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How Princess Latifa’s abduction shows the power of the press

Since 2018 the kidnapped Emirati Princess has been languishing in solitary confinement at the behest of her father. Now, thanks to her friends releasing footage of her to the BBC, the world is watching.

Princess Latifa is one of 25 children of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). After years of living under restrictions on her freedoms and being confined to Dubai, Latifa enlisted the help of her friend Tiina Jauhiainen to escape her father and the country in March 2018.

Despite the initial success, Latifa’s second attempt to escape and reach international waters was an unfortunate failure. The yacht they were on was stormed by Indian Special Forces; the Princess was kidnapped and drugged before she could return to Dubai. Tiina and the rest of the crew were arrested and held in high-security jail for two weeks.

Unsure if she would ever hear from her friend again, Tiina began advocating for Latifa’s freedom, bringing her case to the United Nations (UN) with the help of David Haigh, a human rights lawyer and former detainee in the UAE. A few months later, Tiina received a call from an unknown number, asking security questions relating to her and Latifa’s friendship. She soon realised it was the Princess herself.

During the call, Latifa revealed the shocking details of her confinement to David, Tiina and her cousin Marcus Essabri, who himself had left Dubai. The videos detail on how she had no contact with the outside world apart from her guards, “No access to medical help. No trial. No charge. Nothing.” Tiina and Marcus even claimed in an interview with BBC Panorama that she was wearing the same clothes she had escaped in and hadn’t even been given a toothbrush.

This phone call was described as a “lifeline” by her friends. However, around six months ago, all contact with Latifa ceased. Her phone stopped receiving messages, causing her friends to fear for her safety. They began to consider taking the footage public and appealing to the international community to pressure the UAE, even though they recognised this could put Latifa in grave danger.

On 16th February, the BBC released the footage on their behalf, leading on from their 2018 report on the Princess’ disappearance. It builds on previous evidence that she was held captive by her father and reveals further details about the appalling conditions she has now been experiencing for almost three years.

The footage also shows how powerful Latifa’s own voice is. Her subjugation is an attempt to silence this voice. But now, through sharing what has happened to her in her own words, she has uncovered the extent to which the Sheikh is willing to go to keep his family, especially the women, in line.

But didn’t we know this already? In 2019 his wife, Princess Haya, escaped with her two children claiming she feared for her life, and in March 2020, the UK court ruled that the Sheikh had abducted two of his daughters and held them captive in Dubai – Latifa in 2018 and previously 18-year-old Princess Shamsa in 2000.

Princess Shamsa, like her sister, wanted to escape the confined life imposed on her by her father and managed to flee while the family were staying at their residence in Surrey. After hiding for weeks in England and allegedly even making contact with the police, she was captured and taken back to Dubai. 

Latifa herself had witnessed her sisters’ treatment back in Dubai. Not only had she been imprisoned, but she had also been systematically drugged. According to Latifa, speaking in 2018, Shamsa was “surrounded by nurses, they watch her take her pills, they make sure that she takes all of her pills. These drugs to control her mind, I don’t know what they are. So her life is totally controlled.”

This treatment drove Latifa to make her first attempt to escape when she was sixteen. When it failed, she said she was imprisoned for three years. The knowledge of what the consequences were for trying to escape didn’t deter Latifa from trying again. Still, it made her so terrified of her fate so that when she was captured the second time, she begged her captors to shoot her, according to Tiina.

While committing these human rights abuses against his own daughter, Sheikh Mohammed is pushing forward the promotion of his state on the international stage and even hosting a Global Women’s Forum in February 2020.

He has long been considered a friend by the UK, with the UAE a key ally in the region despite long-standing criticism by human rights organisations. Not only is the UK diplomatically aligned with the UAE, every year, thousands of Brits holiday in the Emirates and do business with the state.

Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, told BBC Panorama that “One of the remarkable things about this whole episode […] is that when she was kidnapped back, Sheikh Mohammed carried on with his life, somehow, grabbing his daughter on the Indian Ocean, disappearing her, wasn’t enough to make him untouchable and he preceded to be welcomed by people around the world.”

If the UAE can get away with locking up and disappearing a member of its own royal family for wanting freedom, to what extent will it go to silence ordinary women and prevent them from achieving equal rights?

Now the UN must find out what has happened to Latifa. At the moment, we know that what she has experienced is equivalent to torture, and now, with no contact with the outside world in six months, it is unknown whether she is alive or dead. Britain has called for the UAE to release proof that she is alive, but where was this diplomatic pressure when it was known that she had disappeared back in 2018?

Latifa’s friends said that despite experiencing “sleepless nights” before reaching the decision to release the footage, they now feel that the international response to the evidence has vindicated their decision. Thanks to their commitment to their friend and to justice, the work of journalists and the bravery of Latifa herself, the world now knows the truth behind the “glittering city” of Dubai.

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