Why Are Arab Princesses Running Away From Home?

From Princess Haya to Sheikha Latifa, our top reads on why the Gulf’s rich and famous want out.

FP Editors
August 2, 2019, Foreign Policy

Princess Haya and Sheikha Latifa of the United Arab Emirates and Rahaf al-Qanun of Saudi Arabia.

This week, Princess Haya, the estranged wife of Dubai’s ruler and half-sister of the Jordanian king, filed an order of protection in a London court. Princess Haya, who fled the United Arab Emirates to escape her husband a few months ago, asked the court to grant her custody of her two children, who escaped with her; to prevent one of her children from being forced into an arranged marriage; and to protect her from violence or harassment. The princess is part of a recent wave of wealthy Arab women escaping their mansions and palaces. And what happens in her case may set a precedent for how the West treats others on the run.

As the story unfolds, we’ve collected our top reads on Princess Haya and other women like her.

Princess Haya’s case is particularly striking, writes Ola Salem, a British-Egyptian journalist, because she has “long been the most publicly visible and widely known of the six wives of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.” Indeed, “[s]he was often seen by her husband’s side at regional and international functions, greeting dignitaries and delivering speeches—all highly unusual for the wife of a Persian Gulf ruler.”

It was perhaps because of her fame, Salem posits, that her husband responded to her disappearance with another unusually public move: One of his friends took to social media with a poem, allegedly by Sheikh Mohammed, accusing a woman of infidelity. The media firestorm, Salem writes, highlights “a striking contrast between Dubai’s image as an attractive place for international business and its reality as a place where woman are often disadvantaged by a discriminatory culture and legal system.”

It isn’t just Princess Haya who has captured the media’s attention recently. Several other royals have fled the Arab world too, including Sheikha Latifa, a daughter of Sheikh Mohammed, who left a video message explaining her plight before boarding a French-owned yacht. She was caught and, as Salem reports, was confined to “medicated house arrest.”

For Salem, the spate of well-off women attempting to leave home isn’t surprising. “Most women in the Arab world are disadvantaged socially. Traditional families generally place severe restrictions on women; depending on which tribe they are from, women may face restrictions on whom they can marry, how much freedom they have outside the house, if they can use social media, if they can travel and where, if they can work, what they can study, when they marry, and who can see their faces.” But “the Arab world’s women of privilege—whether they are members of royalty or part of politically connected families—in many ways have it worst of all.”

For these women, “it is unbearable,” Salem quotes Hala al-Dosari, a prominent Saudi activist and scholar, as saying. “They have the means to live differently and a high-level exposure to women from other cultures.” Making things worse, Salem explains, is “rampant hypocrisy. Many privileged Arab families prefer to present themselves to the outside world as liberal and worldly. Princess Latifa, for example, is the daughter of one of the most open Arab rulers of the Persian Gulf. … But his treatment of his daughters belies that international image. That’s because Sheikh Mohammed’s rule at home also depends on his being seen by his subjects as adhering to traditional values.”

Such pressures aren’t limited to royal families, of course. In May, the journalist Laura Kasinof spoke to two other women, Wafa and Maha al-Subaie, about their own escape from domestic abuse in Saudi Arabia. “They managed to obtain passports in Riyadh without their family’s knowledge, buy plane tickets, and fly from the Saudi capital to Istanbul. On April 1, at the airport in Riyadh, they broke their SIM cards to avoid surveillance.” Their goal, Kasinof explains, was to eventually reach Georgia because Saudi citizens don’t need visas to enter.

It is hard to know how many more women there are like them, but Kasinof points out that “the number of asylum-seekers from [Saudi Arabia] has tripled between 2012 and 2017, to 800 cases worldwide.” And they are raising issues for legal systems around the world about whether domestic abuse qualifies someone for asylum. The issue was already under review by the Trump administration, “which has sought to stem the flow of asylum-seekers from Central America. Since 2014, after a landmark case involving a Guatemalan woman who was granted asylum in the United States after fleeing her husband’s violent attacks, domestic violence has been an accepted criterion for refugee status in the United States.”

As for why this is all happening now, recent reforms in the region may offer a clue. In Saudi Arabia, where women have in the last few years been granted the right to drive, allowed to access government services without a guardian’s permission, and enter some mixed-gender spaces, explains the journalist Elizabeth Dickinson, the government has also launched a harsh crackdown on conservative forces—and that has led to a backlash. It is a “top-down process” that is driving the changing role of women, “pitched by the government as a sort of gift bestowed upon the population.” And because “the social reforms aren’t driven by a grassroots effort, the biggest burden of persuading society will fall to women themselves.” That has proved incredibly difficult.