Jordan’s Princess Haya has launched her court bid to claim what experts predict may be a record-breaking divorce settlement from her estranged billionaire husband, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed.
The ten-day High Court hearing, which began yesterday, “is the biggest divorce case in British legal history”, according to The Times.
Although details of the hearing are currently under wraps, the payout for the princess and her two children by the 72-year-old sheikh “could surpass the record £450m awarded in 2017 to Tatiana Akhmedova”, the former wife of Russian billionaire Farkhad Akhmedov, said the paper.
Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein, who is the half-sister of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, married Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in 2004. The Dubai ruler, also vice president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), reportedly has 23 children by different wives.
In early 2019, the princess fled Dubai with her two children. She was reported to be fearful for her life after beginning an affair with her British bodyguard.
She initially fled to Germany but now lives in an £85m townhouse in Kensington Palace Gardens, near the home of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The Jordanian embassy made Haya a senior diplomat in October 2019, granting her diplomatic immunity and protection, as well as the right to remain in the UK.
Haya, now 47, is the third female member of her husband’s court “to apparently try to run away”, the BBC reported after she fled to London.
In 2000, four years before Haya married the sheik, one of his daughters fled from her family while at their holiday home in Surrey. Sheikha Shamsa, then 19, was abducted and returned home two months later. She has not been seen in public since.
Her sister, Latifa, also tried to flee from the UEA in 2018, on a boat, but the vessel was intercepted by commandos off the coast of India. She was returned to Dubai and has not been see in public since either.
After Haya fled in 2019, Sheik Mohammad divorced her under sharia law before applying to London’s High Court for the return of his children to Dubai. The judge rejected the request.
‘Walls are closing in’
During court hearings earlier this month, the princess said she has been “beset by threats and pressures” since leaving Dubai more than two years ago, the FT reported.
According to the paper, her lawyers successfully managed to extend an existing non-molestation order (a type of injunction often sought by domestic abuse victims) that “banned the sheikh or his associates from a 100-metre exclusion zone” around her Berkshire bolthole, Castlewood mansion. The injunction also reportedly upheld “a 1,000ft no-fly zone above it to protect her and blocked any purchase of the 77-acre estate”.
“The prospect of Sheikh Mohammed, or those on his behalf buying the properties around Castlewood is terrifying and utterly wearing,” Haya was said to have testified. “It feels like the walls are closing in on me. I feel like I am defending myself against a whole ‘state’.”
A senior High Court judge ruled earlier this year that Sheikh Mohammed had used Pegasus spyware to hack the princess and five of her associates, including two of her lawyers.
In a “damning” judgment made in May but not published until early October, Haya’s phone was found to have been hacked 11 times in July and August last year with Sheikh Mohammed’s “express or implied authority”, The Guardian reported.
Judge Andrew McFarlane, chair of the Family Justice Council, said the hacking occurred during “a particularly busy and financially interesting time” in the ongoing divorce custody case between the Sheikh and his estranged wife.
Sheikh Mohammed was not present in court during the hearing and has denied the hacking allegations. “As a head of government involved in private family proceedings, it was not appropriate for me to provide evidence on such sensitive matters,” he said in a statement.
While the allegations may be “embarrassing” for the sheikh, said BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, his “sovereign immunity from any future potential prosecution” means “there is little or no prospect of his ever having to face any police questioning”.
Earlier this month, news broke that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE, ordered the use of spyware to tap the phones of his ex-wife, Princess Haya bint Hussein of Jordan, and her lawyers, according to the findings of London’s High Court. Now, legal proceedings relating to their divorce are officially underway, as the 47-year-old princess seeks a settlement following the breakdown of their marriage.
The legal action, which the Times dubs the ‘biggest divorce case in British legal history’, officially began on Wednesday 27 October. It will see Princess Haya (the daughter of former King Hussein of Jordan and his third wife, Queen Alia, and the half-sister of the current King Abdullah II), push for a share of the 72-year-old ruler of Dubai’s fortune.
Over the course of a 10-day hearing, High Court judge the Hon Mr Justice Moor will determine a pay-out for the princess and the former couple’s two young children, with whom Haya fled to London in 2019. The youngest of the Sheikh’s six wives, she reportedly left for the UK after her husband grew suspicious over her closeness with her British bodyguard.
The Times adds that although the hearing took place with journalists present, experts have hypothesized that the settlement could break the current record of a £450 million award, secured by the former wife of the billionaire Russian businessman Farkhad Akhmedov, Tatiana Akhmedova, in 2017. After a lengthy back and forth, however, Akhmedova ultimately accepted a ‘cash and art settlement’ worth around £150 million in July of this year, according to the Evening Standard.
Haya is being represented by leading divorce lawyer, Tory peer Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia, who has been called upon by a host of high profile clients – including Sir Paul McCartney, Prince Charles and Liam Gallagher. As well as the princess herself and another of her lawyers, Nicholas Manners, Baroness Shackleton is also believed to have had her phone tapped with spyware under the orders of Sheikh Mohammed, according to the ruling of Andrew McFarlane, the UK’s most senior family court judges, on 6 October. The Sheikh denied any knowledge of the hacking.
Sheikh Mohammed has previously attempted to have the case kept out of the media, but lost a legal battle after a number of publications argued that they should be able to report on it. In the wake of the phone hacking reports earlier this month, it was also rumoured that the Queen will no longer invite the Sheikh – an ardent racing enthusiast and founder of the prestigious Godolphin stables – to the Ascot Royal Box.
