Escape from Dubai: The Mystery of the Missing Princess

Prior to its first airing in December, few knew about the escape and capture of the 32-year-old daughter of the ruler of Dubai that this documentary details, sparking controversy about a city that is rapidly developing to the social and economic heights of London, New York and Paris. Princess Latifa bin Mohammed Al Maktoum had been planning her escape to India by boat for over seven years before being returned, echoing the mystery of her older sister Shamsa, who disappeared from Cambridge in 2000 after fleeing the family’s mansion. Both suggest systematic imprisonment and surveillance, which in turn reveal a more unsettling side to their seemingly likeable and good-natured father Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

The documentary also features the princess’ heart-breaking video, claiming torture and imprisonment, that had been entrusted to a lawyer in the US before she was captured and returned to Dubai. The true story of this beautiful young princess risking her life in a refusal to conform to the conservative nature of her country’s norms, mingled with a Western intrigue of an Arab ruling family, gives the documentary all the nail-biting ingredients of a fictional drama that would appeal to a mass audience, and brings attention to the morally disconcerting reality behind the glitzy and luxurious emirate.

The scandal comes at the height of the UAE’s development as a whole, revealing its internal inconsistency of its values and the disparity between the open-minded image it propagates of itself and its strict Sharia law. Through twenty years of continuous effort, Sheikh Mohammed has curated a global picture of Dubai as a world class city and financial hub; its Godolphin Racing stables go to Ascot, the city will host the 2020 Expo, Emirates is a leading airline, and Dubai International Airport is the number one airport for international passengers, while expats make up over 90% of the population.

Despite this, its ultra conservative laws mean international tourists that visit to enjoy the winter sunshine are punished or in some cases imprisoned for public drunkenness and kissing in public if unmarried. More specific to the Princess, her father, along with the vast majority of Emirati men, practices polygamy and was said to have been married six times. Her mother, his first wife, had a son who reportedly tried to kill him, while many in the UAE, including foreign diplomats, believe it is within a family’s right to discipline a daughter despite extreme methods. This context, of course, doesn’t justify the treatment of both Latifa and her sister by any means, but it reminds us that viewing the story through a foreign lens without considering cultural relativism and sensitivities can alter it, a nuance the documentary lacked. All of this considered and having lived there myself for six years, wider questions about its society and culture as a whole are brought to the fore which are much more complex than the documentary chose to expose. 

At a second glance, there is also a subtle hypocrisy behind the blatant human rights infringement that the BBC investigates here. Princess Latifa’s story is shocking, to be sure; earlier images of her skydiving next to skyscrapers wearing the Emirati flag made her the perfect ambassador to sell Dubai’s modern and outward-looking image. This sharply contrasts to the opening to her video alone, ‘if you’re watching this… either I’m dead or in a very bad situation’, immediately provoking a righteous outrage in the viewer that is understandably directed towards her father and the country as a whole.

Despite this, the UK and the UAE are military and economic allies, mostly in the form of arms sales as well as trade and tourism. It also has to be said that when Latifa’s older sister, Shamsa, was kidnapped on UK soil, in capturing her the family had committed a crime and this case was dropped in the name of national interest. Furthermore, the media’s significantly underplayed coverage of the gross lack of workers rights in the country is similarly reflective of a Western tendency to criticize their allies’ human rights abuses while enjoying the economic benefits and warm winters.

This then poses an international dilemma- does a country have to adhere to global standards of human and workers’ rights to be accepted on the international stage, and is this at all feasible? This should ideally be the case; as an aspiring global player the UAE should open itself up to media criticism, with conversations being had about social issues such as the rights of women or the South-Asian workers that build their skyscrapers even if it is uncomfortable. In turn however, there is a Western naïveté in the assumption that a country that has grown into an exceptional model of economic development in the past 50 years can socially keep up with values that continents such as Europe took centuries to develop, an expectation that can perhaps be attributed to rapid technology and social media advancement.

Overall, the documentary is an example of solid journalism; it forces a conversation and tells the truth about a fundamentally unacceptable human rights abuse. Nonetheless, it falls short in explaining the story of much deeper internal and external divisions and misunderstandings that make it more complex than the work seems to suggest.