A vi­ral video of­fers alarm­ing clues about dis­ap­pear­ance of a Dubai princess

The Buffalo News - - WORLD NEWS - By Vi­vian Yee

BEIRUT – The princess known as Sheikha Lat­ifa had not left Dubai, the glit­ter­ing emi­rate ruled by her father, in 18 years. Her re­quests to travel and study else­where had been de­nied. Her passport had been taken away. Her friends’ apart­ments were for­bid­den to her, her palace off-lim­its to them.

At 32, Sheikha Lat­ifa bint Mo­hammed al-Mak­toum went nowhere with­out a watch­ful chauf­feur.

“There’s no jus­tice here,” she said in a video she se­cretly recorded last year. “Es­pe­cially if you’re a fe­male, your life is so dis­pos­able.”

So it was with a jolt of as­ton­ish­ment that her friends over­seas read a What­sApp mes­sage from her in March an­nounc­ing that she had left Dubai “for good.”

“I have a very un­com­fort­able feel­ing,” one of them, an Amer­i­can sky­diver named Chris Col­well, mes­saged back. “Is this real?” he added. “Where are you?”

“Free,” she re­sponded. “And I’ll come see you soon.” She added a heart.

Her es­cape – planned over sev­eral years with the help of a Fin­nish capoeira trainer and a self-pro­claimed French ex-spy – lasted less than a week.

Within a few days of set­ting sail on the In­dian Ocean in the French­man’s yacht, bound for In­dia and then the United States, the sheikha went silent. She has not been seen since, ex­cept in a few pho­tos re­leased in De­cem­ber by her fam­ily, which says she is safely home af­ter sur­viv­ing what they said was a kid­nap­ping.

Yet thanks to the video she made be­fore flee­ing, the sheikha’s face and voice have made their way around the world, draw­ing more than 2 mil­lion views on YouTube, spurring avid news cov­er­age and mar­ring Dubai’s im­age as a world cap­i­tal of glitz and com­merce like a graf­fiti tag.

Like the young women who have fled Saudi Ara­bia’s re­stric­tive regime, Sheikha Lat­ifa has made sure no one can for­get how few free­doms are al­lot­ted to women in the Mid­dle East’s most con­ser­va­tive so­ci­eties – or how costly cross­ing Dubai’s ruler can be.

For all its mega­malls, haute cui­sine and dizzy­ing sky­scrapers, Dubai can flip at speed from in­ter­na­tional play­ground to re­pres­sive po­lice state. It has drawn head­lines in the West for de­tain­ing for­eign­ers for hold­ing hands in pub­lic and drink­ing al­co­hol with­out a li­cense.

Over the video’s 39 stark min­utes, her voice com­posed and force­ful, Sheikha Lat­ifa de­scribed in flu­ent English her life of con­strict­ing priv­i­lege and stunted hopes. She hoped it would change if she could win po­lit­i­cal asy­lum in the United States.

“I don’t know how, how I’ll feel, just wak­ing up in the morn­ing and think­ing, I can do what­ever I want to­day,” she said. “That’ll be such a new, dif­fer­ent feel­ing. It’ll be amaz­ing.”

Fear­ing for her life if she was caught, she said she was record­ing the video in case she failed.

“They’re not go­ing to take me back alive,” she said. “That’s not go­ing to hap­pen. If I don’t make it out alive, at least there’s this video.”

Sheikha Lat­ifa first faced rigid re­stric­tions af­ter her sis­ter’s failed es­cape at­tempt years ear­lier.

When she was 14, her older sis­ter Shamsa es­caped from her fam­ily’s se­cu­rity de­tail on a trip to Eng­land. Her father, Sheikh Mo­hammed bin Rashid al-Mak­toum, the ruler of Dubai and prime min­is­ter of the United Arab Emi­rates, owns a large es­tate and a prom­i­nent thor­ough­bred rac­ing sta­ble, Godol­phin, there.

News re­ports at the time said Emi­rati per­son­nel even­tu­ally tracked Shamsa down to a street in Cam­bridge, forc­ing her into a car. When a Scot­land Yard de­tec­tive be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing her case as a kid­nap­ping, Dubai au­thor­i­ties re­fused to let him in­ter­view her. The case dead-ended there.

Sheikha Lat­ifa said Shamsa, the only of 30 sib­lings to whom she was close, had been drugged into docil­ity ever since.

Hor­ri­fied by Shamsa’s treat­ment, she said she tried to es­cape across the bor­der to Oman. Re­trieved al­most im­me­di­ately, she said she was held in soli­tary con­fine­ment for more than three years.

Sheikha Lat­ifa lived in a palace be­hind high walls, with 40 rooms spread over four wings – one for each fe­male rel­a­tive who lived there, said Ti­ina Jauhi­ainen, a Fin­nish woman who be­gan train­ing Sheikha Lat­ifa in the Afro-Brazil­ian mar­tial art of capoeira in 2010. There were about 100 ser­vants and an ath­letic com­pound with its own swim­ming pool and spa. Wher­ever the sheikha went, a Filipino maid went too.