In late 2019, I wrote a lengthy investigation into the flight of several women from the court of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. The article was occasioned by the recent flight of his youngest wife, Princess Haya, the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan and half-sister of King Abdullah, who escaped first to Germany, then London with their two children, the now 9-year-old son, Zayed, and 13-year-old daughter, Al Jalila. And it was spurred, also, by two attempted escapes by the Sheikh’s daughter Latifa and, on one still earlier occasion, of her older sister, Shamsa. Why were female members of the Sheikh’s immediate family making runs for it?
In March 2020 a British family court judge a released a 34-page judgment in Haya’s child-custody petition that offered some clues to the royal family’s dysfunction and the women’s desperation: The findings revealed that Haya had conducted an affair with a male bodyguard in 2017 or 2018 that enraged her husband and prompted him to begin making threats against her. On two occasions, Haya found a gun on her bed with its muzzle pointed toward the door and the safety lock off. She also received anonymous notes warning her that “your life is over.” That, together with the discoveries she’d made about the brutal treatment of Shamsa and Latifa after their own escape attempts, prompted her to flee. The Sheikh has denied all the allegations. Haya is now living quietly in a London mansion with her son and daughter.
Over the past year, meanwhile, a trickle of information has provided some clues about Latifa’s fate since she was forcibly dragged back to Dubai from a yacht heading toward India. In February 2021, BBC Panorama released a video, apparently smuggled out of the palace, that seemed to confirm the fears of friends and other advocates: The princess claimed that she was being held prisoner inside a locked villa, deprived of legal advice and medical treatment, guarded by the police.
But the story took a twist last spring, when a photo surfaced on social media showing the princess, now 35, seated at Dubai’s luxurious Mall of the Emirates with two female acquaintances, and in apparent good spirits. “Lovely evening at MoE with friends,” read the caption written by one of her companions. Kenneth Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, welcomed the photo as “proof of life,” but said that it showed nothing about “the conditions of her confinement or her freedom.” One month later, in June 2021, a British school teacher in Dubai, Sioned Taylor, posted an image of herself and the princess traveling through Madrid’s international airport. “Great European holiday with Latifa,” Taylor wrote in the caption. “We’re having fun exploring!”
While the apparent relaxation of Latifa’s house arrest was welcome news, other developments drew further attention to her father’s ruthless attempts to keep her under his control. A collaborative investigation by 17 news organizations revealed that Dubai’s government might have relied on phone hacking spyware known as “Pegasus,” provided by an Israeli security company, the NSO Group, to monitor Princess Latifah and Princess Haya as they both separately fled Dubai. NSO denied the allegations and the Sheikh, as usual, was keeping mum. The mysteries surrounding Latifa and her struggle for freedom seem destined to linger.
Read on for my full investigation of the multiple scandals in the royal court of Dubai, which was originally published here in December 2019, but which remains as relevant and troubling as ever.
The Royal Courts of Justice, a massive Victorian Gothic structure on the Strand in the heart of London built in the 1870s, is not typically the scene of media frenzy. But on the gray, chilly morning of November 12, 2019, a cluster of photographers and reporters stood behind barricades, waiting for a glimpse of a reclusive celebrity. At 10:50 a.m. a black Range Rover pulled up to the entrance. Flanked by two bodyguards and wearing a conservative dark green dress, Princess Haya Bint Hussein, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan and estranged wife of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, strode toward the entrance.
Right behind her came her barrister, Fiona Shackleton, who represented Prince Charles in his 1996 divorce from Princess Diana. The current divorce proceedings, between two of the world’s richest royals, were about to enter a particularly acrimonious phase: a weeklong hearing over custody of the couple’s children, an 11-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son. Sheikh Mohammed had also armed himself with a top barrister, Helen Ward, who represented film director Guy Ritchie in his divorce from Madonna.
But, curiously, the sheikh—who had skipped preliminary hearings in July and October—had again decided not to appear. (According to the Daily Mail, Mohammed was in England at the time of the October hearing but chose to attend the Tattersalls auction in Newmarket, Suffolk, where he laid down $4.8 million for a young horse.) To observers, it was a startling decision by a man with so much to lose, and it was not likely to go over well with Judge Andrew McFarlane, who had imposed a gag order on the proceedings.
The scene was a far cry from that of April 10, 2004, when Haya, 29, married Sheik Mohammed, 25 years her senior. She was elegantly clad in a white-and-gold-embroidered dress and a sheer white veil, a simple emerald pendant around her neck; he wore a traditional Arab headdress known as a gutra and a long yellow shirt.
The ceremony took place in a reception room at the Al Baraka Palace in Amman, as members of Jordan’s ruling family, including Haya’s half-brother King Abdullah, his wife Queen Rania, and Princess Muna, the mother of the monarch and the former wife of the late King Hussein, looked on.
The wedding had the appearance of a strategic union, yet by all accounts it was a match born of genuine feeling. The princess and the sheikh had fallen in love, Haya would later say, while participating in the World Equestrian Games at Jerez de la Frontera in Spain two years earlier. “It was wonderful to understand someone without the need for words,” she told the Daily Mail in January 2009.
The Oxford-educated Haya had shrugged off the fact that she had become the sixth and most “junior wife” of the sheikh, comparing the situation, somewhat misleadingly, to her father’s having married Queen Alia, her mother, when he was not yet divorced from his previous wife. “Falling in love can eclipse a lot of things,” she said. “I went in [to this marriage] with my eyes open, and certainly I’m very happy.”
The happiness of the royal couple over the next decade is on display in photographs taken of them, often hand in hand and with their children, at a variety of glamorous events, from the Royal Ascot Races in England to the 75-mile Endurance Race at Wadi Rum, Jordan.
