Observations of an Ex Pat: Consequences of a Princess

The sad case of Dubai’s Princess Latifa threatens widespread repercussions which could impact on Dubai’s economy and relations with the West.

Dubai and the tri-emirate United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a key member, plays an outsized role in Middle East politics. It maintains close relations with the UK and US and took the lead recently in recognising Israel to block annexation of the West Bank. Its small but effective military has earned the UAE the sobriquet “Little Sparta.”

After a BBC Panorama highlighted the princess’s plight, the UN demanded proof that Latifa was still alive. So far, the only word from the Dubai government is that she “is being cared for at home”.

Arab countries – in common with other authoritarian states – hate having the human rights finger pointed at them. Domestic political considerations means that the developed world is uncomfortable dealing with countries with questionable human rights records. The Biden Administration has been sending out vibes that the Arab world needs to improve its human rights or face consequences.

Western dependence on oil tends to protect many Arab states from Western criticism. Dubai is not an oil-rich Arab state. Its growing wealth (per capita income $32,000) is based on its position as the Arab centre for tourism, financial services, information technology and trade.

The tiny emirate is recognised as a leading travel and trade gateway to Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Tourism and aviation are the economic engines, contributing 38 percent of the country’s $110 billion GDP.15.8 million tourists were drawn to Dubai City in 2019. Many of them travelled to attend specific events such as the Dubai Desert Golf Classic, the tennis championship, the international film festival or the literary or jazz festivals.

The emirate was banking heavily on big visitor numbers for its 2020 World Expo. But the pandemic meant postponement of the event until October 2021 to March 2022. Of course, Dubai’s heavy reliance on tourism and travel has meant that its economy is a major Covid victim and it has been forced to deplete its sovereign wealth fund. However, with $301.5 billion in assets it can withstand the current health siege.

But handling the bad PR related to Princess Latifa could be more damaging and long-lasting. The daughter of Dubai’s absolute ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, attempted to escape from her gilded cage three years ago. She was captured crossing the Indian Ocean and returned to a heavily-guarded villa in Dubai City.

For a while Latifa was able to communicate with friends via a smuggled mobile phone. That stopped a few months ago and concerns for her wellbeing grew exponentially. After a BBC Panorama highlighted the princess’s plight, the UN demanded proof that Latifa was still alive. So far, no word from the Dubai government.

Latifa is not the only unhappy female member of the Dubai royal family. Her sister Shamsa also tried to escape. Her step-mother and the Sheikh’s second official wife, Princess Haya bint Hussein, fled first to the UK with her two children. Sheikh Al Maktoum applied to the London courts for the return of his children. He failed, and the court ruled that the sheikh had ordered the abduction of Latifa and Shamsa “contrary to international law, international maritime law and accepted human rights norms.”

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is the absolute ruler of a patriarchal Arab state with many of the trappings that feminists loathe. Having said that, Dubai is ranked second in women’s rights within the Arab world. However, it is 120th out of 150 in the world at large. Dubai women can drive, work and own property. But these rights are largely subject to the approval of a male guardian.

Custody battles are usually decided in favour of the men and a single woman who falls pregnant is likely to be sent to prison for a year. Up until 2016, Dubai men were free to beat their wives without facing legal repercussions.

The Arab world’s treatment of its women has long been a target for Western feminists who have considerable political and economic influence. The plight of Princess Latifa has re-highlighted that treatment. Activists are quite capable of calling for a boycott of Dubai’s high-life and placing pressure on politicians. Conversely, Arab rulers would regard such pressure as interference in long-standing cultural norms and domestic affairs.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

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2 Comments

  • A rich princess mistreated by a cruel father sounds like a fairy tale, but as Tom points out, Latifa’s real-life imprisonment raises disturbing issues about patriarchal societies and the degree to which our disapproval can, and should, be expressed, especially when racial and religious differences are involved. Dubai has become the modern Monte Carlo, and for a lot of Muslims its place on the world tourist map, with its conspicuous wealth and architectural extravagance, is a welcome, non-violent demonstration that a Muslim, Arab country can beat the West at its own game.
    The idea that a man should be the head of the family is deeply embedded in societies around the world, and it is only the extent to which a father can be a dictator which varies. When we don’t like what we see, we have to remember that we too are judged. For some, men who can’t control their female relatives are weak and contemptable, and what we think is the moral high ground doesn’t look like that to them, or even to some women in countries where a controlling male relative has been a fact for all their lives.
    I don’t think there are any quick fixes, but I recall that in 1930s Britain, my grandfather refused to let my mother go to university, or get a job, because a woman’s place was to get married, be subservient to her husband and produce children for him. Change can take a generation or two.

  • Princess Shamsa was kidnapped in Cambridge in August 2000 and was then taken back forcibly to Dubai in the following days. There was a bit of an outcry at the time and a police investigation but no serious diplomatic consequences for Sheikh Maktoum and his regime. Labour were in Government at the time of course and Tony Blair’s government wasn’t noted for dealing with bad behaviour by its allies. In the ensuing years Sheikh Maktoum has continued to enjoy the friendship and approval of our Queen.
    With the new (-er) case involving Princess Latifa, both Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab have signalled their strong disapproval of the way she has been treated. Let’s hope they’ve also send a signal to the Queen to show the cold shoulder to Sheikh Maktoum. While she’s add it she could perhaps do the same with the King of Bahrain who has enjoyed the Queen’s hospitality in recent years in spite of his appalling human rights record.
    The danger is that the fuss will die down but our Government should insist that both daughters are allowed to join their step mother in London, offer them asylum and let them decide for themselves whether they would prefer to stay here or go back to Dubai. This could reasonably be a condition of Sheikh Maktoum visiting the country again himself.

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