corruption. Fitaihi, who is still in custody, is the founder of a private hospital. Prince Turki bin Abdullah, the son of Saudi Arabia’s late king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, is also still locked away.

Princess Latifa, left, with Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on December 24, 2018.
(Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Latifa is one of these “disappearances,” and her story almost defies belief. 

It involves allegations of torture and solitary confinement; commandos off the coast of India; an American-registered sailing yacht named Nostromo; a former French intelligence officer and naturalized U.S. citizen who now lives in Florida; and a fitness instructor from Finland who became the princess’s confidante. 

Aspects of what happened to Latifa remain shrouded in secrecy.

A legal case is pending. But her story has been corroborated by witnesses and friends as well as lawyers acting on her behalf. The U.N. and rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have backed Latifa’s account.

USA TODAY has reviewed emails, images, encrypted social media messages, ID certificates, satellite data and audio and video that substantiate what happened to her. 

Held captive by wealth

Latifa planned her escape from Dubai’s ruling family for seven years, running away from what she said was her father’s oppressive and cruel treatment. 

UAE law prioritizes men’s legal rights when it comes to marriage, divorce and custody of children. It still permits domestic violence. Latifa wasn’t allowed to travel and study outside Dubai. A minder or male guardian trailed her everywhere.

In her video, Latifa says her billionaire father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum – Dubai’s prime minister – has relentlessly portrayed his emirate as enlightened and Western-friendly. One example: Dubai’s DAMAC Properties owns and operates the only Trump-branded golf club in the Middle East.

Dubai has world-class infrastructure, luxury shopping malls, a skyscraper-filled skyline and a large expatriate population.

For Latifa, her life as a princess in Dubai was one big sham.

She was not allowed to visit a non-public place.

Even the homes of her friends were off-limits.

She had access to glamorous swimming pools and horseback riding and manicures, but the wealth imprisoned her. She dreamed of studying medicine.

That, too, was not permitted.

Princess Latifa after a skydive in Dubai on May 12, 2013.
Tiina Jauhiainen

The Britain-based Emirate Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit, says UAE authorities regularly subject those who violate their restrictions to torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and unfair trials. The U.N. has expressed concern over counterterrorism laws in the UAE under which anyone over 16 can be found to “undermine national unity or social peace” and sentenced to death.

Foreigners have been detained for drinking alcohol in public without a license.

Or for just holding hands.

When Dubai’s government unveiled an initiative recently to foster gender equality in the workplace, Latifa’s father, Sheikh Mohammed, handed out all the awards: to men.

“There’s no justice here,” she says in the video.

“Especially if you’re female, your life is so disposable.”

‘Your father told us to beat you’

This wasn’t Latifa’s first attempt at escape.

In 2002, when she was 16, she tried to cross into neighboring Oman. She was caught, imprisoned, tortured and denied medical help, she says in the 40-minute video.

“One guy was holding me and the other guy was beating me,” she says. “‘They told me: ‘Your father told us to beat you until we kill you.'”

A Dubai government media office did not reply to a request for comment. The UAE Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment.

If Trump knows about the case, he has never mentioned it in public.

But he does know about Dubai. He mentioned the emirate in his first news conference as president-elect.

“Over the weekend, I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai with a very, very, very amazing man, a great, great developer from the Middle East, Hussain, DAMAC, a friend of mine, great guy,” Trump said in January 2017, referring to Hussain Sajwani, the billionaire real estate developer with whom he partnered on the Trump International Golf Club in Dubai as well as some luxury homes in the UAE’s biggest city.