Haya lived with her children in her own lavish Dubai compound—all the royal wives have their own households—but among the sheikh’s consorts she alone reportedly had visitation rights to Zabeel Palace, his massive, walled-off mansion in the heart of Dubai, rather than having to wait on her husband to pay her a call, as is the custom.
It was a privilege she appears to have guarded jealously. “Princess Haya refused to share the [palace] residence with any of the other wives,” a British source close to several of Mohammed’s daughters tells me. She alone among his wives rode horses with him, attended public ceremonies beside him—always without a hijab—and traveled to international diplomatic events, meeting fellow royals around the world. “Every single day I thank god that I am lucky enough to be close to him,” Haya gushed to Emirates Woman magazine in 2016.
That was then. On June 23, 2019, a website called Emirates Leaks reported that Haya, 45, with the help of a German diplomat, had fled with her children to Germany and requested asylum. The website further claimed that Dubai had demanded that the German government return the princess and her children immediately, but that Germany had refused. (The German government has neither confirmed nor denied the report.)
By the end of July, Haya and the kids had turned up in London. There she quickly hired Shackleton, filed for divorce, and petitioned the British High Court to grant her both a forced marriage protection order (which allows her to keep her daughter from having to return to Dubai, where arranged unions are common) and, even more humiliating for the sheikh, a non-molestation order aimed at preventing “harassment” by her estranged spouse.
Meanwhile, the British tabloids have begun speculating about the cause of the couple’s split—from rumors about the princess’s closeness to a particular bodyguard to charges of intolerable conditions imposed by the prince at his palaces.
The sheikh, a poet in classical Arabic, lashed out at her “treachery and betrayal” in a verse published in June on his official Instagram account. “You no longer have a place with me,” he declared. “I don’t care if you live or die.” Holed up in her $107 million townhouse in Kensington, Haya has emerged only for periodic court dates.
Haya’s departure is not the only family scandal to shake up Sheikh Mohammed and the royal court. One of his daughters, Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, tried to flee—twice. In 2002, when she was just 16, she attempted to cross the border into Oman during a riding expedition, and in February 2018 there was an escapade worthy of Hollywood that involved crossing into Oman in a car, then continuing via an inflatable dinghy, jet skis, and a yacht named Nostromo.
Both times she was captured and returned to her father. Before Latifa’s escape attempts, her older sister Sheikha Shamsa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum fled the family’s equestrian estate in England in 2000, when she was 19, and remained at large for several weeks before being seized on a street in Cambridge and flown back to Dubai.
Since her latest forced return, Princess Latifa has been seen in public only once, in December 2018. Her Instagram account, on which she used to document the adrenaline-fueled activities typical of an Emirati royal—skydiving, horseback riding, martial arts—was erased “against her will” during her escape, according to the London-based advocacy group Detained in Dubai. The group claims it managed to copy one of her final posts, in which she states that she has been “trapped for 18 years and unable to leave” and that her life “is currently in danger.” Princess Shamsa, by all accounts, has not been seen in public for 19 years (she is now 37).
It’s impossible for an outsider to know fully what goes on in any household, especially one as opaque as the Zabeel Palace, which is surrounded by a high wall both literally and metaphorically. (The government of Dubai’s media office would not comment on any aspect of this story, replying to queries with, “Nobody knows about this issue.”)
And it may be tempting to dismiss the angst that fueled these royal flights as part and parcel of lives of almost unimaginable privilege. The home occupied by Shamsa and Latifa, their older sister Maitha (born in 1980), and their Algerian-born mother, one of the sheikh’s wives, was a 40-room seaside villa near Zabeel Palace that had a staff of 100.
But a seemingly gilded existence can come at a high price. Think of Princess Diana trapped in a loveless marriage to an adulterous spouse, struggling with bulimia and depression, or Crown Princess (now Empress) Masako of Japan, who failed to produce a male heir, suffered what her doctors called an “adjustment disorder,” and dropped out of sight for a decade.
The scandal surrounding Sheikh Mohammed and his family has reverberated across the Middle East—and beyond. At stake is the reputation of one of the region’s most dynamic, seemingly progressive leaders, as well as the safety of his wife and children. The drama has cast a harsh light on the place of women throughout the Arab world, which, despite the liberalization of male “guardianship” laws and much-hyped breakthroughs such as the legalization of driving for women in Saudi Arabia, remains mired in inequalities.
It has also exposed the abuses that often go along with unrestrained male power and, one could argue, helped energize a mini–#MeToo movement, with growing numbers of unhappy Arab women of all ages following Haya’s and Latifa’s example and rebelling against the strictures imposed by the men in their lives.
When I flew to Dubai last fall, few Emiratis or expats would talk to me about the Haya scandal (or about Latifa or Shamsa), and the expats who did agree to speak did so on condition of anonymity. Part of that reluctance reflects a regional trend: Since the Arab Spring of 2011, openly questioning a ruler’s actions, or discussing sensitive issues such as women’s rights, is broadly discouraged.
“The general tone is, ‘Don’t question our cultural heritage,’” one European who has lived in Dubai for decades tells me in a conspiratorial tone as we sit in a grilled chicken restaurant in a luxury mall near the Burj Al Arab, the 1,053-foot-tall, sail-shaped, endlessly photographed hotel whose 1999 opening proclaimed the city-state’s grand ambitions.
But there is another, more personal reason people are refraining from being critical, he says: “The sheikh, at 70, is fighting for his legacy. He is preparing for his succession, and his place in history.”
