They say truth is stranger than fiction, and the story of a missing Emirati princess seemed so unbelievable and far-fetched that journalists first ignored it, thinking it was a scam. But now, the real-life and ongoing disappearance of the daughter of Dubai’s ruler and the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates has been made into a BBC documentary.
Thirty-two-year-old Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum went missing and hasn't been heard from since March, when she was kidnapped by armed men during a bid to escape from Dubai by boat. She began her escape in February with help from French businessman and former navy officer Hervé Jaubert, who had successfully fled Dubai in the past, and a Finnish capoeira teacher, Tiina Jauhiainen, who met Latifa when she gave lessons in the Brazilian martial art at a royal residence.
Latifa spent seven years planning her escape from the Gulf state and planned to start a new life in the US, according to the upcoming Escape from Dubai: The Mystery of the Missing Princess, which outlines her failed break for freedom. Her life was far from the fairy tale that one might expect as the daughter of one of the world's richest, most powerful men.
In a video filmed before her escape bid, Latifa claimed to have been restricted, beaten and tortured when growing up, and reveals she had previously tried to escape at 16 but was captured at the border, jailed for three years and subjected to violence. She made the video in case she was caught and entrusted it to a US lawyer, who uploaded it to YouTube days later on 11th March. "If you're watching this video, it's not such a good thing. Either I'm dead or in a very, very, very bad situation."
Latifa also makes a string of claims about her father and her life in Dubai in the 40-minute clip. "There is no justice here, they don't care. Especially if you're a female, your life is so disposable." She says "all [her] father cares about is his reputation. He will kill people to protect his own reputation."
The documentary also explores the mystery of Latifa's older sister, Shamsa, who disappeared from the streets of Cambridge in 2000 after fleeing the family’s British mansion in Surrey. She was allegedly smuggled out of the UK, with the apparent abduction never fully being investigated by British police.
Jauhiainen and Jaubert were kidnapped alongside Latifa but managed to escape and share her story with the BBC. Jauhiainen said Latifa tried to contact the media but got little response, potentially because her account was so unbelievable they feared it was a scam. "She was sending emails to reporters and no one replied back to her. Nobody seemed to believe her, so she seemed desperate and sad like you know, who is there to help me now you know they can come after us any day," Jauhiainen recalled.
Hervé said Latifa had told him she would prefer to "be killed on the boat rather than going back to Dubai" and that he has no idea where she is to this day. "I have the gravest concern." Latifa hasn't been seen publicly since being captured, neither friends nor family have heard from her, and her Instagram account has been deactivated.
In a Change.org petition, the campaign group Detained in Dubai, which Latifa appointed to represent her before she vanished, is calling on the international community to intervene and for the UAE to respond to their questions. "A young woman is missing, presumed either kidnapped & being tortured, or dead," the petition reads. "We need your help to put pressure on the respective governments & the international community to demand urgent answers."
Sheikh Mohammed and the Dubai government have not commented on the BBC's documentary, which airs on Thursday in the UK. The most recent official comment on Latifa's whereabouts was back in April, when a source close to the Dubai government said she had been "brought back" to the emirate and was "with her family".
'Escape from Dubai: The Mystery of the Missing Princess' airs at 9pm on Thursday 6th December on BBC Two and will be available on BBC iPlayer.