The Trump administration last weekend sent Ivanka Trump, its senior and nominally most feminist presidential adviser, to Dubai to headline a two-day Global Women's Forum called "The Power of Influence." In her keynote address, Trump praised the Persian Gulf region's "significant reforms."
"We know that when women are free to succeed," the first daughter said, "families thrive, communities flourish and nations are stronger."
Despite the tone-deaf, or perhaps simply preening, conference title, Dubai is lately known, among people who are paying attention, as the home base of true dystopic fairy tales.
She won repeated applause as she praised the region for its alleged advances regarding women. Even as Saudi Arabia incarcerates women activists who pushed for female driving rights and Dubai has disappeared two of its princesses.
Despite the tone-deaf, or perhaps simply preening, conference title, Dubai is lately known, among people who are paying attention, as the home base of true dystopic fairy tales. Three princesses have fled a nation in which women are subject to male guardianship, among other codified medievalisms. Two were hunted down, allegedly kidnapped and dragged back to Dubai, and they are reported to be living in drugged captivity. A third princess, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's sixth wife, Haya of Jordan, escaped to London.
The fleeing princesses were certainly not on the agenda at the Dubai conference, which attracted other high-level women, including former British Prime Minister Teresa May and the senior World Bank official on gender balance. But the princesses were the Banquo's ghost of the event — closeted and cloistered nearby, trapped in the mores of another age, by men who have disguised their regression behind mirrored glass towers and high-tech beacons of modernity like the skyscraping Burj Khalifa.
Almost 20 years ago, one of the sheikh's 14 daughters, Shamsa, age 19, tried to escape her family. She was allegedly kidnapped on the streets of Cambridge, England, in broad daylight, then taken back to Dubai against her will — and she has not been seen since. Like a modern-day sleeping beauty, according to a sister, Shamsa exists in stasis, drugged and imprisoned somewhere on a royal compound.
Last year Latifa, another of the sheikh's adult daughters, tried to flee the country, as well. She recorded a video, already viewed more than four million times, talking about her, and her sister's, plight. Latifa's freedom lasted about a week. She was captured in the Indian Ocean 1,300 miles away — when armed officers from India's coast guard and the United Arab Emirates attacked a yacht she was on, which was in international waters sailing under a U.S. flag.
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"If you're watching this," Latifa predicts in the video, "either I'm dead or something very, very bad has happened." She also talks about women's lives in Dubai: "There is no justice here. Especially if you're female. Your life is so disposable."
Latifa is believed to be back in Dubai, presumably against her will.
Another continuing Maktoum "family dispute" threatens to disrupt cozy diplomatic relations between London and Dubai. Last June, Princess Haya, Latifa's stepmother, escaped to Great Britain, reportedly with the help of German diplomats. She has asked a British court to prevent one of her daughters from being forced to marry against her will in the Emirates.
Major media outlets have covered the princesses' stories. Yet authorities in Washington and London are not known to have formally objected to the incidents — although the U.N. working group on enforced and involuntary disappearances is reportedly investigating. Washington and London also appear to have ignored similar incidents involving numerous women of lesser social stature who fled Dubai and other Gulf monarchies. As the cases of Dubai's princesses show, even royal status does not protect women from laws designed to maintain gender-based control, laws that other women in the same region often try to flee — sometimes only to be forcibly repatriated.
Ivanka Trump's strut through Dubai could be regarded as just one more visible display of how casual misogyny and concentrated wealth (the UAE possesses a trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund) have spawned a phalanx of powerful enablers — political leaders, lawyers, engineers and architects, investors and public relations experts — who don't let the plight of local women, rich or poor, deter them from doing business.
Yet this is about more than the sovereign wealth funds, which enable the UAE and Saudi Arabia to wield influence in some of the world's leading bastions of liberalism and art — from the Sorbonne in France to Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States to the Guggenheim Museum, with its global outposts. The tiny UAE is also an ever more important player on the geopolitical chessboard. It is a piece in a shifting, complex game of money, weapons and politics. The United States doesn't get much of its oil from the region anymore — but some of its most important Middle Eastern military bases are in these countries.
The Western world's willful blindness to the plight of women like the princesses is just the most glaring example of how little advances like championship women's soccer, the #MeToo movement, a few female leaders in Europe, women in combat and flying bombers, women in business and girls outnumbering boys at many universities really mean for women's empowerment globally.
In her video, Latifa talked about how she imagined life in the West. "I don't know how I'll feel waking up in the morning and thinking, 'I can do whatever I want today. … I have all the choices in the world like anyone does.' That will be amazing."
The sad truth of the Dubai women's conference is that Western women are not really all that powerful when compared to men who control the common markers of real power: money and political decision-making. Women are, for example, still vastly underrepresented in terms of wealth ownership — American women own 32 cents for every dollar men own.
The first daughter's participation helps to camouflage this fact with public bromides about "girl power" and business stories about women entrepreneurs. And that is the ultimate message of Trump's appearance in Dubai.