Leaked documents published by the French newspaper Le Soir revealed that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) funded an aggressive strategy to cover up the scandal of the imprisoned activist, Mariam Al-Balushi, and the captive princess, Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid, under the oppression of Emirati authoritarianism.
The secret correspondence of the Emirati agent, Sheikh Maktoum, highlighted the embarrassment faced by Abu Dhabi due to the media’s handling of the case of the detained girls. Princess Latifa Al Maktoum, the daughter of the ruler of Dubai, and student Mariam Al-Balushi, who received support from the United Nations.
This is the story of two women, both Emirati citizens, from contrasting backgrounds. The first is Latifa Al Maktoum, one of the daughters of Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the UAE. The second is Mariam Al-Balushi, a student from Sharjah, the neighbouring emirate of Dubai.
Both women have experienced the dominance of Emirati authoritarianism and have endured arbitrary detention.
Latifa Al Maktoum’s story shook the world when she attempted to escape her country but was intercepted on a yacht and held captive in a villa by her father.
Mariam Al-Balushi has been imprisoned for eight years on questionable “terrorism” charges and for daring to speak out against her detention conditions.
The captive princess and the simple prisoner share a common point: they have been targeted by Emirati intelligence agencies in an attempt to minimize the “negative” coverage of their stories in the press and social media. This situation has embarrassed Abu Dhabi and the image it seeks to portray.
These revelations are part of the latest instalment of the “Abu Dhabi Secrets” investigation, based on leaked classified documents obtained by the media outlet MediaPart and analyzed in collaboration with the EIC media network.
Sheikh Maktoum, a secret Emirati agent at the centre of our investigation, coordinated several operations in Europe and targeted UN experts. After examining the encrypted emails in his inbox, we discovered that Sheikh Maktoum sought consultation regarding the two prisoners from Paul Tweed, one of Britain’s most famous and influential lawyers.
Tweed’s relations with Emirati intelligence have been secret until now. Still, he officially represents figures closely connected to the UAE, such as activist Ghanem Nuseibeh and former Palestinian leader Mohammed Dahlan.
Paul Tweed, the Northern Irish lawyer specializing in defamation suits and “reputation management,” is one of the world’s most renowned and formidable lawyers. He has filed lawsuits against media outlets on behalf of an impressive list of celebrities, including Jennifer Lopez, Harrison Ford, Nicolas Cage, Justin Timberlake, and Britney Spears.
Paul Tweed declined to comment on his relationship with Sheikh Maktoum, neither confirming nor denying that he was the Emirati agent’s client.
The leaked emails show that Tweed proposed an aggressive strategy regarding Princess Latifa and fought against Facebook and Twitter to obtain a ruling to remove five posts related to the prisoner Mariam Al-Balushi. He took advantage of the fact that media outlets had published articles about the prisoner accompanied by a picture of another woman with the same name.
This operation involving a wholly unknown and simple student outside the Arab world illustrates the UAE’s desire to make the international community forget about political prisoners (41 activists who remain detained even after serving their sentences, according to Amnesty International) and the ongoing discrimination against women, even within the ruling family in Dubai, where four princesses have attempted to escape and sometimes succeeded.
Among these princesses is Sheikha Latifa, one of the many children of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, whose compelling story was detailed in a recent investigation by the American magazine “The New Yorker.” According to her testimony, she was handed over to one of her aunts at birth because her mother couldn’t have children.
Sheikha Latifa witnessed her sister’s escape attempt during their childhood and also spoke about the violence perpetrated by her father, who once hit one of her sisters because she had interrupted him. These statements were later refuted by the prince’s lawyers when they appeared in The New Yorker.
Sheikha Latifa first attempted to escape at sixteen in 2001 and was imprisoned for 13 months. She made another attempt in 2018 at 32, with the help of her friend and Capoeira teacher, Finnish national Tiina Jauhiainen.
At that time, they managed to reach a yacht and sail away, but the Indian army stormed the yacht off the coast of India, drugged Princess Latifa, and returned her to Dubai.
Under international pressure, the UAE authorities were forced to provide evidence of her well-being. In January/December 2018, a lunch was organized, and the photos were published by the UAE authorities, featuring the princess with Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Robinson described Sheikha Latifa as a “vulnerable” woman and suggested that she may have been acting under the influence of “medication.”
However, on February 16, 2021, BBC revealed that Princess Latifa had actually been held captive in a villa in Dubai for three years.
At that time, Latifa Al Maktoum obtained a phone and communicated with Tiina Jauhiainen, to whom she sent shocking videos. She said, “I am a hostage. This villa has been turned into a prison. I am completely isolated. I don’t know when I will be free… I am concerned about my safety and my life daily.”
This was a global scandal, and Mary Robinson had to explain what happened in 2018, stating that she had been “horribly tricked” by a doctor and Latifa’s aunt, who lied to her, claiming that the princess had bipolar disorder and that it was not appropriate to discuss complex topics with her to avoid “aggravating her shock.”
Meanwhile, British lawyer Paul Tweed entered the scene, frustrated with the media coverage that was catastrophic for the UAE’s image. In a letter to his secret client, Maktoum, dated March 1, 2021, after “their conversation last week,” Tweed presented an action plan regarding the “increasingly hostile media coverage of the scandal surrounding Princess Latifa.”
Tweed pointed out that Mary Robinson’s statements had been widely republished in Irish media, and they needed to address this issue and take advantage of Sheikh Mohammed’s influence in the country. He wrote in his letter, “The powerful network of Sheikh Mohammed will allow him to benefit from the suitable Irish legislation regarding defamation and privacy protection.”
After three weeks, Tweed informed his secret Emirati client that if a doctor had already diagnosed the princess with bipolar disorder, they could file a defamation lawsuit against Mary Robinson and the newspaper that published her statements. He described it as an “extremely effective” way to deter other media outlets. He concluded his message with, “It is only a suggestion…”
Tweed also suggested that his secret client, Maktoum, investigate Tiina Jauhiainen, the friend who assisted Latifa in her escape and who “aggressively seeks media attention,” ensuring that she is not biased as she claims. The same applies to one of the lawyers defending the princess.
It is unknown whether this plan was executed, as no complaint against Mary Robinson was filed, and she did not respond to EIC’s attempts to contact her.
Paul Tweed’s proposal elicited a strong reaction due to its impact on his work, as he explained to his secret Emirati client Maktoum in a letter, “What has happened has been devastating, not only for Sheikh Mohammed but also for the work I have done in other areas related to the UAE, particularly the Balochi case.”
Searching for the common Arab surname in the UAE, “Al-Balushi,” or its variations in English, reveals important details that appear on the screen.
On February 18, 2021, two days after the BBC scandal regarding Princess Latifa, Paul Tweed, acting as the lawyer for an Emirati girl named Mariam Al-Balushi, requested the removal of three Facebook posts. Shortly thereafter, he made the same request to Twitter regarding two tweets.
All these posts were in Arabic and discussed the UN’s call to release Mariam Al-Balushi, who was arbitrarily detained in Abu Dhabi after serving her sentence.
Later, Tweed sent more messages to the social media giants, expressing his anger. He wrote, “My client is a victim of a fabricated political claim, and she is said to be imprisoned in the UAE. This is not true at all.”
He added that his client was ready to provide evidence that she “was never imprisoned, neither now nor in the past,” but the UAE authorities officially confirmed that the young woman was detained.