- Published: 3 August 2021
- ISBN: 9781761042034
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 320
- RRP: $34.99
The Sins of the Sheikh
Abduction, Intimidation and Intrigue Inside the Royal House of Dubai
I’m a hostage.
‘All the windows are barred shut. I can’t open any window. There’s five policemen outside and two police women inside the house. And I can’t even go outside to get any fresh air . . . no release date, and I don’t know what my conditions would be like after I’m released. So basically, I’m a hostage.
‘Solitary confinement, no access to medical help. No trial. No charge. Nothing. They want me to break and they want propaganda from me. They wanted me to do a video and say that I’m here happily and voluntarily. And I refused. You know, they wanted me to do a lot of things and I refused. And because I wouldn’t cooperate with them, because I didn’t let them break me, I’m being punished.
‘I don’t know when I’ll be released and what the conditions will be like when I’m released. Every day, I’m worried about my safety in my life. I don’t really know if I’m going to survive this situation. The police threaten me that they would take me outside and shoot me if I didn’t cooperate with them. They also threatened me that I would be in prison my whole life and I’ll never see the sun again.
‘I just want my passport and to be free, I don’t want to be a hostage in this jail and I don’t want to be a hostage in this country. I just want to be free. The situation is getting more desperate every day. I am just really, really tired of this now.’
Excerpt from a video diary by Sheikha Latifa, daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates.
Her crime? Wanting to be free.
A princess being tormented and terrorised is scandalous. Two princesses being abducted and locked up by their father is horrific. Three princesses being abused and intimidated, all by the same man? Welcome to Sheikh Mohammed’s emirate of Dubai. The glitzy and progressive image this city portrays to the world defies reality. And make no mistake, the dark dealings of Dubai’s royal family aren’t some sort of anomaly in an otherwise liberal and modern oasis – they actually reflect the day-to-day suffering of many others in the United Arab Emirates. Yes, there are plenty of skyscrapers, sportscars, and social media savvy millionaires. But scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll discover Dubai not only has an appalling human rights track record, it’s also a city where the standing of women as second-class citizens is still written into law. Modern-day Dubai is sometimes referred to as the City of Gold – but perhaps it’s time people remembered that old saying, all that glitters isn’t gold.
So, what do you know about Dubai? Chances are you’ve seen the advertisements, where the city’s tourism department describes the holiday haven as ‘a sun-soaked metropolis . . . one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world’. Perhaps you know more about it because ‘Emirates’ is emblazoned on the playing kit of your favourite football team, Arsenal or Real Madrid. Or maybe that finance whiz from your year at school moved to Dubai to cash in on the booming economy there? One way or another, you probably are aware it’s the most prosperous city in the Middle East, home to the tallest building in the world, and so advanced that they recently joined the space race and launched a mission to Mars. That rocket set off from the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, named after the current ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The all-powerful Emir isn’t one for modesty – proudly erecting billboards of his own face all across his home town. For him, image is everything.
But in recent years, the gloss has faded from the Sheikh’s kingdom. Dubai’s own version of The Princess Diaries has captured international attention – but this isn’t some Hollywood fiction flick, instead the local version is a series of all too real videos, spelling out the horror of the ruling royal family. Not one, not two, but three different princesses have fled overseas, trying to escape what they describe as a tyrannical patriarch, with no respect for human rights. What started as a drip feed of whispers from within the palace has now become a major international scandal, with the United Nations investigating Sheikh Mohammed, as well as the United Kingdom’s High Court handing down a landmark finding, declaring he had led a campaign of intimidation and abuse against women. That court case was brought by the Sheikh’s ex-wife Princess Haya, causing a tabloid frenzy throughout 2019. But what’s really galvanised international human rights organisations is the plight of one of the Sheikh’s daughters, Princess Latifa. The videos I referred to above were recorded by this brave freedom fighter, who’s tried to escape her father’s iron rule twice, only to be captured both times and subsequently locked up back in Dubai. Her sister, Princess Shamsa, has suffered a similar fate after she also tried to flee Dubai – abducted and imprisoned as well. Someone recently made a valid point to me: there have been several disturbing cases in the United States over the last decade of parents locking their children underneath their homes, keeping them captive in the most degrading circumstances. Coverage of those suburban houses of horror cause international headlines, with people universally disgusted anyone could be that inhumane, particularly to their own family. Yet here we are in 2021, with the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates locking up his own daughters against their will. Yet barely any other world leader has the guts to come out and criticise the Sheikh’s behaviour.
So why do the world’s powerbrokers effectively turn a blind eye to this despicable breach of human rights? Well, it’s important to understand the role modern-day Dubai plays in Western politics, and how it came to be such an influential force in foreign diplomacy. Whatever you think of the regime in charge, the meteoric rise of the UAE is extraordinary by any measure. If you go back just over fifty years, the country wouldn’t even exist – independence from the United Kingdom didn’t come until 1971. Even at that stage, the United Arab Emirates was a barren desert outpost – boasting a meagre population of 180,000 people, largely in rural and tribal settings. But just like how the Clampetts in the iconic TV series The Beverly Hillbillies hit ‘black gold, Texas tea’ on their regional property which helped them upgrade from a shack to a mansion, the discovery of oil in Dubai turned this backwater into a boom town. Credit must go to the Maktoums for helping transform this city into the modern hub it’s become today, using the riches plundered from oil drilling to help build an international destination. In fact, Dubai’s become such a drawcard for foreigners that the ensuing population boom has seen citizens here now outnumbered by about nine-to-one by migrants.
