The UAE’s Runaway Princesses Targeted by Pegasus

Diana Moukalled
Lebanese Writer and Journalist
Published on 21.07.2021
Reading time: 11 minutes

Leaked Pegasus data show how the phones of Latifa, Haya and people close to them were targeted following their daring escapes from Dubai. While Haya resides in Britain where she fights for custody over her children, very little known is about Latifa after she was forcibly brought back to Dubai

This article is part of The Pegasus Project, a collaborative investigation coordinated by the Paris-based media institution Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International’s technical laboratory. The project examines leaked data linked to the Israeli digital intelligence group NSO, which sells advanced surveillance systems to governments around the world. 80 journalists representing 17 media organizations from around the world, including Daraj, worked together to produce this series of investigative reports.

On March 4, 2018, just before midnight, on the ocean some 30 miles off the Indian coast, an Emirati commando squad and Indian coastguard team managed to board Nostromo. A few days prior to that, the yacht had set sail from the Sultanate of Oman with on board Sheikha Latifa, the 36-year-old daughter of Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of the Emirate of Dubai.

Latifa believed she had made it and would finally be able to live her life free and without restrictions, as had always been her dream. Instead, her captors handcuffed her and took her back to Dubai by force. Very little has been heard about her since.

Latifa explained the reasons for her escape in a video she recorded just days before her failed escape. She spoke in detail about her ill-treatment and imprisonment within the walls of her father’s house.

Western media have reported on kidnapping at high seas. Witnesses on board of the ship were interviewed for PBS’ s 60 Minutes and by British newspaper The Guardian.

Now, the Pegasus Project, which has revealed that politicians, journalists and activists from some 50 countries were targeted by the spyware created by Israeli company NSO, offers some stunning new insights regarding Sheikha Latifa’s capture.

It appears she and many of her close friends were tracked before and after her arrest. The same is true for Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, Sheikh Mohamed’s second wide, who in 2019 fled from Dubai to Britain. Tracing and hacking phones arguably also played a role much earlier in the case of Sheikha Shamsa, Latifa’s older sister, who fled to Britain in 2000, but was kidnapped and forcibly returned to Dubai that same year.

Where is Latifa?

Those who follow the news regarding Sheikha Latifa through Dubai’s official sources and media, will meet a young woman very different from the Latifa who tried to escape and recorded such a damning video.

In “official Dubai” features another Sheikha Latifa, one that is nice, appears at cultural events and gives interviews, in which she praises her exceptional father Sheikh Mohamed, and never says a word about the other Latifa, the one who caught the eye of the world trying to escape.

We may come to understand this strange overlap when we recall Latifa’s video, in which she explained her story and claimed she is one of three sisters named Latifa. She is the middle one.

Sheikha Latifa is in fact one of Sheikh Mohamed’s 30 children from several wives. This Latifa hardly ever features in the Emirati public sphere. Even the rare statements regarding her escape and arrest, to answer questions of the international media, were issued by lawyers and officials who claim to speak in her name and that of her family.

Sheikha Latifa is in fact one of Sheikh Mohamed’s 30 children from several wives. This Latifa hardly ever features in the Emirati public sphere. Even the rare statements regarding her escape and arrest, to answer questions of the international media, were issued by lawyers and officials who claim to speak in her name and that of her family.

When former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson visited her at the end of 2018.

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In videos of an unknown date, which were leaked to the BBC this year, in which she claims she is being held hostage in a villa surrounded by police.

In a series of Instagram photos of her friend Sioned Tayler with whom she appears in a restaurant in Dubai.

In a picture from June 2021, set in Spain, used by the Emirati embassy in Britain to claim Sheikha Latifa is traveling freely and not a prisoner.

Hacked Phones; Cracked Image

The Pegasus leaks, however, suggest a very different story. It seems that surveillance software was used to track Latifa and those around her to forcibly return her to Dubai.

