The Princess Who Wanted To Escape Her Royalty


Photo source: The Wire

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum dazzled at the stars when she set out in a dinghy and then a jet ski to escape her father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the leader of Dubai and the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. Beside her was her friend Tiina Jauhiainen, a Finnish martial arts instructor who had helped prepare for her escape.

The night of her escape was cool, and she spent days in nausea. She was thirty-two when she set herself free for the first time. For more than half her life, Latifa had been devising plans to flee her father. Publicly, her father has placed gender equality at the heart of his plan to propel the UAE to the top of the world's economic order. He has even vowed to remove ‘all the hurdles that women face.’ But for his daughter, Dubai was ‘an open-air prison,’ where disobedience was gravely 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. Many times, she uttered that she had never lived freely in her entire life. The meaning of freedom for her was something worth dying for.

Latifa had kept her plan secret for years as she laid the foundation: 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.  As per Heidi Blake’s Oped in The New Yorker, she just needed help to get to the rendezvous point, sixteen miles offshore, in international waters.

Her father, she concluded, was a ‘major criminal,’ responsible for torturing and imprisoning numerous women who disobeyed him. She also believed that her older sister had ached in captivity under sedation following her own attempt to get out eighteen years earlier, and her aunt had been killed for disobedience. Latifa was running away to claim a life ‘where she could not be silenced', and where she could have all her choices.

According to Neil Quilliam, a fellow in Middle East affairs at the Chatham House think tank: ‘Women are expected to behave within very tight boundaries, and if they go outside them they are dishonouring the family. Emirati women continue to live under male guardianship, unable to work or marry without permission. Men can marry multiple women and unilaterally divorce their wives, but women require a court order to dissolve a marriage. Men who murder women can still be pardoned by the victim’s relatives, which allows honour killings to go unpunished, since in such cases victim and perpetrator are often related.’

He further wrote: ‘Within Dubai’s ruling family, women inhabit a wrenching dual role: they are exalted as emblems of female advancement while privately obligated to “carry the honor” for the dynasty.’

Sheikh Mohammed has married at least six women, who have borne him dozens of children. According to Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, female disobedience in the Emir’s circle provokes a ‘politically dangerous’ question among subjects.

As for Latifa, she passed the first decade of her life without knowing that she had sisters. Her mother, Houria Lamara, was an Algerian who married Sheikh Mohammed and bore him four children. But Latifa did not grow up with her birth family. She and her younger brother were taken away as babies and presented as gifts to their father’s childless sister.

She recalls that life in her aunt’s palace was ‘horribly suffocating’. She was kept with dozens of other children and minded by several governesses, who made them memorise the Quran. They hardly ever let them out of their rooms. Her aunt rarely visited, and when she did, she was cruel to them.

Her escape was a Saturday in February, 2018. Latifa left her mother’s mansion at sunrise and told her driver to take her to meet Jauhiainen at a cafe on Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard. While Jauhiainen ordered coffee, Latifa went into the bathroom, removed her abaya, and dropped her cell phone in the sanitary bin. Then the two women hurried into a borrowed Audi Q7 and drove away for the border.

Since agreeing to help free Latifa, Jauhiainen had been meeting with Jaubert in Manila, where he lived. With him, she wanted to chalk down an escape plan and deliver cash to settle his expenses, along with a set of diamond jewellery that she said Latifa planned to sell when she reached America.

To make preparations, Jauhiainen travelled to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the US, and Singapore where she assembled equipment: a dinghy motor, scuba gear, Garmin satellite navigators, and two powerful underwater scooters. However, Latifa felt very dizzy while practising a subaquatic swim in her mother’s pool. That is why Jauhiainen had proposed an alternative plan for her escape.

The second plan was planning escape through Oman. At the border, twenty minutes into their journey, they passed through a series of checkpoints before guards opened the car trunk where Latifa had hidden herself. Jauhiainen’s heart hammered, seeing them open the trunk, but when they slammed the lid shut and waved her on, she got back to life.

By the time Jauhiainen cleared the border and stopped the car, she expected to find Latifa in dire exhaustion. But Latifa burst forth, glistering with excitement. The two women then snapped selfies, grinning in hoodies and sunglasses, as they tugged toward the sea.

At the sea, they had met another accomplice, Christian Elombo, based in a suburb of Muscat, Oman’s coastal capital. Elombo was Jauhiainen’s own former capoeira instructor, a powerfully built Frenchman in his early forties. He had never met Latifa before, but when Jauhiainen had explained her friend’s plight, he thought for ‘two seconds’ before agreeing to help.

It had been Elombo’s idea to hide Latifa in the spare-tire compartment of a car, and his Audi that they had used for the early phases of the escape. His last job was to convey the two women out to Nostromo aboard, a hundred ton yacht. When they reached the beach, though, fishermen urged him to turn back. A storm was coming, and huge waves were crashing along the shore. But they didn’t care. The three pressed on, casting the dinghy out.

The rough seas made for their slow progress. When it became clear that the dinghy wouldn’t reach Nostromo before dark, Jaubert and another crew members set out by jet ski to make the plan smooth. The two women were repeatedly thrown into the waves as they struggled to scramble on. Once they were safely astraddle, Elombo waved goodbye.

When Latifa and Jauhiainen reached Nostromo at sunset, they were too exhausted and nauseated by the journey to celebrate. Still, Latifa wrote a triumphant farewell to her mother and siblings, and soon posted a message on Instagram, declaring her freedom.

After a while, Latifa and Jauhiainen quickly began losing faith in their captain. The boat was filthy, and their supplies were riddled with cockroaches. They subsisted on porridge, boiled potatoes, and beans. After a week at sea, thirty miles off the coast of India, Nostromo was low on fuel.

When they suddenly learned that Elombo had been arrested, Latifa became cold and numb. On Jaubert’s recommendation, Latifa reached out to a group called Detained in Dubai, begging for help in publicising her case.

During this time, Sheikh Mohammed faced a few difficulties in finding his fleeing daughter. Her communications had been intercepted, and at the UAE’s request, Interpol had issued Red Notices for her accomplices, accusing them of kidnapping her. When the yacht was located off the Goa coast, Sheikh Mohammed spoke with the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and agreed to extradite a Dubai-based arms dealer in exchange for his daughter’s capture. The Indian government deployed boats, helicopters, and a team of armed commandos to storm Nostromo. They then carried Latifa away.


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