But the problem with Dubai is that while its economy and skyline have modernised, its morals haven’t. Of course there are many good honest people that call Dubai home, and work hard every day for a better livelihood for their families. But there are also plenty of hypocrites, headed up by Sheikh Mohammed. On the one hand he’s out there boasting about having a minister for tolerance, yet his government doesn’t tolerate any dissenting voices, locking up people for years for ‘crimes’ as simple as posting on Facebook about politics. The Sheikh is also happy to be photographed launching international women’s festivals promoting equality, when in reality, he oppresses his own wives and daughters. The Emir shamelessly uses a megaphone to tell the world about how wonderful his city is, but then tries to silence any media that shines a light back on the dark reality. His propaganda would have you believe Dubai is at the cutting edge of twenty-first century technology, yet many of the city’s laws are stuck in the medieval era. Homosexuality is still illegal. Rape victims are often ostracised for going public. And perhaps most notably, women are subject to archaic ‘male guardianship laws’. Under those rules, of which Sheikh Mohammed is a clear believer in his own family, women must obtain permission from a dominant male in their lives to do even the most basic of tasks, like travel or get an education/job. These outdated mindsets are admittedly still commonplace in a number of other countries in the Middle East. Yet Dubai stands alone in trying to pretend that it is somehow a progressive beacon, promoting itself as an oasis of modernity and tolerance. The reality emerging from within the ruler’s own family is irrefutable proof that’s a lie. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and this has become an inferno for Sheikh Mohammed.
All those harrowing stories are just from one family. But leaders generally set a standard of behaviour, and it’s clear that the royal family’s values flow through to other aspects of society in Dubai as well. Almost all human rights indexes rank the UAE outside the top 100 countries. This is a country where arbitrary detention is regularly reported, torture allegations are disturbingly frequent, workers’ rights are almost non-existent, and women’s rights are obscenely outdated. ‘The economic aspirations for Dubai as a place that attracts people from around the world, is inconsistent with Sheikh Mohammed’s utterly repressive conduct at home,’ says Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. ‘I think people are reassessing Dubai. They’re beginning to understand that this is not the liberal paradise on a superficial level it tries to portray itself as. This is a place where dissidents are locked up and where women can literally be disappeared. So, I think people are saying, “Well, wait a minute. That’s not what I saw in the ads.”’
It’s important that the reality of Dubai is documented, because if Sheikh Mohammed had his way, none of this would be reported. Dubai has some of the strictest media laws in the world, routinely prosecuting journalists and citizens alike who don’t toe the party line. But even the term ‘party’ is misleading here, because in the UAE, there are no political parties: this is an authoritarian regime, where any opposition to the rulers is swiftly crushed, and a guaranteed ticket to one of Dubai’s notorious prisons, where reports of torture are commonplace. A United Nations report stated, ‘despite declaring 2019 the “Year of Tolerance,” United Arab Emirates rulers showed no tolerance for any manner of peaceful dissent’. While the UAE’s constitution enshrines free speech, the reality is that many harsh laws have been introduced since then that stipulate it’s a crime to criticise government policy, the economy, and any of the ruling families. Local and foreign media are regularly censored. Everyone is kept under a watchful eye – Dubai reportedly has more surveillance than anywhere else in the world, with 35 000 CCTV cameras on street corners . . . comparatively, Washington DC has about 4000. Dubai can switch from playground for the rich and famous to police state in a heartbeat.
I began investigating Dubai’s dark side in 2018, when Latifa’s impossibly scandalous video first leaked online. Few people believed it was real when it first emerged, but it’s now almost impossible to ignore the continuing deluge of horror stories pouring out of Zabeel Palace. I didn’t set out on a mission to make waves or upset a regime by digging deeper on this story – my continued coverage over the years has more been a case of pulling a thread, and the whole piece of clothing unravelling. It’s often been a journey of disbelief, as each lead uncovers a new hidden secret, each more outrageous than the last. Along the way there have been all sorts of overt and covert threats for me as a result of my coverage, whether that be legal letters, through to cancelling the visas of people I know who were scheduled to visit Dubai. Personally, I’d never dare set foot in the UAE again – the wheels would’ve barely touched the runway at Dubai Airport before I was in handcuffs. My crime? Daring to speak the truth. I’m hardly some freedom fighter, but that kind of intimidatory response from the UAE in a way says it all, doesn’t it? This is a place where anyone that dares to question the leaders knows they’ll be punished severely.
For many years, Sheikh Mohammed has used his total power (and his billions of dollars) to rule with an iron fist, disguised in a velvet glove. There’s no doubt he has some charm, which he uses to woo foreign leaders and celebrities, hoping to soften his image on the world stage. In spite of the human rights offending and brutality that authorities in the UAE try to hide in the background, Sheikh Mohammed has been able to position himself in countless photo opportunities with the likes of the Queen and Joe Biden, and cut property deals with the Trumps. It’s now up to those same world leaders to draw a line in the sand, and begin holding not just Sheikh Mohammed, but all of the UAE’s powerbrokers to account (the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates are all ruled by men, of course). The UAE relies on foreign dollars and deals, and as long as other countries continue to turn a blind eye to the dark side of dealing with Dubai, nothing will change. As the old saying goes, evil prospers when good men do nothing.
Evening shadows shroud his face in silhouette.
Adjectives such as ‘singular’ and ‘extraordinary’ tend to be overused by biographers to describe the lives of the people they’re writing about, not to mention the publicists who are paid to promote their books.
Picture a fairytale’s engraving. Straight black trees stretching in perfect symmetry to their vanishing point, the ground covered in thick white snow.
I’m on the highway a few miles out of town when the noise starts: a scraping, grinding din that jackhammers my heart into my stomach.
‘For young people who have never been through any of those things, or lived in a time when they were happening, this seems just frightful . . .
If you had visited the quaint English village of Great Rollright in 1945, you might have spotted a thin, dark-haired and unusually elegant woman emerging from a stone farmhouse called The Firs and climbing onto her bicycle.