According to Amnesty International’s technical laboratory data of some 67 phones, the numbers of which were listed in the leaks and which were examined for forensic evidence of the Pegasus surveillance program, 37 showed tracking traces: 23 iPhones were hacked and 14 phones were targeted and could have been hacked.

These facts severely weaken the NSO claim that its software is not used for tracking and monitoring, but solely to help governments fight crime and terrorism.

Supporters of Sheikha Latifa have always believed that she and her friends who facilitated her escape, and who were with her on the yacht, made a mistake by using their phones to send messages during the escape. They seem right, as the Pegasus leaks clearly show that the list of targets surrounding Sheikha Latifa was greatly expanded at the time of her escape.

These details will never be presented in the [censored] Emirati media. Something Latifa was well aware of and that, prior to her escape, she recorded her famous video in English in order to reach international media and public opinion.

Sheikha Shamsa

Sheikha Latifa’s story severely dented the carefully constructed public image of her father, Sheikh Mohamed, being a moderate modern man at the helm of an Emirate that is a center of growth, development and openness.

“My father is the ruler of Dubai and the public image he portrays is nonsense,” Latifa said in her video. “He is an evil person. My mother was always worried that I would do something to destroy my father’s image.”

In her video, which is still gathering followers on YouTube, she furthermore recounted how she had been imprisoned for three years after her first failed escape attempt, and how she never got any sympathy, even from those closest to her:

“When I got out of prison, I did not feel any sympathy from my mother or my sister Metha,” she said. “They told me I did it to myself. But, no, I didn’t.”

Princess Shamsa

Latifa always loved her older sister Shamsa, who preceded her in trying to escape from Dubai during a 2000 visit to the UK. She remained free for a while, before her father had her kidnapped and forcibly returned to Dubai. Nothing has been heard of her since.

The Pegasus leaks now reveal a phone number believed to be linked to Shamsa, which was targeted by the Israeli spyware sometime in 2019.

Latifa’s close friend Tina Jahianen, who helped her escape and who was arrested with her on board of the Nostromo, was also targeted. Many believe it may have been her phone that enabled Emirati intelligence to get to Latifa.

According to her, she and Latifa had left their phones in a coffee shop in Dubai before leaving for Oman. However, it seems it did not take much trouble for the other [new] phones in their possession to become a target.

Interestingly, a few weeks before the Pegasus leaks, USA Today quoted anonymous sources claiming the FBI had helped locate Latifa using satellite data.

The leaked Pegasus data show that among the phones targeted in Latifa’s direct surroundings there were several American numbers, including that of French businessman and former spy Herve Jaubert, who helped organize Latifa’s escape. He too was arrested but soon after released.

In the few comments he made on the incident, Sheikh Mohamed has always maintained that the commando unit boarded the Nostromo to rescue Latifa from a kidnapping attempt, and he has always denied his daughter was ever a prisoner. According to him, she was “safe and in the care of her loving family.”

Princess Haya

Mohamed’s wife Princess Haya was more successful than her stepdaughter Latifa, She orchestrated an uneasy escape from Dubai, which is one of the most monitored cities on earth with some 35,000 surveillance cameras on street corners. She has remained out of the limelight ever since her flight to Britain.

Princess Haya is a daughter of Jordan’s late King Hussein and a half-sister of the country’s current King Abdullah II. There is a lot of sympathy for her and her escape in her home country, even though her story officially does not exist. King Abdullah even distanced himself from her, and she has not visited Jordan since her escape.

In 2004, Haya became the second wife of Sheikh Mohamed, who is about 25 years older than her. What prompted the young princess to marry a man so much older and from such a different environment?

Just Money?

A veteran Jordanian journalist who is well familiar with Jordan’s royal family told Daraj that Haya in the time was in need of both emotional and economic stability. She had been orphaned as a child in 1977, when her mother Queen Alia died in helicopter crash.

She moved in with her maternal grandmother, while her relationship with her father was hampered by protocol. After the death of her father and the accession of her half-brother Abdullah to the throne, she increasingly felt marginalized.

