The Fugitive Princesses of Dubai

The Fugitive Princesses of Dubai

Far out on the Arabian Sea one night in February, 2018, Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, the fugitive daughter of Dubai’s ruling emir, marvelled at the stars. The voyage had been rough. Since setting out by dinghy and Jet Ski a few days before, she had been swamped by powerful waves, soaking the belongings she’d stowed in her backpack; after clambering aboard the yacht she’d secured for her escape, she’d spent days racked with nausea as it pitched on the swell. But tonight the sea was calmer, and she felt the stirring of an unfamiliar sensation. She was free.

Latifa was thirty-two and petite, with a loose ponytail and intense dark eyes. Beside her was her friend Tiina Jauhiainen, a Finnish martial-arts instructor who had helped prepare for her escape. The night was cool, and the women were huddled in hoodies, but Latifa urged her friend to sleep on deck with her. Jauhiainen was tired, and promised they could do it another time: from now on, there would be plenty of chances to see the stars.

For more than half her life, Latifa had been devising plans to flee her father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the leader of Dubai and the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. Sheikh Mohammed is an ally of Western governments, celebrated for transforming Dubai into a modern power. Publicly, he has placed gender equality at the heart of his plan to propel the U.A.E. to the top of the world economic order, vowing to “remove all the hurdles that women face.” But for his daughter Dubai was “an open air prison,” where disobedience was brutally punished.

In her teens, Latifa had been ferociously beaten for defying her father. As an adult, she was forbidden to leave Dubai and kept under the constant surveillance of guards. Escape presented a challenge of “unfathomable immensity,” Latifa knew. “It will be the best or last thing I do,” she wrote. “I have never known true freedom. For me, it’s something worth dying for.” (I have drawn details of Latifa’s experience from hundreds of letters, e-mails, texts, and audio messages that she sent to friends in the course of a decade.)

Latifa had kept her plan secret for years as she laid the groundwork: training in extreme sports, obtaining a fake passport, and smuggling cash to a network of conspirators. By the time she revealed the scheme to Jauhiainen, she had already hired a yachtsman to collect her off the coast and convey her to India or Sri Lanka, from where she hoped to fly to the United States and claim asylum. She just needed help getting to the rendezvous point, sixteen miles offshore, in international waters.

Jauhiainen is a sturdy, forthright woman, with high cheekbones and ice-blue eyes. She had grown close to Latifa while giving her capoeira lessons on the palace grounds, and wanted to help her see the world. “I was so excited,” she told me. “Finally, we will be able to do this together.” She’d promised to accompany Latifa all the way to freedom.

Before they set off, Latifa sneaked over to Jauhiainen’s apartment, which had become a storehouse for the scuba equipment, satellite communicators, and boat parts the two women had amassed, and sat down in front of a video recorder. Dressed in a loose blue T-shirt, she recorded almost forty minutes of testimony, to be released in the event of her capture. Her father, she said, was a “major criminal,” responsible for torturing and imprisoning numerous women who disobeyed him. Her older sister had languished in captivity under sedation following her own attempt to get out, eighteen years earlier, she said, and her aunt had been killed for disobedience. Latifa was running away to claim a life “where I don’t have to be silenced,” where she could wake up in the morning and think, “I can do whatever I want today, I can go wherever I want, I have all the choices in the world.” (Attorneys for Sheikh Mohammed denied any wrongdoing on his part, but declined to respond to detailed questions.)


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