The Secret Lives of Arab Princesses
Most women in the Arab world are disadvantaged—and the most privileged women often have it worst of all.
When Sheikha Latifa, princess of Dubai, fled her home country in February 2018 and eventually boarded a yacht owned by a wealthy French socialite, her father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, quickly assembled a team to track her down. Within a matter of days, she had been forcibly returned home.
The entire saga would have remained secret if not for a 39-minute video the now 33-year-old princess recorded before she fled and which was leaked after she was apprehended. “If you are watching this video, it’s not such a good thing,” she cautions viewers in a plea to save her life. “Either I’m dead or in a very, very, very bad situation.”
Princess Latifa’s dire predictions seem to have come true, now that her family has confined her to a medicated house arrest. But her final act of freedom deserves attention. Together with the details of her thwarted escape attempt, the video offers a rare glimpse into the secret lives of the Arab world’s princesses and its other privileged women and focuses light on the yawning gap between their storybook image and their dire reality.
Most women in the Arab world are disadvantaged socially. Traditional families generally place severe restrictions on women; depending on which tribe they are from, women may face restrictions on whom they can marry, how much freedom they have outside the house, if they can use social media, if they can travel and where, if they can work, what they can study, when they marry, and who can see their faces. Under Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system, a male relative—a husband, father, or son in some cases—has full authority to make critical decisions for a woman from her birth until death.
This treatment extends to public institutions outside the family home. Until recently, for example, the government-sponsored United Arab Emirates University prohibited female students from carrying a cellphone with a camera. Its campus for women is enclosed by a wall lined with barbed wire, and its gates are guarded. The university is still segregated, and female students can leave the campus with someone else only if their guardians agree, who are then notified through a message once they leave.
“They use different wording, but [the guardianship system] is there. It’s just not as extreme as Saudi Arabia,” said Hiba Zayadin, a Human Rights Watch investigator. In the UAE in particular, she said, there is no law against domestic violence against woman. Marital rape is not a crime, and women who work without their husbands’ consent are “disobedient.”
To get around these restrictions, many Arab women practice deception; they use fake names online, wear face veils to cover their identities in public, hide burner cell phones from their families, and develop elaborate plans to sneak out of their homes. The punishment for those caught depends on which rule is broken. If a woman is found to be involved with a man, it would prompt the gravest punishment, including lashing, imprisonment, or honor killing. In Saudi Arabia, a detention facility called Dar Al Reaya—infamous for torture, solitary confinement, and prolonged sentencing—houses cases of “immoral behavior.” At the age of 9, the Saudi women’s rights activist Amani al-Ahmadi was warned at her local school in Yanbu that girls who misbehaved would end up in the facility.
The Arab world’s women of privilege—whether they are members of royalty or part of politically connected families—in many ways have it worst of all. “For them, it is unbearable,” said Hala al-Dosari, a prominent Saudi activist and scholar. “They have the means to live differently and a high-level exposure to women from other cultures.” Privileged women aren’t deprived of media that depicts the lives of women in the West, and often have direct contact with them. In an expat majority society, many of those working in the palace are foreign. Outside the palace, interactions with foreigners are frequent at private schools and while traveling to their family estates abroad.
But these are just reminders of a life that they aren’t permitted to have. For many of these women, wealth is hardly a consolation for the inability to make the choices they desire.
Compounding the problem is rampant hypocrisy. Many privileged Arab families prefer to present themselves to the outside world as liberal and worldly. Princess Latifa, for example, is the daughter of one of the most open Arab rulers of the Persian Gulf, often seen with his wife Princess Haya bint al-Hussein and daughters without head veils. Sheikh Mohammed has even spoken out against domestic violence and pushed for greater protection for minors in the country.
But his treatment of his daughters belies that international image. That’s because Sheikh Mohammed’s rule at home also depends on his being seen by his subjects as adhering to traditional values—and this burden is placed primarily on the question of women’s rights, in the family and the country. Any women who threaten the family’s patriarchal image or its patriarchal public order are locked up, whether at home or by the state. It’s not unusual for women to face house arrest of the sort now imposed on Princess Latifa.
It should be little surprise, then, that escape attempts by Arab princesses are nothing new. This wasn’t even Princess Latifa’s first escape attempt. In 2002, when she was 16, she tried to cross into Oman, but she was later imprisoned, tortured, and denied medical help. And as Princess Latifa explained in the video, she originally felt motivated to escape after her older sister Princess Shamsa had failed in an escape attempt of her own, after which she was placed in a palace prison for years.
The problem extends beyond Dubai. Yahya Assiri, the director of the London-based rights group ALQST, which has worked on behalf of Arab women seeking to escape oppression, said he was contacted in 2013 by four daughters of the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who were interested in escaping the country. The four were under house arrest, two at one location and two in another, he was told. After Abdullah’s half-brother, Salman, took the throne, Assiri lost all contact with two of the girls and their mother, who was trying to help them flee. “My last message to the mother was to ask if she was able to resolve the matter or if she was threatened. We just wanted to know if our work helped her in any way,” Assiri said. “We did not get a response.”
Despite the girls’ disappearance, Assiri continues to get calls from other princesses in the Saudi royal family asking for his help to leave the country. The greatest challenge is that the women’s male guardians typically have already seized their passports. “There’s not much you can do if they do not have their passports,” he said.
Although Princess Latifa’s escape failed, it has not deterred other women in the region from taking flight, leaving behind their wealth and royal privileges for a chance of reaching freedom in the West. Last month, Rahaf Mohammed, the daughter of the governor of Sulaimi in northern Saudi Arabia, was granted asylum in Canada after facing deportation back home from Thailand. She tweeted furiously from detention for almost a week, capturing the world’s attention, before Canada intervened. Mohammed was lucky, Zayadin said. For every successful escape story, there are many others that fail and stay unknown.
Much like Princess Latifa, Mohammed had fled because she faced restrictions over her movement, education, and health care and was prevented from reporting domestic abuse. Mohammed was told she could not cut her hair as longer hair was desired by men looking for a wife, but she cut her hair anyway; in response, her family kept her under house arrest until her hair grew back. “I had money, but I didn’t have freedom,” she told me from Canada. “I didn’t want money. All I wanted was freedom and peace of mind.” Her family in Saudi Arabia has now disowned her to release themselves from the shame she has brought to the family.
The cases of Princess Latifa and Mohammed may attract bad publicity abroad, but they help Gulf authorities win support domestically. Mohammed’s story was immediately politicized in Saudi Arabia. It received wide media coverage inside the kingdom and helped feed into a narrative that foreign governments use Saudi women to serve their own agendas. Media also highlighted that Mohammed wanted to abandon her religion altogether, a great sin to Muslims that is generally punishable by death. Conservatives in Saudi Arabia appreciate the government’s firm stance on guardianship laws for the sake of safeguarding women. Many applaud initiatives such as Absher, the so-called “women-tracking app” that sends notifications to guardians if women try to travel outside the country.
What’s clear is that Mohammed’s story, like Princess Latifa’s, has shaken families in the region, and some have taken precautions to avoid losing their daughters. From Canada, Mohammed has been contacted by friends and other women in the region who have told her that their families have taken their passports and told them they can never travel again. The women say they are scared. To Mohammed, they should be. “To help these women, you need to get them out from the region completely,” she said. “The system doesn’t support them. Sending help will not work.”