The city’s boulevards, hammered by the blazing Gulf sun, are lined when I visit with ubiquitous posters showing “Sheik Mo” in various guises: waving warmly to his people; posing beside one of his Arabian horses at Godolphin, his racing stable; standing with his 37-year-old son, Crown Prince Hamdan. Any revelations of family disharmony, or of rebellion from his women, my source tells me, threatens his carefully cultivated image. “Talking about [his impending divorce from Haya] is the ultimate taboo.”
The government has taken steps to enforce that silence. A cybercrime law imposes a prison sentence and fines of 25,000 to 50,000 dirhams ($6,800 to $13,615)—and for foreigners, possible deportation—for false or defamatory statements. Journalists and others interpret this as a lockdown on all commentary about Princess Haya.
“You can get in trouble just for retweeting,” one expat retired journalist tells me. His former newspaper isn’t willing to touch the subject. “Everybody is practicing self-censorship,” says the journalist, who, like most other foreigners living in Dubai, has not been granted full-time resident status and so lives visa to visa.
Even the few critics whom the regime tolerates have been treading carefully. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist who has taught at Georgetown and criticized Saudi Arabia for imprisoning female activists, is circumspect. “If there is one daughter, two daughters, it is not representative of the other 20,” he tells me over a cappuccino at an opulent hotel near the Dubai airport. “And one wife who is running away is not representative of the other five that [Sheikh Mohammed] has.”
Abdulla points out that the lives of princesses are difficult everywhere and that it would be wrong to draw any conclusions about the culture of the Persian Gulf from the foiled escapes of Latifa and Shamsa and the thus far successful one of Haya. “The United Arab Emirates is probably the most tolerant, woman-friendly environment you can imagine in your life,” he declares. “I treat [the escapes] as an aberration.”
Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum was born in Dubai in 1949, when it was one of seven backward sheikhdoms along the Persian Gulf side of the Arabian peninsula ruled by Great Britain. In 1968 the British announced their plans to pull out, and three years later his father, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, joined with the rulers of Abu Dhabi and five other sheikhdoms to create the United Arab Emirates.
His teenage son Mohammed was sent to study at Mons Officer Cadet Training school in Aldershot, later part of Sandhurst, and then trained as a pilot in Italy. At 22 he returned to Dubai to become minister of defense in the newly created UAE.
Over the next four decades, the Al Maktoums—and especially the dynamic Mohammed, who has been the de facto and then the actual ruler of Dubai since his father’s death in 1990—grew Dubai into a business and tourism mecca, financing flamboyant construction projects and creating a shiny Gulf-side megalopolis of office, condominium, and hotel towers bursting with shops, bars, and restaurants, plus artificial islands in the Persian Gulf, racetracks, a ski slope, and much more.
Over the years Sheikh Mohammed’s personal wealth, currently estimated at $4.5 billion, bought him all the classic accoutrements of an Arabian Big Man, including a 530-foot yacht that sleeps 48 guests and 88 staff members; Darley Stud, a global horse breeding operation in Suffolk, England (Emiratis love their beautiful, swift horses as much as they love their falcons); a vast hunting estate in Scotland; and the private residential compounds scattered about Dubai and staffed with multitudes within which live members of his large family, including an estimated 25 children.
As far as his children were concerned, a source close to several members of the royal family tells me, Mohammed tried to abide by Islamic principles and divided his time equitably among them. Still, he had favorites; he was particularly close to the crown prince, Hamdan, for example, who is, like his father, an enthusiastic horseman and falconer.
His relationships with several other offspring were more distant—including Latifa, his third child with his wife Huriah Ahmed Al Ma’ash. One expatriate businessman who is close to several Emirati royal families tells me that Huria was “the low wife on the totem poll” and suggests that this “probably carried over to [Sheikh Mohammed’s] lack of affection for their daughters.”
Whatever the case may be, Latifa has said that she was taken away from her mother when she was 10 months old and raised by her childless “auntie,” Sheikh Mohammed’s sister. It was only a decade later that Latifa was told the truth about her parentage and reunited with her mother. The episode, says one person close to the family, caused a breakdown in trust between her and her father. “She was upset that she had been lied to in her childhood.”
The estrangement went both ways. By Latifa’s account, she saw her father only once every two or three years. “It was always during a [public] family event,” says Hervé Jaubert, the former French navy officer and marine engineer who captained the yacht on which Latifa escaped in 2018, and who had become a confidant during the escape’s lengthy planning process. To Jaubert, Latifa described her interactions with her father as perfunctory at best: “[The Sheikh] would meet many people in the hall and would greet them one after another, stopping and saying, ‘Hi, how are you? Everything good?’ ”
It was Shamsa, two years older than Latifa, who created the first cracks in the façade. It’s still unclear what precipitated her unprecedented act of rebellion. All that is known is that in July 2000, Shamsa crept past a napping guard at Sheikh Mohammed’s $90 million Surrey estate, where various wives and children often spent holidays, and drove through an open gate in her black Range Rover. Sheikh Mohammed’s men eventually tracked her down on a sidewalk in Cambridge by tracing her cell phone signal and flew her out of England by private plane that August.
After Shamsa’s capture, Latifa seems to have been further stigmatized, and she witnessed things that affected her profoundly. “Latifa told me that [Shamsa] spent years in prison on the grounds of Zabeel Palace after her recapture,” says Radha Stirling, of Detained in Dubai, “and that she was drugged to the point where she was walking around like a zombie.” (Originally, to help a friend, Stirling founded Detained in Dubai in January 2008 to lobby governments on behalf of expatriates who run afoul of Dubai’s draconian criminal laws. Other NGOs, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, also handle such cases.)