But hers was a life of en­forced, con­fined leisure. She could spend her money only on hob­bies and sports. She couldn’t travel. She was also barred from vis­it­ing any non­pub­lic places, even friends’ homes.

Al­most no one re­al­ized un­til later that she had been plan­ning to run for sev­eral years.

She first con­tacted Herve Jaubert, whose web­site de­scribes him as a for­mer French in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer and “no or­di­nary man,” who had once man­aged to es­cape Dubai in a small rubber boat by dress­ing as a woman.

She then en­listed Jauhi­ainen. At one point, they trained to dive and swim to Oman via un­der­wa­ter scooter.

Jauhi­ainen said Sheikha Lat­ifa wanted to help other women who had been trapped in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions, and she wanted to get Shamsa out. If nec­es­sary, she thought she could work as a sky­div­ing in­struc­tor.

The morn­ing of the es­cape, Sheikha Lat­ifa was driven to eat break­fast with Jauhi­ainen at a res­tau­rant, as she of­ten did.

Ac­cord­ing to Jauhi­ainen, they got into her car and made for Oman, where they rode an in­flat­able raft, then Jet Skis, out to Jaubert’s yacht. A selfie they took in the car shows Sheikha Lat­ifa grin­ning be­hind mir­rored sun­glasses, elated.

“We’re like Thelma and Louise,” Jauhi­ainen joked, re­fer­ring to the 1991 Amer­i­can film.

“Don’t say that,” Sheikha Lat­ifa protested. “It has a sad end­ing!”

As they sailed to­ward In­dia on the evening of March 4, the women were get­ting ready for bed be­low decks when they heard loud noises. They locked them­selves in the bath­room, but it filled with smoke. The only way out was up.

On deck, armed men whom Jauhi­ainen iden­ti­fied as In­dian and Emi­rati pushed Jaubert, Jauhi­ainen and the Filipino crew­men to the ground, ty­ing them up and beat­ing them. They told Jauhi­ainen to take her last breath. Jauhi­ainen saw Sheikha Lat­ifa on the ground, tied up but kick­ing, scream­ing that she wanted po­lit­i­cal asy­lum in In­dia.

Be­fore long, an Ara­bic-speak­ing man boarded. He made it clear, Jauhi­ainen said, that he had come to re­trieve the sheikha.

“Just shoot me here,” she cried, Jauhi­ainen re­called. “Don’t take me back.”

Then she was gone.

Her father, Sheikh Mo­hammed, did not ad­dress her where­abouts un­til De­cem­ber, when the BBC was about to air a doc­u­men­tary. His of­fice is­sued a state­ment say­ing that she was safe in Dubai, cel­e­brat­ing her 33rd birth­day with fam­ily “in pri­vacy and peace.” (Jauhi­ainen said the sheikha had not cho­sen to spend her birth­day with fam­ily in years.)

The state­ment ac­cused Jaubert, whom it called a “con­victed crim­i­nal,” of kid­nap­ping her for a $100 mil­lion ran­som.

Things have only got­ten stranger since.

On Christ­mas Eve, Dubai re­leased the first pub­lic pho­tos of Sheikha Lat­ifa since her dis­ap­pear­ance. They showed her sit­ting with Mary Robin­son, the for­mer pres­i­dent of Ire­land and for­mer U.N. High Com­mis­sioner for Hu­man Rights, who con­firmed that she had met the sheikha at her fam­ily’s re­quest.

Robin­son said Sheikha Lat­ifa was safe with her fam­ily, but said she was re­ceiv­ing psychiatric care, call­ing her a “trou­bled young woman” with a “se­ri­ous med­i­cal con­di­tion.”

“This is a fam­ily mat­ter now,” Robin­son said.

The sheikha’s ad­vo­cates were taken aback that a re­spected hu­man rights cru­sader had seem­ingly em­braced Dubai’s of­fi­cial line. They dis­puted that she had a psychiatric con­di­tion, apart from any she might have de­vel­oped be­cause of im­pris­on­ment or drug­ging.

By mid-Jan­uary, a lawyer who had been work­ing with ac­tivists left the sheikha’s case with­out ex­pla­na­tion. Sev­eral friends still in Dubai said they were too fright­ened to speak, while Jaubert abruptly stopped re­spond­ing to re­quests to be in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle.

Sheikha Lat­ifa had lit­tle doubt about what would hap­pen to her.

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

Getty Im­ages

Sheikh Mo­ham­mad bin Rashid al-Mak­toum, prime min­is­ter of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, is the father of the princess known as Sheikha Lat­ifa, who se­cretly made a video be­fore flee­ing Dubai last year.

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