The Runaway Princesses: Painstaking investigation puts spotlight on treatment of women by ruler of Dubai

Podcast review: This New Yorker series is deeply sourced, dogged and horrifying

In 2018, Tiina Jauhiainen was on a boat with her friend, who suggested they sleep on deck for a night. But Jauhiainen was cold and thought the deck would be uncomfortable, and persuaded her friend there would be other opportunities to sleep under the stars. It’s something she has come to deeply regret. Because within days her friend, Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, daughter of the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, was abducted from that same boat, and she never saw her again.

Latifa’s story is at the heart of The Runaway Princesses, a new miniseries from the New Yorker showcasing years of painstaking reporting by journalist Heidi Blake on the treatment of women by the sheikh and the extraordinary lengths to which members of his own family have gone in an effort to escape his control. Runaway Princesses, produced by the In the Dark team in their new home at the New Yorker, is an exhaustively sourced investigation into why these women keep trying to run away.

The first was Latifa’s older sister, Shamsa, whose bolt for freedom occurred while the family was summering in England. Shamsa even hired a lawyer she found through the Yellow Pages, and tried to claim asylum in the UK. But after weeks of making contact with a security guard she thought she could trust, she was ambushed by armed men who took her back to Dubai. She subsequently smuggled a note out to her English lawyer asking for help, claiming she was drugged and bundled out of the country, and being held against her will. Her lawyer contacted the authorities but ultimately the investigation ran up against the British Foreign Office, and the case went no further. Shamsa was left to her fate.

Enter Latifa, Shamsa’s younger sister, who made her first escape attempt aged 16, and was almost immediately caught and punished with brutal beatings and solitary imprisonment. On her second attempt 16 years later, she planned things meticulously: crossing the border hidden in the trunk of a car driven by Jauhiainen, jet skiing to a yacht and sailing towards India. We know what happened next: Latifa was taken from the boat by armed men, forcibly returned to Dubai, and disappeared from public view.

Over the years since, Latifa has found ways to get information out to those hoping to secure her freedom, but the royal PR machine has been working against her, with even former president of Ireland Mary Robinson having been duped into a publicity stunt. Robinson later said she was “horribly tricked” after she was photographed lunching with Latifa at the invitation of her one-time friend Princess Haya, Latifa’s aunt. (Princess Haya has also since run away, escaping to England, where she now lives with her sons.)

The podcast plays as a kind of two-hander, with In the Dark’s Madeleine Baran interviewing Blake to unspool this horrific story. These back and forths feel a little forced and at times are tonally clanging, but there’s something affecting about having two professional women narrate a story of two sisters denied the basic freedoms the narrators themselves enjoy.

Blake’s reporting is deeply sourced and dogged, and she lets us hear from a number of those connected with Latifa’s case, most powerfully Latifa herself. In one recording, made at Jauhiainen’s apartment the night before her second attempt, Latifa tells us: “My father and his men are very bad ... There’s no justice here. They don’t care, especially if you’re female.” The Runaway Princesses tells an extraordinary and devastating story that is still unfolding. They don’t care, but we should.

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