Latifa began to plot her own exit, and one day in 2002 she slipped away from guards during a horseback riding excursion and, dressed like a Western tourist in jeans and a T-shirt, rode toward the Omani border, led there by an expat she had befriended. “But she was very naive,” Jaubert says. “She thought the border was open desert, with no barriers.” Villagers spotted her as she attempted to climb over a barbed wire fence and called the police.
It was in this charged environment that Princess Haya arrived in 2004. She had grown up in one of the Arab world’s more liberal countries, Jordan, raised by her stepmother Queen Noor (formerly Lisa Halaby) following the death of her mother in a helicopter crash in February 1977. The tragedy brought her closer to her father, who pampered her and encouraged her independent streak and her love for riding.
She attended secondary school at Badminton and Bryanston in England, and studied politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford, where some were surprised by how easily she took to the freedoms of university life, “constantly in jeans, living in a dormitory,” as one Amman socialite recalls.
Still, she apparently always had a fascination for Arab men in positions of power. At one point, the socialite tells me, she became close to Bassel Al Assad, another accomplished horseman who was heir apparent to the Syrian strongman Hafez Al Assad. (Bassel was killed in a car crash in 1994, and his brother Bashar was anointed the dictator’s successor.)
After her graduation Haya decided to become a professional show jumper, and she spent 10 years training in Ireland and Germany, competing in the 2000 Sydney Olympics for Jordan and regularly driving her horses across Europe in a custom tractor-trailer.
Marriage was not a priority; she would wait, she told the Daily Mail, “to meet a man who doesn’t feel he has to mold me.” There was another important requirement, the Jordanian socialite tells me: “She had lost her father [in 1999], and she was looking for a strong father figure…who would give her security.”
In Sheikh Mohammed, Haya apparently thought she had found such a partner. Dubai’s ruler has cast himself in the role of the ultimate enlightened despot, presiding over a progressive system in which women enjoy a prominent place. “Dubai’s posters, media, all of its [public relations] ensure that women appear as part of the [political and social] scene,” says Rothna Begum, a women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch in Africa and the Middle East. “Women are depicted as being alongside men in the workplace and in social institutions. They look like they are leading the country.”
In fact, the seven Emirates—led by Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the two largest—have some of the harshest male guardianship rules in the world. Their “personal status” or “family” law, governing marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, is derived—as it is in Saudi Arabia—from sharia and is designed to keep women in the home, under the control of men.
A liberal family with open attitudes might allow a daughter in the household to marry or divorce outside the strictures of sharia. But women stuck in conservative households—with no ability to maintain a bank account, travel without permission, marry or divorce freely, or sleep with a man of their choosing—often chafe at the limitations of their lives.
Sheikh Mohammed’s wives and daughters were bound by the same restrictions, though they received extravagant material benefits—trips abroad, the means to participate in expensive sports like skydiving, endless shopping—in exchange for surrendering control over their lives. “They operate within the accepted framework: helicopters, private jets, luxurious surroundings. Most are keen riders and spend extensive time at stables and riding,” Stirling says.
Tiina Jauhiainen, a Finnish martial arts instructor whom Latifa hired in 2010 to teach her the Brazilian martial arts technique capoeira and whom she would later enlist in the 2018 escape attempt, elaborated on her case: “Because [Latifa] is not allowed to work or study, when she starts a new hobby it becomes her purpose for getting up in the morning.” Sky diving, especially, “gave her a great sense of freedom. By the end, she’d done around 2,500 jumps.”
Princess Haya rejected all such controls. From the start she made it clear that she expected equality with her husband, and Sheikh Mohammed, perhaps sensing that he had married up, accommodated her. “The sheikh was essentially buying into prestige and legitimacy,” the expatriate businessman in Dubai tells me. “He came from a line of tribal sheikhs subsisting on handouts from the British, and suddenly he’s [marrying into] a family that claims to be descended from the Prophet.”
“He gave her a lot of liberty,” the Amman socialite concurs. “But what Haya was doing was not what the men in the Gulf wanted her to do. She would appear with him at state visits. She would never cover up. You would hear the conservatives in the UAE saying that they didn’t like this.”
Among those who resented the princess, sources claim, were Crown Prince Hamdan and his older brother Sheikh Rashid bin Mohammed (who died of a heart attack at age 33 in 2015). “Hamdan hates her,” the Jordanian socialite says. The expatriate businessman in Dubai agrees: “There were clear tensions in the family.”
Sheikha Latifa, meanwhile, reappeared in public three years after her first escape attempt—one year after her father’s marriage to Haya. But her new freedom was closely monitored. By Latifa’s account her father forbade her to travel beyond Dubai, ordered her to be accompanied by a male security team, imposed a curfew, and required that all of her contacts be vetted by Dubai’s intelligence services.
Help for Latifa came unexpectedly, in the form of a book. Back in 2004 Jaubert had formed a company with powerful local partners in Dubai to construct recreational submarines. Four years later he was accused of embezzlement (he insists the charges were false) and, with his passport seized and facing arrest, fled in a rubber dinghy to a waiting sailboat, which took him to Mumbai, India.
In 2010, Jaubert published a book about his experience, Escape from Dubai, that included his email address. Later that year Latifa reached out to him and said that she wanted to escape as well. “You have to make sure you want to do this, because it’s highly dangerous,” he told her. “She said, ‘I’m sure. I cannot enjoy my life.’”
Jaubert instructed Latifa to visit a particular lingerie boutique in a mall (her security detail would have to wait by the entrance) and then slip out the back for a risky 15-minute rendezvous with one of his female agents to receive documents she would need to facilitate her movements once she reached India. Latifa also began putting aside part of her allowance each month—a total of $400,000, by her own account—to pay Jaubert for his help.
