Princess Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, who tried to flee Dubai in 2018, wasn't seen or heard from after commandos seized her from a boat off the Goan coast, putting an end to her plans to escape. However, a recent photo purportedly show the princess at an airport in Spain, partaking in a "European holiday".
The image and Latifa's 'return' to public life
The image was posted on the account of Sioned Taylor, a British woman living in Dubai. The picture showed Latifa along with her, arms around her shoulder. Taylor confirmed in the comments that the picture was taken at Spain's Barajas airport. Curious commentators asked Taylor how Latifa was doing. "She's doing great," wrote Taylor, with a thumbs up emoji. Some users went one step further to highlight the seemingly staged pictures of Latifa making rounds on social media, showing her enjoying a greater degree of freedom. Their concerns were left unaddressed on Taylor's post. While media organisations haven't been able to verify the photo, a friend of the princess' told the BBC that it was her in the picture.
This isn't the first time that Latifa's apparent 'return' to public life has been documented on Instagram. Last month, Taylor's account posted an image showing her seated at a restaurant in a mall. While doubts continue to be raised about the authenticity of such photos, the London-based Free Latifa campaign said the recent photo was a positive sign. "We are pleased to see Latifa seemingly having a passport, travelling and enjoying an increasing degree of freedom, these are very positive steps forward," said David Haigh, co-founder of the campaign.
'Jail villa' and Free Latifa campaign
The 35-year-old princess, the daughter of Dubai's ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, had appeared in videos released by the BBC Panorama in 2018, wherein she said she was being held in a "jail villa" against her will. The footage was released after her dramatic escape was cut short by commandos who allegedly drugged her, after which she was forced to return home. Latifa has accused her father of years of mistreatment and abuse, an accusation he has denied.
Her close friend Tiina Jauhiainen, cousin Marcus Essabri and Haigh had then told the BBC that they had chosen to release the video to put pressure on her ruler father to free her as her secret messages had stopped reaching them. In the footage, Latifa painted a grim picture of life in the villa: "All the windows are barred shut, I can't open any window." She said the bathroom was the only place which ensured some privacy, also where the video was being shot.
The despair shown by detained Princess Latifa in the videos is disturbing. It's as if her father, the Dubai ruler, is trying to subject her to such mental cruelty that she finally gives up and accepts life controlled by him. Why does the UAE tolerate this? https://t.co/FF9I3iPQ4y pic.twitter.com/0os6m7llbL
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) February 16, 2021
The UAE's response to backlash
After her failed escape and subsequent videos garnered attention, several international human rights organisations, Latifa's friends, and the general public called for her release. What also impacted Dubai's reputation was that the 2018 incident wasn't the first attempted escape, Latifa had tried to flee in 2002 as well. Despite this, Latifa's father, who is among the richest heads of state in the world, called the 2018 event a "rescue mission". After she described her ordeal in the troubling videos, experts at the United Nations demanded that the UAE furnish "proof of life" and eventually let the princess go.
Another voice that joined this growing chorus was of Mary Robinson's, the former UN rights envoy. After meeting Latifa in 2018, she described her as a "troubled young woman", but soon changed her stance and said she was "tricked" by the royal family on her visit. Soon after, Robinson became part of the international call for action on finding out the whereabouts of Latifa.
Though Dubai authorities had initially responded to questions about Latifa's well-being, saying she was "safe and in the care of family", more recent and troubling allegations of holding Latifa against her will have not been responded to. The UN refused to comment on the recent picture and said it awaits more "convincing proof of life in the case of Latifa" which the UAE has said it will provide.