“I am feeling positive about the future. I don’t know how I’ll feel just waking up in the morning, thinking I can do whatever I want today, I can go wherever I want, I have all the choices in the world like anyone does. That’ll be such a new, different feeling, it’ll be amazing, I’m really looking forward to that.”- Princess Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, February 2018.
Last night, BBC Panorama released unseen and shocking videos hastily recorded on a smartphone, of a 35-year-old woman, sat in a dingy bathroom, in old clothes, speaking of her imprisonment. These videos were taken by Princess Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, one of 25 children to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice-President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai.
Dubai is a glistening emirate, dripping with luxury and attracting the wealthiest tourists, but it possesses a dirty underbelly. Women have very little autonomy and by law are forced to dress modestly and not make eye contact with their male counterparts. Princess Latifa suffered from this most severely, banned from travelling, studying abroad and even driving, she wished to seek a better life abroad.
In March 2018, Latifa and her best friend and capoeira instructor Tiina Jauhiainen set out on a daring escape attempt. Their plan was to cross the Indian Ocean on a yacht and once they reached India, to fly to the United States and seek political asylum. The two women successfully made it onto the yacht and as the Indian border came painfully close, the yacht was overrun by Indian Special Forces. After a painful struggle by Latifa where she repeated over and over again that her plea was to be taken in under political asylum, she was captured, bound, tranquilised and taken away, repatriated back to Dubai. Tiina has not seen her best friend since. Both the ship’s crew and Tiina were held for two weeks in a high-security jail in the UAE.
Tiina joined forces with David Haigh, a Human Right’s Lawyer and a man who was also imprisoned in the UAE in the past and together, they put a case forward to be investigated by the United Nations. The case has been under investigation since April 2018. Three months later, Sheikh Mohammed was seen living a normal life at the races, another one of his daughters accompanying him. Nine months after Latifa’s disappearance, the UAE released a statement describing Latifa as “safe in the loving arms of her family”.
A year after she last saw her best friend and during a trip back to her native Finland, a stranger got in touch with Tiina, claiming to have a message from Latifa. After confirming it was in fact Latifa herself, using her nickname, her capoeira name and a reminder of a birthday present, Tiina and David was able to smuggle a phone to Latifa to use to stay in touch with them and a first cousin of Latifa’s, Marcus Essabri with whom Tiina had contacted. It was on this phone that Latifa began to record and send the now-infamous video messages.
In her first video message, recorded in April 2019, Latifa describes herself as imprisoned in a villa which had been converted into a prison with barred windows and guarded by 30 police officers on rotation. Tiina cried when hearing her best friend’s voice and noted that she was wearing the clothes that she was captured in. She was being held without medical care, and in the panorama interview, her cousin Marcus described her as being left “even without a toothbrush” for “years”.
During this time, Latifa’s stepmother, Princess Haya, visited Latifa in her imprisonment, inviting her to lunch at her house and saying it would be a “test” to see how she reacted around normal people after being imprisoned for so long, she finally had a chance at freedom. Haya explained that she would be inviting a few guests as well, one of which, unbeknownst to Latifa, was the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson. Robinson had been told by Haya that Latifa suffered from bipolar disorder and mentioning it would cause too much trauma. Robinson avoided the topic of Latifa’s life and discussed other, fairly neutral topics like Robinson’s book which was due to be coming out. The former UN High Commissioner was pictured having lunch with a pale and sad looking Latifa wearing blue jeans and a black hoodie and unbeknownst to both Robinson and the Princess, the photo was used by the UAE to prove Latifa’s safety when it was released to the world, instead of privately to the UN as Robinson thought would happen. A former UN diplomat had been fooled and Latifa was returned back to her cage. A gilded cage certainly, but a cage, nonetheless.
Not long after the Lunch in December 2018, Mary Robinson received a phone call from Haya saying that they had been lied to and that she had “found out a lot.” She was phoning from London, having escaped with just the clothes on her back and her two children as the Sheikh had become frustrated at Haya’s interest in Latifa and her situation had become unsafe. With the embarrassment of the escape attempts of his wife and two adult daughters (another daughter of his, Shamsa had attempted an escape to Cambridge some 20 years before) as well as his two younger children escaping with their mother, the Sheikh opened a High Court case for his children to be returned. It did not conclude in his favour with the High Court ruling that he intimidated his wife and imprisoned and abducted Latifa, as well as being dishonest with the Court. The Sheikh and Haya divorced in 2019.
Despite this ruling, Latifa’s situation did not change, and she remains imprisoned. Her phone “lifeline” became a way to have long text conversations with her cousin Marcus, David Haigh and Tiina. In her most recent videos, Latifa appears withdrawn and despondent, saying that she “is not free” and “will not go along with their propaganda, it is just how [she] is.”
David, Marcus and Tiina’s messages suddenly stopped being delivered and they have received radio silence from the Princess. They fear the worst and have taken the decision to release the video messages to elicit a response from the UN. The UN are to question the UAE about the status of Princess Latifa after calls from high profile politicians to receive an answer about her wellbeing. The princess trapped in the tower is a tale as old as time and women should not be punished for wanting autonomy, the world waits with bated breath for news.