Jaubert advised her to look for an expat in Dubai whom she could enlist in the scheme. She turned to Jauhiainen, who, according to Stirling of Detained in Dubai, received a monthly salary of $15,000 from Latifa, along with a Rolex watch and a Spanish villa for her services. (While Jaubert and Jauhianen were paid for their help, Stirling insists that any profit motive does not detract from the credibility of Latifa’s story.)
On February 24, 2018, Latifa and Jauhiainen escaped from Dubai by car and rendezvoused by jet ski with Jaubert’s boat off the coast of Oman—but their escape was foiled a week later, when UAE troops and Indian coast guard officers intercepted the vessel and, at gunpoint, took Latifa back to her father in Dubai. (Jaubert and Jauhiainen were held for two weeks then released.)
Latifa wasn’t seen in public for the next nine months. There were reports that she had been jailed inside the Zabeel Palace and kept docile with drugs. Pressured for “proof of life” by the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Sheikh Mohammed permitted Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and a friend of Princess Haya’s, to spend some time with Latifa in December 2018 at Zabeel Palace, although only in the presence of others.
Latifa sat silent, downcast, somewhat puffy-faced, and expressionless—a shocking change from the animated and intense young woman seen in her pre-escape video—while Robinson, at a press conference following the meeting, repeated the palace’s line: The princess, she pronounced, was “troubled” and “vulnerable” and was receiving medical attention.
Haya herself was vague and evasive when interviewed about the episode on Ireland’s RTE Radio in January 2019. She called Latifa’s escape “a private family mater, and I don’t want to go any more deeply into it, for the protection of Latifa herself and to ensure that she’s not used by anyone else. She’s a vulnerable young woman.”
Much about the saga of Sheikh Mohammed and his princesses remains murky. For starters, there’s the video left behind by Latifa, which supporters call a painfully honest account of her abuse but that some dispute. Latifa calls her father a “torturer,” a “murderer,” and “the worst criminal you can ever imagine in your life,” and describes a nightmarish ordeal, including lying during her captivity on a mattress “covered in blood and shit.” Questions have also been raised about Latifa’s 2018 escape itself. In a recent interview, Jaubert’s ex-wife called the whole episode an extortion plot that Jaubert and Latifa concocted to shake down her father for $3 million. Jaubert denies the accusation.
As for Princess Haya’s own escape, the truth behind it is also elusive. The Amman heiress I spoke to suggests that Sheikh Mohammed, perhaps influenced by Crown Prince Hamdan, had tried to restrict some of Haya’s freedoms—it’s unclear which ones—and that she finally had enough of him. “I was told that his eldest sons started influencing him, playing with his mind. I think he became restrictive…and suspicious,” she tells me.
Last July, British newspapers alleged that one factor leading Princess Haya to escape—pushing her over the edge, in effect—was the sheikh’s brutal treatment of Princess Latifa, whom Haya had reportedly never even met before Latifa’s forced return to Dubai in March 2018.
Immediately after Latifa’s escape, Haya “supported her husband or she didn’t think it was any of her business,” says the Jordanian socialite. “In the Arab world you don’t interfere with someone else’s business—and this was his daughter from another marriage.” But in recent months Haya reportedly became troubled by what she had learned about Latifa’s imprisonment—and her reaction prompted intense hostility from the sheikh’s inner circle.
According to Stirling, a big part of Haya and her legal team’s plan to bolster their case for custody of her children is to point out that Mohammed has resisted international inquiries about Latifa and therefore can’t be trusted with his children. As far as the princess’s “closeness” to her bodyguard, most insiders are skeptical. “It doesn’t make sense. She would never risk doing something like that,” Stirling says.
The judge in London has ordered a ban on media coverage, and Shackleton is staying mum. The Jordanian socialite tells me that Haya has played things masterfully up to now, winning public sympathy in the wake of Latifa’s capture, hanging on to her children, and hiring the best legal team in England. Sheikh Mohammed “didn’t expect this,” she says. Haya “is smart, scheming, and manipulative, and she was able to manipulate him. The rest of his wives couldn’t.”
But it’s still unclear who will have the upper hand in the end. Many believe that Sheikh Mohammed would not dare risk the repercussions of trying to forcibly remove from London the daughter of King Hussein and half-sister of King Abdullah. But at last report, Princess Haya remains in seclusion and is said not to be taking anything for granted.
From a conference stage at Tel Aviv University, Israel’s new prime minister called on all “good nations” to join forces against the growing scourge of cybersecurity threats.
Yet Naftali Bennett, a millionaire tech boss turned politician, made no mention of one of the most devastating global hacking scandals yet recorded, which came to light only a few days earlier.
According to widespread reports last week, spyware sold by NSO Group, an Israeli technology company, had been used by their clients, including the Saudi Arabian and Emirati governments, to target the private data of journalists, activists, senior politicians and military chiefs in 34 countries.
The French president Emmanuel Macron, Indian student leaders and a member of the House of Lords were among thousands of alleged victims of the software, known as Pegasus, which is used to hack into phones: breaking open encrypted information and turning them into listening devices.
The affair has created a monumental headache for Bennett’s administration, which is trying to rebrand the country’s international image after former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s years of divisive leadership.
At the same time it has highlighted Israel’s extraordinary success in turning itself into a world leader in cybersecurity — and exposed how the development of products such as Pegasus has updated the Israeli strategy of “Uzi diplomacy”: international weapons sales that bought the country cash and allies as it fought to survive in a region hostile to its very existence.
“Innovation is something you can’t command, force or direct,” said Bennett in his speech. But that is exactly what Israel has done.
