Escape bids by rebel princesses throw spotlight on UAE rights


Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashed al-Maktum (C) and his wife Princess Haya (R) are locked in a legal battle in the UK over the welfare of their children. (Photo: AFP)

Princess Haya, who is battling her husband Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al-Maktoum in a UK court, is the third princess who has sought to escape the Gulf emirate in recent years.

Activists say the attempts by Haya and two of Sheikh Mohammed's daughters to escape the United Arab Emirates (UAE) throw a harsh spotlight on the country's rights record, even as it tries to present a glitzy and modern image to the West.

In 2000, Sheikha Shamsa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum tried to escape the family's entourage during a holiday in England, but was reportedly picked up two months later and forcibly returned to Dubai.

And in 2018, another daughter, Sheikha Latifa, fled Dubai before being allegedly captured at sea off India. Supporters released a harrowing video, purportedly by her, in which she describes her living conditions.

Princess Haya, 45, the half-sister of Jordan's King Abdullah and an equestrian competitor in the Olympics for her native Jordan, surfaced this year in Britain where she has applied for a forced marriage protection order.

A British judge said Wednesday that her case will be heard in the high court in November.

'Endemic failings' 

The cases have tarnished efforts by Sheikh Mohammed, who is also prime minister of the UAE and a familiar figure on the global horse racing circuit as founder of the Godolphin stables, to present Dubai as a contemporary model in the Middle East.

The city has expanded exponentially in recent years as its rulers turned it into a global investment and tourism hub no longer dependent on energy revenues.

In November 2018, Dubai hosted a world tolerance summit that was denounced by rights groups as brazen hypocrisy given its record on human rights.

A new edition of the event, scheduled for November, will take place under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed with the aim to "strengthen the UAE's stance to be a model for tolerance and positive coexistence".

Rights groups accuse the UAE of holding opponents without legal basis, including award-winning rights activist Ahmed Mansoor, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2018 on accusations of spreading false information.

Prominent academic Nasser Bin Ghaith was also handed a 10-year jail term in 2017 over a series of tweets criticising the UAE authorities.

Human Rights Watch said in July that the UAE was continuing to hold at least five Emirati prisoners, including an activist and members of a registered Islamist political movement, even after they completed their sentences.

Contacted by AFP, the UK-based group Detained in Dubai, which says it assists people or companies caught up in the UAE's legal system, said: "The cases of Princess Latifa and Princess Haya highlight many of the endemic failings, if not legalised abuses, that plague the UAE legal system."

The failings of the UAE's legal system were "particularly sharp in relation to the rights of women," it added.

Cares about reputation 

Emirati media used to extensively cover the movements of Haya, who in 2016 said of her husband that "every single day I thank God that I am lucky enough to be close to him."

But the last story about Haya from the official WAM news agency dates back to February.

Latifa's disappearance was a source of international intrigue, with supporters claiming she was captured on a yacht in March 2018 during an escape bid and forcibly returned to Dubai.

She was not seen in public until images emerged of her in Dubai meeting the former UN human rights chief and former Irish president Mary Robinson.

Robinson confirmed Latifa had planned her escape and recorded a video, and described her as "clearly troubled."

After her disappearance, supporters released a video which they said Latifa recorded before her escape bid, where she launched a scathing attack on her father, saying he only cared about his reputation.

"If you are watching this video it is not such a good thing. Either I am dead or in a really bad situation," says the woman in the video, who claimed to be Latifa.

Echoing British press reports from the time, the woman said "my sister Shamsa" had tried to escape in England in 2000 but was then abducted by "bunch of guys" after two months on the run and returned to Dubai via France.

Now "she has no freedom, she has a psychiatrist with her and she is surrounded by nurses."

The circumstances surrounding Shamsa's disappearance are even more mysterious, and she has not been seen in public for almost two decades.