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Not even Dubai’s princesses are safe from repression

Hiba Zayadin is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

In a far cry from the usual dry legal ruling, the family division of Britain’s High Court upheld allegations about the abusive conduct of people acting for Dubai’s ruler. In doing so, it cast a spotlight on the United Arab Emirates’ sheer disregard for the rule of law — both within and outside its borders.

The court — deliberating on decisions relating to two of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum’s younger children with his former wife, Princess Haya of Jordan — validated the long-running allegations that the sheikh, who is also prime minister of the UAE, was responsible for the abduction of two of his older daughters outside of the country and their life in captivity in the UAE ever since.

The court upheld allegations that the sheikh orchestrated the abduction of his daughter, Sheikha Shamsa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, 20 years ago, when she was 19. The fact-finding judgment concluded that his men snatched Shamsa off the streets of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, flew her by helicopter to France, and on to Dubai by private jet, where she remains in captivity.

Shamsa’s ordeal was brought to light again last year when her younger sister, Sheikha Latifa, twice unsuccessfully attempted to flee her father’s grip. After Latifa’s last escape attempt — which ended with her being captured off the coast of Goa by Indian forces working in coordination with the UAE — a prerecorded 40-minute video was uploaded onto YouTube in which Latifa stated, “If you are watching this … either I’m dead, or I’m in a very, very, very bad situation.” In the video, Latifa recounted her previous escape attempt, her sister Shamsa’s continued confinement and her desire to flee her father’s grip.

The court also detailed an “utterly terrifying” campaign of intimidation and harassment by the sheikh against Princess Haya, including by threatening to seize her children from her while she was living in Britain. “You and the children will never be safe in England,” the sheikh is reported to have told her in May, according to her testimony.

The judgment makes clear that UAE leadership is all too ready to use state resources to threaten, mistreat, oppress and imprison those who step out of line, operating under an entrenched culture of impunity. These abuses contradict the UAE’s longstanding strategy of attempting to portray itself as a tolerant and progressive country on the global stage.

Over the past 15 years, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented serious and systemic human rights abuses by the UAE authorities. The UAE has forcibly disappeared, arbitrarily detained and even tortured Emiratis and residents for acts as simple as peacefully criticizing the rulers and their policies online. It has given its notorious state security apparatus carte blanche to relentlessly surveil, intimidate, threaten and harass entire families of activists both imprisoned and in exile. Ahmed Mansoor, an award-winning human rights defender, languishes in prison while serving a 10-year sentence since May 2018 after an unfair trial.

And outside its own borders, the UAE has racked up a track record of serious abuses in places such as Yemen, where its forces and local armed proxies have reportedly sexually abused and tortured prisoners and run informal detention facilities holding civilians they have forcibly disappeared — all without any accountability. In recent years, it has also invested considerably in advancing its already extensive cyber urveillance capabilities, which it has used to target leading human rights activists, foreign journalists and even world leaders.

The British court’s decision to uphold allegations of the abduction, forcible return and indefinite detention of Shamsa and Latifa is groundbreaking. But the sheikh and others are unlikely to face legal consequences in the UAE for these acts.

These abuses will not end unless there is real reform and accountability. The international community should push for the freedom of Shamsa and Latifa and call on the UAE to investigate the abductions and other allegations of torture during detention. Other countries must also take seriously reports of state-sanctioned kidnappings and abductions on foreign soil.

Without consequences, the UAE’s leaders will continue to unashamedly commit grave abuses. And if even princesses cannot escape the long and cruel arm of the UAE’s repression, what hope do ordinary Emiratis and residents have?

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