Since it was founded in 1948, the country has poured incredible amounts of money and human resources into creating one of the most technologically advanced armed forces on the earth.
Conscription into the Israel Defence Force (IDF), officials say, detects talent early on in Israeli teenagers and provides them with highly sought-after skills and discipline before ejecting them into the private sector. Niv Carmi, Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, the men who founded NSO — and whose first initials make up the company name — are all former members of Unit 8200, the elite Israeli cyber spy agency.
“The IDF has a lot of technological units, they train soldiers and those they train are later on funnelled to the market and become entrepreneurs and start-up owners,” said Professor Gabi Siboni, a colonel in the IDF reserve forces and a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “There’s a lot of energy. The IDF is practically like a hothouse for technological development.”
The motivation, said Siboni, was existential. “Israel is surrounded by our enemies and we must invest in our security otherwise we die, simple as that,” he said.
Yet for successive Israeli leaders, the truth has been a little more complicated. During his 15-year rule, Netanyahu, who was ousted this summer, sold Israel as a world power in cyber-weapons and technology as he courted potential new allies. Some of those, including Saudi Arabia, had once been among Israel’s fiercest enemies; now, however, they were eager to buy what Israel was selling.
In previous decades other nations had flocked to buy the Uzi sub-machinegun, developed by an Israeli army officer after the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Now the product was less tangible — though no less dangerous in the wrong hands.
“The NSO system, the Pegasus, just replaced the Uzi diplomacy. It’s the same policy,” said Eitay Mack, a human rights lawyer who has filed two petitions to cancel NSO’s export licences.
He added: “[But] because Pegasus is not something physical, it’s easy to deny and there’s no accountability.
“There was a shared interest between NSO and the government to work in these places. Of course NSO wanted to enlarge its profits, and the Israeli government wanted to advance its interests.”
Today, he claimed, there was “zero transparency” from the Defence Ministry about their deep relationships with private companies such as NSO.
Benny Gantz, the Israeli defence minister, last week said that Israel was “studying” the information published about Pegasus.
In a statement the Defence Ministry said it would take “appropriate action” if NSO has violated its export licences.
NSO’s defenders say that Israel’s export laws go to extraordinary lengths to stop their products from being abused. The software requires an export licence as it is considered a weapon.
The company has denied the allegations. In a post on its website last week entitled “enough is enough!”, it thundered against what it called a “vicious and slanderous campaign”.
“Any claim that a name in the list is necessarily related to a Pegasus target or a Pegasus potential target is erroneous and false,” the statement read.
Their spyware, NSO has claimed, is used only to investigate terrorism and crime. But terrorism can be a very flexible term. When used by dictators or autocratic regimes, it can be applied to just about anyone who disagrees with their ideas.
As well as world leaders and activists, the list of more than 50,000 phone numbers allegedly used for targeting by Pegasus included an Indian woman who had reported a former chief justice for sexual harassment.
Last week the Israeli government formed a damage control team to limit the fallout from the revelations. Yet a source close to the Israeli defence ministry said that they did not believe NSO’s export licences would be cancelled. Rather, they half-joked, the publicity could lead to a boom in sales as autocrats saw the enormous capabilities of Israeli spy technology advertised across the world.
This is not the first time that NSO has been at the centre of a major scandal of international intrigue. Over the years, its name has cropped up from Mexico to the Gulf in connection with allegations of targeting civil society figures through spyware. In 2019 the company halted its deals with Saudi Arabia over allegations that NSO software played a part in tracking the journalist Jamal Khashoggi before his assassination in 2018.
Last week it emerged that phone numbers belonging to Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, the kidnapped daughter of the leader of Dubai, and her associates had been on the list allegedly used for targeting by Pegasus.
“Like anything else in cybersecurity it’s an ongoing battle,” said May Brooks-Kempler, CEO of Helena-Sec, an Israeli cybersecurity company. “One side provides defensive mechanisms and finds vulnerabilities and fixes them, and the other side tries to find vulnerabilities that nobody knows about, and utilises and exploits them.”
From a conference stage at Tel Aviv University, Israel’s new prime minister called on all “good nations” to join forces against the growing scourge of cybersecurity threats. Yet Naftali Bennett, a millionaire tech boss turned politician, made no mention of one of the most devastating global hacking scandals yet recorded, which came to light only a few days earlier.
For a few days Princess Latifa had dared to think she could relax. An extraordinary plan to escape from a father she said had once ordered her “constant torture” was looking as if it might work, as she sat on a 30-metre yacht on the Indian Ocean, her home city of Dubai further and further away.
Yet the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of the glittering Emirati city, still wanted to connect with home, to tell family and friends something of her new-found freedom, sending emails, WhatsApp messages and posting on Instagram from what she thought were two secure, brand new “burner” pay-as-you-go mobile phones.
It was a decision that may have had fateful consequences, according to analysis by the Pegasus project.
At the height of the escape drama, it can now be revealed, the mobile numbers for Latifa and some of her friends back home appeared on a database at the heart of the investigation.
It raises the possibility that a government client of the NSO Group was drawing up possible candidates for some sort of surveillance.
It was late February 2018, and Princess Latifa, then 32, had been desperate to flee her father’s emirate for many years. She had made a “very, very naive” first attempt in 2002, arranging to be driven across the border to neighbouring Oman, but was easily recaptured. This time she hoped it was different, but had prepared for the worst.
When planning her second escape, Latifa had prepared a video to be released online if the latest effort was foiled, explaining why she wanted to quit home. In it, Latifa described how she was beaten and tortured between 2002 and 2005, during which time she was also forcibly injected with sedatives, and once told by her captors: “Your father told us to beat you until we kill you.”
