This tale of the miss­ing daugh­ter of the ruler of Dubai has al­ready made head­lines – and it’s no sur­prise

★★★★★

The Guardian - G2 - - Tv And Radio - Re­becca Ni­chol­son

Es­cape from Dubai: The Mys­tery of the Miss­ing Princess has al­ready made head­lines, and no won­der – it is an ex­tra­or­di­nary doc­u­men­tary, and tells a story so as­ton­ish­ing that at times even its par­tic­i­pants are forced to ad­mit that events sound far-fetched. But its di­rec­tor and pro­ducer, Jane McMullen, has re­sisted the urge to fo­cus only on the har­row­ing drama of what hap­pened to Sheikha Lat­ifa bint Mo­hammed al-Mak­toum, and has in­stead made a film that asks big­ger ques­tions of it­self and its view­ers: is­sues of money, po­lit­i­cal al­liances and eas­ily won PR; on the stag­ger­ing reaches of tech­nol­ogy; and on fam­ily, com­plic­ity and be­trayal.

Princess Lat­ifa is the daugh­ter of Sheikh Mo­hammed bin Rashid al-Mak­toum, the ruler of Dubai and the prime min­is­ter of the United Arab Emi­rates. She is one of 30 chil­dren, and the sec­ond who is known to have tried to es­cape from the “gilded cage” of her life. Her sis­ter Shamsa ran away from a £75m Sur­rey man­sion in 2000. Shamsa was cap­tured weeks later in Cam­bridge and taken back to the UAE.

Lat­ifa says her role as a PR coup for mod­ern Dubai – she was fond of sky­div­ing, which was re­ported as a sign of her free­dom – is a sham. She says that women are “dis­pos­able”, that she is a cap­tive and is watched and tracked at all times. She had made a break for it once be­fore, when she was 16, only to be cap­tured at the bor­der. Ac­cord­ing to her, she was im­pris­oned and tor­tured for three years af­ter­wards. The doc­u­men­tary’s nar­ra­tor says that it is im­pos­si­ble to ver­ify her claims, but that the de­tails match pre­vi­ous ac­counts of tor­ture there.

We know this be­cause Lat­ifa left be­hind a tape, just in case. “They will, for sure, try to dis­credit this video – say it’s a lie, or it’s an ac­tress or some­thing,” she says, to the cam­era. But it is her in­sur­ance pol­icy, and it will turn out to be her fi­nal grasp at au­ton­omy. At the time she recorded it, she be­lieved the elab­o­rate plot to leave Dubai, seven years in the mak­ing, would be suc­cess­ful: “I am 99% pos­i­tive it will work.” She had planned to es­cape from her driver, travel to Oman with a friend and then sail in a dinghy to a yacht sta­tioned in in­ter­na­tional waters, cap­tained by a French former naval of­fi­cer, Hervé Jaubert, who him­self es­caped from the UAE, by scuba div­ing to safety, after be­ing con­victed of fraud (He de­nies any wrong­do­ing.)

In the first mo­ments of the pro­gramme, we learn not only that the plot failed, but that Lat­ifa has not been seen since Fe­bru­ary, when the yacht was stormed by com­man­dos, and she was taken away. If only the doc­u­men­tary could be paused at the 37-minute mark, when ev­ery stage of the plan has been seen through and when Lat­ifa’s op­ti­mism seems well placed.

This is a much big­ger story, though, than that. The yacht sailed for days, on a course for In­dia. Lat­ifa be­lieved she would be safe enough there to catch a flight to Flor­ida, where she planned to claim po­lit­i­cal asy­lum. But In­dia and the UAE had a strate­gic po­lit­i­cal al­liance. Tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances al­lowed her phone to be used as a tracker, even when switched off. She reached out to the me­dia, be­liev­ing pub­lic­ity would keep her safe. But ac­cord­ing to Ti­ina Jauhi­ainen, the friend and former gym coach who came with her, the story was so far-fetched that re­porters did not ap­pear to be­lieve it. All of this is pep­pered with glo­ri­ous footage of Dubai’s beaches, pop­u­lar with Bri­tish hol­i­day­mak­ers, in search of win­ter sun. The film is as light with its im­pli­ca­tions of com­plic­ity as it is damn­ing. “I hope she is still alive,” says Jauhi­ainen, through tears.

There has been no com­ment by Sheikh Mo­hammed or the Dubai gov­ern­ment on the al­le­ga­tions here. Sources have said only that Lat­ifa is “with her fam­ily and do­ing ex­cel­lent”. But this sober, shock­ing doc­u­men­tary – as lean and mea­sured as its con­tents are in­flam­ma­tory – may lead view­ers to won­der what the worst out­come for her could have been. Per­haps it is more fit­ting to end on her own words, left on the tape, the tape that was there just in case the 1% sce­nario hap­pened: “If I don’t make it out, I re­ally hope that some pos­i­tive change will hap­pen from all of this,” she says.

‘They will, for sure, try to dis­credit this video – say it’s a lie,’ she says

Lat­ifa … an es­cape plan seven years in the mak­ing

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