The United Nations has said it will raise the detention of Princess Latifa, the daughter of Dubai’s ruler, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Princess Latifa has accused her father of holding her hostage in Dubai since she tried to flee the city in 2018.
In secretly recorded videos shared with the BBC, Princess Latifa said she feared for her life.
The footage prompted global calls for a UN investigation, while the UK said the videos were “deeply troubling”.
“We are concerned about it,” UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Wednesday.
He said the videos showed “a young woman in deep distress”, adding that the UK would watch any developments from the UN “very closely”.
But when asked whether sanctions could be imposed, Mr Raab said: “It’s not clear to me that there would be the evidence to support that.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson also said the government was “concerned” but would “wait and see how [the UN] get on” with their investigation.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said it would soon question the UAE about Princess Latifa.
“We will certainly raise these new developments with the UAE,” spokesman Rupert Colville said. “Other parts of the UN human rights system with relevant mandates may also become involved once they have analysed the new material”.
Meanwhile, a spokesman said the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention could launch an investigation once Princess Latifa’s videos have been analysed.
“We are hoping [a UN investigation] will be decisive in finally getting Princess Latifa released,” Rodney Dixon, a lawyer who presented the case to the UN, told the BBC.
“The UN needs to have a very serious meeting directly with those who are holding [her] and make sure an agreement is reached so she can be released,” he said.
Mr Dixon added: “The UN as the international body responsible for implementing international law can ensure that is exactly what happens.”
Princess Latifa’s father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is one of the richest heads of state in the world, the ruler of Dubai and vice-president of the UAE.
The UAE has close relations with a number of Western countries, including the US and UK, which consider it a strategic ally.
Sheikh Mohammed has built a hugely successful city but rights activists say there is no tolerance of dissent and the judicial system can discriminate against women.
With the help of friends, Princess Latifa tried to flee Dubai to start a new life in February 2018.
“I’m not allowed to drive, I’m not allowed to travel or leave Dubai at all,” she said in a video recorded just before her escape.
But days later, the princess was captured by commandos on a boat in the Indian Ocean. She was flown back to Dubai, where she has remained ever since.
Her father said he was acting in her best interests. Dubai and the UAE have previously said Princess Latifa was safe in the care of family.
What are women’s rights in the UAE?
Women in the UAE are allowed to drive, vote, work, and own and inherit property, making the country the second-best in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) for gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).
But, to put this in context, the Mena region had the lowest score of all the regions. The UAE was ranked 120th in the world out of 153.
There are still aspects of a woman’s personal life in the country that are controlled by a male “guardian” – often a spouse or other male relative. Although the UAE isn’t as strict as neighbouring Saudi Arabia, women still need their guardian’s permission in order to get married. Divorce is also much harder for women; men don’t need permission but women have to apply for a court order. And while the UAE does have an anti-discrimination law, sex and gender aren’t included in its protected categories.
Some laws have changed in the last few years, at least on the surface. An explicit permission for domestic violence was removed from the penal code in 2016. The requirement in the personal status law for women to “obey” their husbands was revoked in 2019, and the law was amended to make its language more gender-neutral. And last March a new law allowing women access to protection orders – such as restraining orders – came into effect.
However, the new law defines domestic violence as abuse or threats that “exceed [an individual’s] guardianship, jurisdiction, authority or responsibility”, meaning it’s ultimately down to judges to decide whether men have gone beyond their “authority” or not. In practice, protections for abuse victims are still weak.
Sheikh Mohammed has a vast horse-racing enterprise and frequently attends major events such as Royal Ascot, where he has been pictured with Queen Elizabeth II.
But he has faced severe criticism over the treatment of Princess Latifa and her stepmother, Princess Haya Bint Al Hussain, who fled to London in 2019 with her two children.
“There are no charges. It’s pure punishment,” Matthew Hedges, the British academic jailed for spying in the UAE in 2018, told the BBC when asked about the Princess Latifa case.
“There’s no one looking out for her. It brings [my experiences] back quite dramatically,” he added.
Princess Latifa’s videos were obtained by BBC Panorama, which has independently verified the details of where she was held.
The videos were recorded over several months on a phone she was secretly given about a year after her capture and return to Dubai. She recorded them in a bathroom as it had the only door she could lock.
In the messages, she detailed how:
- she fought back against the soldiers taking her off the boat, “kicking and fighting” and biting one Emirati commando’s arm until he screamed
- after being tranquillised she lost consciousness as she was being carried on to a private jet, and didn’t wake up until it landed in Dubai
- she was being held alone without access to medical or legal help in a villa with windows and doors barred shut, and guarded by police
Princess Latifa’s account of her capture and detention was revealed by her close friend Tiina Jauhiainen, maternal cousin Marcus Essabri and campaigner David Haigh, who are all behind the Free Latifa campaign.
They said they released the messages out of concern for Princess Latifa’s safety.