Princess Latifa Deserves a Better Advocate Than an Impotent United Nations

In an ideal world, Princess Sheikha Latifa of the Emirate of Dubai would be building a brand-new life in a brand-new nation as a legally recognized refugee. Instead, she remains trapped in Dubai, a glitzy urban landscape that papers over its misogynistic cultural underpinnings with all the bells and whistles of a contemporary metropolis.

In 2018, Latifa tried to escape from Dubai but was thwarted by her wicked father Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. Last week, the BBC aired excerpts of video messages made by Latifa, who alleges that she is being held captive inside a villa guarded by police. She had been sending the messages to a small circle of associates that included her close friend Tiina Jauhiainen—but then the messages stopped, and Latifa’s friends have asked the United Nations to intervene.

In a glorious display of its abject impotency, the UN has for its part taken the bold step of asking Dubai to let us all know that Latifa isn’t dead. It has also said that it will continue to “monitor and assess the situation closely.”

So stunning. So brave.

No, I’m not being too hard on the UN. Not in the least. Bear in mind that this isn’t the first time that a female member of Sheikh Mohammed’s family has tried to flee Dubai. In 2000, Latifa’s older sister, Princess Shamsa, tried to escape from her father during a holiday in the United Kingdom. Mohammed responded by having Shamsa violently kidnapped on British soil and sent back to the UAE. She has not been seen in public in over twenty years. Incredibly, her disappearance has been treated as a footnote to the story of Latifa’s ordeal.

In April of 2019, Sheikh Mohammed’s second official wife, Princess Haya, fled to the UK with her two children. Last year, after a series of hearings held in response to Haya’s request that her children be appointed wards of court, the High Court of London determined that Mohammed had indeed arranged for the kidnappings of daughters Shamsa and Latifa. It also determined that Mohammed had repeatedly threatened Princess Haya after he divorced her.

During those hearings, Haya testified that it isn’t only Mohammed she’s worried about. “It's the people around him, people that I know,” she said. “I know how they operate. I have seen what has happened to their sisters and I can't face the fact that the same might happen to them."

You could be forgiven for thinking that the body of evidence highlighting Sheikh Mohammed’s atrocious treatment of the women in his life would be enough to spur the United Nations to stand up for the basic human rights not just of Shamsa, Latifa, and Haya, but of all women in the UAE. But what you must understand is that the UN, like all other governmental bodies across the globe, prioritizes convenience over principles. And standing up to a wealthy, well-connected man like Mohammed is simply too much of an inconvenience for the UN to bother with, especially when it knows that Latifa’s story will not hold the public’s attention long enough to inspire any serious backlash to its inevitable inaction.

The UN will do nothing substantial to address Princess Latifa’s disappearance. Some of its member states might issue boilerplate claims of support for and solidarity with Latifa and other victims of Mohammed’s misogynistic behavior, and a few high-ranking UN officials might even condemn Mohammed personally. But nothing will change. Princess Latifa will not be released from captivity. Princess Shamsa will likely never be seen again, assuming she’s even still alive. And the women of the UAE who long for liberation and independence will continue to have to fend for themselves without any meaningful support from the UN.

To be fair, I understand that the UN is limited in what it can do to address situations like Princess Latifa’s kidnapping and subsequent imprisonment. I understand that it can’t boss men like Mohammed around or make demands of heads of state that it doesn’t have the resources to enforce. And I understand that it must respect the sovereignty of independent nations and err on the side of tolerance when dealing with societies that don’t hold the same values that it does.

Its defenders will also doubtlessly point to all the noble endeavors that the UN has seen through to completion as evidence of its effectiveness, and I must concede that they have a point. The UN has done more than its fair share of good deeds over the many decades of its existence, and I’m happy to give it the credit it deserves.

That being said, the organization’s stated commitment to the human rights of all peoples feels more and more like an empty promise with each missed opportunity to reinforce the ethical boundaries to which it should expect its members to adhere, and I don’t think it’s unfair to wonder how much longer we should have to tolerate its insistence on rolling over and showing its belly to corrupt, oppressive leaders like Sheikh Mohammed. I know it isn’t meant to operate as a global police force, and I appreciate its dedication to pursuing diplomatic solutions to complex problems. But at some point, it has to draw a discernible line in the sand and refuse to back down when someone like Mohammed comes along and leaps right over that line. That it is unwilling to do just that indicates that it really isn’t all that concerned with advancing the principles it claims to support, and that human rights activists should start looking elsewhere for the allies it needs to help them achieve justice for victims like Princess Latifa.

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