How many abducted and imprisoned princesses would it take for British tourists to turn their backs on Dubai? Three? Four? Ten? Because two “disappeared” princesses doesn’t look like being enough, even now that a secretly filmed account by one of them, saying she had been captured, assaulted, drugged and repatriated, has appeared on the BBC – corroborating the fact-finding judgment of a UK judge, published a year ago.
Sir Andrew McFarlane accepted, following claims by lawyers for Princess Haya, a fugitive ex-wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum of Dubai, vice-president of the UAE, that his daughters Latifa and Shamsa had both been forcibly returned to Dubai after escaping in 2018 and 2000 respectively. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it emerged, was withholding information that might shed light on Shamsa’s rendition from the UK.
Even in the judge’s sober account, the alleged treatment of these young women has echoes of the brothers Grimm when it does not recall scenes from Gaslight or a Wilkie Collins plot – that is, in depicting nightmarish events hard to reconcile with the sort of country that invites Theresa May to address its Global Women’s Forum.
A few weeks before McFarlane’s findings clarified reports that had been circulating for years, May was content, for a fee of £115,000, to promote Dubai – whose female citizens need their husbands’ permission to work – as if it took a sympathetic view of women’s rights. In fact, the spectacle of May offering her blessing to the sheikh’s world of pain makes you wonder if we haven’t been a bit hard on Nick Clegg, Faustian-pactwise. To ignore the abduction of Princess Shamsa, from whom nothing has been heard for two decades, surely puts you in a slightly inner circle of hell. Nor is it any excuse that Mary Robinson, revered for her human rights work, also appeared to collaborate with the family when she visited Princess Latifa on request in 2018, and accepted, after a social viewing, that the difficult daughter was “bipolar”. In an episode reminiscent of some respectable Victorian novelists, neither clinical input nor personal inquiry seems to have informed Robinson’s public endorsement of the official pathology. “I didn’t really actually want to talk to her and increase the trauma over a nice lunch.” Perhaps the UN will be more careful as it awaits proof that Latifa is still living. Her 2019 letter, asking for a re-investigation of Shamsa’s kidnapping, has just been passed to police.
In May’s case it was careless, at best, when she visited Dubai, to have overlooked Latifa’s 2018 video which she recorded in case her escape failed. “Either I’m dead or I’m in a very, very, very bad situation,” Latifa says. “If you are female, your life is so disposable.” At the Women’s Forum May told delegates – that is, women like herself, who were free to travel – that it was time for “a new generation of young women to take up leadership positions”. Meanwhile, she was evidently happy to help the repressive UAE present itself, as Human Rights Watch has argued, “as an open and rights-respecting country”.
Indeed, if the actual disregard for human rights in UAE has never seriously threatened its appeal to British tourists, it probably owes much to the obliging personalities who have bought property, holidayed, performed or otherwise forged celebrity alliances between these nations, undaunted by Dubai’s arbitrary detentions, prisoner mistreatment and indentured migrant labour. Where Myanmar and North Korea have been starved of Beckhams, subjected to boycotts and endless poor publicity, the creators of Dubai appear to have anticipated, correctly, that with skilful promotion any conflict between the right to free speech and the one that protects your access to Jack Whitehall tickets during Dubai’s Shopping Festival might bother many tourists less than the wellbeing of its camels. Before some local difficulty around last year’s event, the prominent attendees at Hay’s inaugural literary festival in the UAE were similarly amenable to the idea that, notwithstanding significant local cruelties, their contribution – “engagement”, as the organisers called it – could be justified at a festival supported, presumably with unintentional comedic effect, by the UEA’s “Ministry of Tolerance”.
The minister of tolerance, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, has since denied the allegation by a Hay employee that he subjected her to a sexual assault. Hay’s organisers have said they will absolutely not return while Sheikh Nahyan is still minister for tolerance. And while the campaigner Ahmed Mansoor is still imprisoned for peaceful human rights activism? Well, he was already in solitary confinement before Hay’s authors agreed to engage, or to put it another way, help perpetuate Dubai’s reputation as somewhere about as ethically problematic as Southend.
But credit where it’s due: even with friends including the Beckhams, the Hay organisers, Theresa May, Jack Whitehall and post-Panorama, celebrity Dubai-lover Charlie Mullins, Dubai might have struggled, without the Queen, to attract Britons to a beach-front shopping mall where you can go to prison for being gay, sweary or raped. After the recent Panorama programme, even Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab agreed that the videos were a cause for concern, albeit not enough concern to warrant sanctions. And what of the Queen, who is said to consider Sheikh Mohammed to be one of her favourite royal horse-fanciers? From the palace, recently voluble on its regrets over Harry and Meghan’s relocation, there has so far been nothing on an old pal’s habit of mislaying his daughters, not even an offer to check if Shamsa and Latifa are alive.
Over to the public, then. “I would like to see tourists boycott Dubai,” Latifa’s best friend, Tiina Jauhiainen, has said, given the absence of evidence that the princess is safe and well. Three years ago, Jauhiainen was herself mistreated in a Dubai jail after the women’s failed escape attempt. “No one with a conscience can overlook the reality now,” she says, “the injustice, the human rights abuses and the exploitation.” Or does she over-estimate the British tourist?