On February 16th, 2021, the BBC’s Panorama programme broadcasted a series of previously unseen videos in which Princess Latifa Al Maktoum alleged she was being held hostage. The daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, claimed she had been imprisoned by her father in a Dubai villa since her failed escape from the emirate in February 2018. Speaking to her friend Tiina Jauhiainen in messages recorded on a secret mobile phone, Latifa whispered, “I’m a hostage. I am not free. I’m enslaved in this jail.” This is one of many videos, not all of which have been released, which carefully document her experience. However, since this contact suddenly ended several months ago, Tiina has become increasingly worried for her friend’s safety. Releasing a selection of videos is part of an attempt by Tiina and other friends to bring pressure on the Sheikh for information and, ultimately, Latifa’s release.
These most recent revelations in this harrowing saga have aroused concern among governments and human rights groups. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights has asked for proof of life, while Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Lynn Maalouf called the footage “chilling.” Dominic Raab, the UK Foreign Secretary, said the videos were “deeply troubling” and that he would also welcome proof of life. Despite this, Raab seemingly abdicated greater responsibility by claiming the UK has no direct locus in the case. Rodney Dixon QC, a lawyer helping present the video evidence to the UN, pointed out however that “the UK government could take steps using laws against violators of human rights as they’ve done with some Saudi officials.”
The particular scrutiny of the UK government’s position arises from its close personal and economic ties with Sheikh Mohammad and Dubai. A shared love of horses underlies the Sheikh’s friendship with the Queen, while the UAE is one of the UK’s biggest arms customers according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade. It is this more bellicose link, founded on a common desire to militarily restrain Iran, that raises concerns about the UK’s muted response.
Dominic Raab claimed that “there is a very strict legal threshold” for sanctions, with Magnitsky sanctions requiring evidence of torture, forced labour, or extrajudicial killing. Yet as Ken Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, told Panorama, solitary confinement of the sort experienced by Princess Latifa “is broadly considered to be a form of torture as it becomes prolonged.” Moreover, Tiina is now being advised on financial sanctions by the driving force behind the Magnitsky act, Bill Browder. He believes such sanctions would make Sheikh Mohammad “an international financial pariah.”
Princess Latifa’s imprisonment draws attention to the UAE’s use of coercive power not only against political dissidents but against anyone challenging its patriarchal laws. The 2005 Personal Status Law, for example, lists “a husband’s rights over his wife” including the wife’s “courteous obedience to him.” Latifa alleges that even before imprisonment, she was denied the freedom to work, travel, or have relationships. Now, despite being trapped in a ‘golden cage,’ she is bereft of the most basic liberties.
The plight of Princess Latifa, of which these newly released videos are just the latest evidence, has forced the UK to confront the tensions in its relationship with the UAE. In choosing to obviate the possibility of sanctions, despite their potential legal justification, the UK has indicated both a limited commitment to human rights and an intention to continue enabling belligerence in the Middle East through the lucrative arms trade. This decision therefore provides little hope for peace within the family or the region.
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