The successive kidnappings of Sheikha Shamsa and Sheikha Latifa by their family could have easily become a sore point of international diplomacy for the UK and UAE. However, as we explore what happened, it becomes clear that the UK has used a strange mix of attitudes (including cultural deflection) to try to downplay the international severity of these crimes.
For context, both Latifa and Shamsa are daughters of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. In 2000, Shamsa fled the Longcross estate near Cobham, Surrey, which belonged to her father. She then travelled to London to speak to an immigration lawyer and then moved onwards to Cambridge. After visiting a bar in Cambridge, she was ordered into a car by four men and then taken to her father’s estate in Newmarket, where she was drugged and flown back to Dubai, where she has been held in captivity since (although we do not have evidence to suggest she is still alive). We know this because of a smuggled out email from Shamsa.
Shamsa’s sister, Sheikha Latifa, was then abducted years later in 2018. Her story was far more widely available on social media. Latifa created a video before her escape which she instructed associates to release should her escape fail. It did. She first tried to escape the UAE in 2002 but was sent back at the border with Oman. She claimed she was then imprisoned and tortured. In 2018, Latifa and a friend, Tina Jauhiainen, hatched a further escape plan – but they were caught in Indian waters and sent back to the UAE. The international community is now also calling for evidence that Latifa is still alive.
The Sheikh has always been insistent that Latifa and Shamsa were vulnerable and unbalanced, and that he was just exercising his paternal rights.
This is of course about far more than simple deflection – but it plays a key part in why the UK has been sluggish to respond in the cases of both kidnapped princesses. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum has an extensive UK property empire, the full extent of which is not known, because many of the properties connected to him are owned by companies with offshore holdings in Jersey and Guernsey. He has long-standing interests and investments in the British horse-racing circuit and through this mingles with a lot of British high society.
That the wellbeing of his daughters is secondary to the Sheikh’s high society status is saddening but perhaps not surprising. Seeing the Sheikh as someone who ‘brings wealth’ to the UK has unfortunately allowed UK authorities to turn a blind eye to what he has done. For example, the investigation into the far less high-profile abduction of Shamsa, which took place in the UK, was shelved abruptly in 2001. Leading political figures claimed to have no knowledge of the case, and the foreign office refused to comment on the then alleged kidnapping, referring all inquiries to the Cambridgeshire police. The police chief investigating Shamsa’s abduction at the time was prevented from travelling to Dubai to interview potential witnesses – and while the Foreign Office admits it has further information about this case, it is refusing to release it on the grounds that this would harm UK and UAE relations.
A lawyer for the Sheikh at the time agreed that Shamsa was in Dubai, saying that she lived there ‘happily with her family’. It seems that in order to avoid a diplomatic incident, what happened to Shamsa was downplayed and passed off as a ‘family matter’.
And although Latifa’s kidnapping happened overseas, the UK has been hesitant to speak out, deferring to UN statements and adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach.
While these attitudes stem largely from the UK’s insistence on tiptoeing quietly around the ludicrously wealthy Sheikh’s affairs, they are also a sign of an apathy towards both the women concerned, and a willingness to take the Sheikh at his word despite the evident distress of his daughters, who have clearly been hidden from the public eye since their abductions.
The UK has silently but surely bought in to the paternalistic rhetoric coming from the Sheikh, at the expense of not just his daughters but women all over the UAE. By accepting that repressive policies towards women can simply be part of the fabric of a nation’s ‘culture’, all the while continuing to forge close ties with that nation, the UK government is silently signalling that women can be collateral in international relations. Much as women are things to-be-saved in certain international episodes, they are things to-be-ignored in others.