In addition, there was a sense of austerity as oil-poor Jordan was going through a severe financial crisis. Marrying a rich and powerful man as Sheikh Mohamed seemed a gateway to a new life.

Remarkably, immediately after Haya had fled to Britain, King Abdullah II flew to Abu Dhabi to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. the de-facto ruler of the UAE. Shortly after, he wrote on Twitter: “I pray to God for a lasting friendship and love between our brotherly countries and peoples, as has been the case for our families for years.”

As usual, very little information can be obtained from within the Emirates or Jordan. According to the Pegasus leaks, however, in the year following Latifa’s kidnapping, Haya’s name started appearing on the list of targeted numbers prone to hacking. It appears that Haya’s fears for Latifa’s imprisonment and the future of her own two children were the main reasons for her daring escape.

The data clearly show how Princess Haya, her sister, her assistants, and many others close to her were listed before and after her 2019 escape. Meanwhile, Haya has testified in a British court, where she is fighting for custody over her children. She claims she faced threats of exile to a desert prison and twice discovered a pistol in her bed.

People close to Princess Haya have said that she initially accepted the family’s explanation that Sheikha Latifa was psychologically unstable and needed rescuing. But after she saw Latifa’s video and learnt about the details her attempt to escape, she began to doubt the official narrative.

She went on to visit Sheikha Latifa and saw how pale and miserable she was, while locked in a bedroom. Until then, the royal and well-educated Haya had played a key role in enhancing Sheikh Mohamed’s international standing.

Her involvement in Latifa’s case, including her invitation to former UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson to come and meet her, put Haya in a difficult position, especially after her husband told her specifically to stay out. However, according to information leaked from the court sessions to British media, the real breaking point was her husband arranging to marry her 13-year-old daughter Jalila, to Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. Haya reportedly found a warning note attached to a gun in her bed, saying: “your daughter is ours.”

Finally, one year after Latifa’s failed attempt, Haya herself fled. The Pegasus data indicate that attempts to track Haya were extended to her sister, Aisha Bint Al Hussein, as well as several British phones belonging to her security staff, lawyers and assistants.

Haya’s testimony gained credibility last year when Judge Andrew MacFarlane ruled, with the exception of her statements regarding the Saudi crown prince, all of her allegations were substantiated, including Sheikh Mohammed orchestrating the kidnapping of his own daughters Shamsa and Latifa, and being behind a intimidation campaign against Haya.

Golden Cage Restrictions

Although Emirati women, especially in Dubai, are increasingly present in the field of business and government, the UAE still maintains a guardianship law, which means that husbands and fathers strictly control the fate of their wives and daughters.

For example, a woman can only work with the permission of her husband, she must have a legal excuse to refuse to have sex and any unmarried woman, Emirati or foreign, who appears in a hospital while pregnant can be arrested. In addition, there are several legal loopholes that offer men who murder their female relatives a reduced sentence.

All this makes it understandable how trapped Latifa must have felt, even as the daughter of a ruler with such enormous power and wealth as Sheikh Mohamed. As for Haya, she knew that local laws stipulate that a woman who divorces her Emirati husband and seeks to remarry must give full custody of her children to her husband.

Haya and Latifa were just two among the many women in the Pegasus leaks who fell victim to tracking, monitoring and hacking. When the targeted victim is a woman, the brunt is more severe, especially when her personal freedom and private life are violated, as they are not protected by local law and culture.

Media organizations involved in the Pegasus Leaks:

Forbidden Stories – Le Monde- Suddeutsche Zeitung -Die Zeit – Washington Post – The Guardian -Daraj – Direkt36 – Le Soir – Knack-Radio France – The Wire – Proceso – Aristeui Noticias – OCCRP- Haaretz – PBS Frontline

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Diana Moukalled
Lebanese Writer and Journalist
Published on 21.07.2021
Reading time: 11 minutes

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