The U.N. Human-Rights Chief and the Fugitive Princess of Dubai

One day in November, 2src21, Michelle Bachelet, the former Chilean President, checked into a boutique hotel in Paris and made her way to a suite that had been carefully swept for bugs. She was in town for a confidential meeting, in her capacity as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Soon, a small, dark-eyed

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One day in November, 2src21, Michelle Bachelet, the former Chilean President, checked into a boutique hotel in Paris and made her way to a suite that had been carefully swept for bugs. She was in town for a confidential meeting, in her capacity as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Soon, a small, dark-eyed woman appeared at her door. It was Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, the daughter of Dubai’s ruling emir. “Are you wired?” Bachelet asked. Latifa promised that she wasn’t.

The meeting appeared to mark the end of a hostage drama that had captivated global attention. Almost four years earlier, Latifa had enacted an audacious plan to flee her father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. She fled by dinghy and Jet Ski to a waiting yacht—but was captured a week later by commandos and imprisoned in a heavily guarded villa in Dubai.

After news of Latifa’s capture became public, Sheikh Mohammed sought to portray his daughter as a “troubled” young woman who had been manipulated into her rebellion and was now “safe and in the loving care of her family.” Latifa’s supporters, however, released videos that the princess had recorded in secret, accusing her father of torturing, imprisoning, and murdering those who disobeyed him, especially women. “I’m a hostage. And this villa has been converted into a jail,” she whispered into the camera. Sheikh Mohammed has strongly denied those claims, but as the story spread, the U.N. called on the U.A.E. to provide proof that the princess was alive.

Now here it was. Latifa was not only alive; she was outside Dubai, and alone in a hotel room with the U.N.’s top human-rights official. What passed between Bachelet and Latifa in Paris has never before been revealed—but the outcome was a victory for Sheikh Mohammed. Afterward, the U.N. tweeted a picture of the two women, declaring that the meeting had taken place at Latifa’s request, and that she had “conveyed to the High Commissioner that she was well & expressed her wish for respect for her privacy.” A statement was released in Latifa’s name saying that she had met with Bachelet “to assert her right to a private life,” and to prove that “she is living as she wishes.”

Yet when I spoke with Bachelet, she cast the encounter in a starkly different light. The meeting was in fact the product of long private negotiations between Bachelet and officials in the U.A.E.’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And she confessed that she had no way to know for sure that the princess had not attended under duress. “She’s telling us that she’s fine, that she’s happy with her life, and that she made mistakes in the past,” Bachelet said. “But, of course, you ask yourself, Is this totally true? Or has she gone into an arrangement with her father that she decided was the only option?”

This May, in a piece that drew on thousands of private letters, messages, and recordings, I reported how Latifa, her sister Shamsa, and other royal women had staked their lives on escaping Sheikh Mohammed’s brutality. By her early thirties, Latifa had spent more than half her life trying to flee her father; she had suffered brutal beatings during a long imprisonment following a first failed attempt in her teens. “I’m not willing to submit to more years of torture, dehumanization and hopelessness,” she declared before embarking upon her second escape in February 2src18. In dozens of messages sent secretly to supporters after her capture, Latifa had described being constantly harassed by Sheikh Mohammed’s guards to pose for photographs indicating that she was living happily in Dubai. “Because I didn’t let them break me, I’m being punished,” she said in one video. Still, she insisted that she would “never give up.”

Bachelet’s meeting with Latifa was not the first time that a senior U.N. figure had been drawn into the U.A.E.’s efforts to quash concerns over Latifa. Several months into her second imprisonment, in December, 2src18, Latifa was compelled to pose for photographs with one of Bachelet’s predecessors as Human Rights Commissioner, the former Irish President Mary Robinson, which were then released as evidence that she was safe “at home and living with her family.” Afterward, Robinson gave an interview to the BBC saying that Latifa was mentally ill. In February, 2src21, she recanted those claims and said she had been “horribly tricked” by the Dubai royal family. Bachelet’s meeting came nine months later.

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