Thursday's best TV: Escape from Dubai – The Mystery of the Missing Princess

Freedom bid: Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, above left, with best friend Tiina Jauhiainen. Latifa was seized on an India-bound yacht and apparently taken back to the UAE ( BBC/Detained in Dubai )

I’ve always thought I’d rather holiday in a decent open prison than in Dubai. Or a broom cupboard, if it came to that.

This startling documentary has only confirmed me in that resolution. Anybody seduced by the ad campaigns promising beautiful beach life, luxury restaurants, must-visit hammams, state-of-the-art shopping malls and world-class water parks should watch.

In February this year, Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, one of the 30 children of the billionaire ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, tried to escape from the country on a yacht.

She set a course for India, from where she hoped to fly to America to start a new life.

Pictured: Tina Jauhiainen & Princess LAtifa (BBC/Detained in Dubai)

Instead, the US-flagged boat was boarded in international waters by armed men. She was seized and apparently returned to the UAE — and has not been heard from since.

A few days before setting off, Latifa, 32, had recorded a long statement about her life on video, for release in the event that she didn’t make it. Five days after her capture it was put up on YouTube.

Now producer and director Jane Mc-Mullen (whose credits include the exposé Weinstein, and North Korea’s Deadly Dictator, about the assassination of Kim Jong-nam) has interwoven this footage with a clear account of how and why the escape was attempted.

She uses interviews with French ex-naval officer Hervé Jaubert, who devised the escape plan and captained the yacht, and Latifa’s best friend, a sporty Finnish woman called Tiina Jauhiainen, who was accompanying her.

Latifa and Tiina had been sky-diving partners — the princess’s love for this sport even having been publicised as proof of the freedoms available to women in Dubai. The documentary is much enhanced by vivid footage of her falling free, high above the extraordinary layout of the city, including the Palm Jumeirah artificial archipelago: an incredible image of liberation that makes a graphic contrast to the grim story of constraint and confinement she delivers herself to the camera.

Pictured: Tina Jauhiainen (BBC)

Latifa first tried to escape when she was 16 but was arrested at the border, beaten and detained for three years, four months, she says. That was not so unusual, either. One of her sisters, Shamsa, who had tried to flee from her family while in Britain in 2000, was kidnapped from a Cambridge street and returned to Dubai to be imprisoned for eight years, remaining zombified with drugs and continually monitored, Latifa says. This abduction was never fully investigated by British police, a former Cambridge detective admits.

Latifa, whose testimony to camera is measured and persuasive, says life in the UAE is not at all as it has been portrayed in the media. “There’s no justice here, especially if you’re a female, your life is so disposable.” Sharia law allows men to chastise and beat their wives or children, explains Rothna Begum of Human Rights Watch.

Latifa had plotted her escape for seven years and was confident she would make it. “I expect it to be the start of a new chapter in my life, one where I have some voice, I don’t have to be silenced.” She recorded the video in the hope that her endeavour wouldn’t be entirely in vain if she didn’t. This documentary fully honours that hope.

On being captured, Latifa said she would rather be shot there and then on the boat than taken back to Dubai.

Still, winter sun, eh?

More about: | TV reviews | Dubai