They were extraordinary claims of abuse that were accepted as truthful in a fact-finding judgment from an English judge, part of a custody battle between Sheikh Mohammed and his sixth and former wife, Princess Haya, over their two young children. Part of that continuing case turns on how Dubai’s ruler treated some of his other children, although after the fact-finding ruling, Sheikh Mohammed insisted it had only told “one side of the story”.
Alongside Latifa on the Nostromo was her best friend and confidant, a Finn with a taste for adventure, Tiina Jauhiainen. She had first met the princess at the end of 2010, when she was asked to become her fitness instructor, and had become so close that the princess asked for her help to get out of the country, in an elaborate scheme worthy of a film.
Also on board was Hervé Jaubert, a former French spy, who was captaining the vessel. It was Jaubert who had devised the yacht end of the escape plan after Latifa recruited him – Jauhiainen later told a London court he was paid €350,000 – after she had come across a book he had written about escaping from Dubai, after a business deal he was involved in ran into trouble nearly a decade before.
Latifa and Jauhiainen believed their communications, via the yacht’s satellite uplink, were secure.
They had taken some precautions: Jaubert had turned the ship’s tracking device off and their phones were new, with brand new sim cards.
Latifa and Jauhiainen began their escape at 7am on 24 February from downtown Dubai. The princess’s driver had dropped her off to meet her friend for breakfast, then Latifa changed clothes in the cafe’s bathroom, where she ditched her normal mobile phone, leaving it on silent in the bathroom and went on the run.
Likening themselves to the ill-fated Thelma and Louise, the duo drove six hours to Muscat in neighbouring Oman. There with the help of Christian Elombo, a former French soldier and a friend of both women, they made a difficult journey by dinghy and jetski, 13 miles out into the ocean to international waters, where Jaubert’s boat the Nostromo was waiting.
Meanwhile, back in Dubai the hunt for the missing princess had started. A day later, on 25 February, Latifa’s phone appeared in the leaked data list, by Dubai’s doing, it is thought, although not much may have been gleaned, given that it had been left behind in the cafe.
Elombo and his girlfriend, who were supposed to leave Oman, were picked up a day later and questioned by the authorities on behalf of the neighbouring state. Realising contact with Elombo had been lost, and becoming a little more nervous, Latifa and Jauhiainen revised their plan. Jauhiainen said they had intended to go to Sri Lanka, from where Latifa would fly to the US to claim asylum, but instead they opted to land in India.
Yet, it did not appear to matter much, because for the first four days at sea, until 28 February, there was nobody on their tail. Latifa and Jauhiainen were thrilled to have made it, although conditions were not luxurious: there was an ever-expanding number of cockroaches onboard and, apart from watching a few bad movies, there was not much to do. Inevitably they ended up spending time on their phones.
On the same day, 28 February, the numbers of some of her friends began appearing on the list that is determined to have come from Dubai.
At home, one of Latifa’s few freedoms had been skydiving; she had jumped frequently with Jauhiainen among others. But it was other members of the daredevil club whose numbers were being added to the list in the days that followed, including Juan Mayer, a photographer who regularly took pictures of the princess mid-air, which formed the basis of a short magazine feature.
The data indicates other numbers began to appear too: those of Lynda Bouchiki, an events manager, and, more significantly, Sioned Taylor, a Briton who lived in Dubai, working as a maths teacher in a girls’ school. Taylor, too had been a member of the skydiving club.
Both Bouchiki and Taylor had known Latifa from acting as chaperones prior to her flight. After she had been released from prison, the princess was never allowed out of home unsupervised; friends of the princess say that Taylor, in particular, had also become a close friend.
On the Nostromo, Jauhiainen, who spoke to the Guardian in April, remembers Latifa messaging both Taylor and Bouchiki. The latter did not reply, but she clearly remembers that the princess was chatting with Taylor while they were onboard. At one point Latifa even became suspicious, saying: “I’m not sure this is Sioned,” but the communications continued.
What that signified precisely is unclear, but what the database shows is that Taylor’s mobile phone was listed repeatedly – on 1 and 2 March and again on the day Latifa was to be captured, 4 March. Bouchiki’s number appeared again, on 2 March.
Without forensic examination of phones, it is not possible to say whether any attempt was made to infect the devices, or whether any infection attempt was successful.
But at sea, the situation had changed, ominously. Jaubert says it was on 1 March, a day after Latifa’s friends and family were first targeted that he first noticed the first ship following the Nostromo, curiously taking the same route and following at the same speed. Spotter planes followed soon after that.
It was clear they had been picked up by the Indian coastguard. The captain became increasingly nervous, also emailing a campaign group, Detained in Dubai, worrying that he might run out of fuel as he chose to head towards the Indian port city of Goa, and seeking their help. But they were never to arrive.
After 10pm on 4 March, about 30 miles offshore, in an operation authorised by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, at the request of Dubai, around 15 Indian commandos in “full military gear” stormed the yacht, firing stun grenades to incapacitate those onboard.
Latifa and Jauhiainen panicked, running below deck and locking themselves in the bathroom in a desperate attempt not to be seized. Latifa frantically rang Radha Stirling from Detained in Dubai, who said the princess was “frightened, hiding, that there were men outside and that she heard gunfire” on the emergency call.
But the two women had to give themselves up, as smoke poured in through the bathroom vents. They were captured and dragged to the deck, and according to Jauhiainen, Latifa was screaming, in English: “Shoot me here, don’t take me back” as she was dragged off, handed over to waiting Emirati forces, tranquillised and returned to Dubai.
Dubai did not respond to a request for comment. Sheikh Mohammed did not respond, although it is understood he denies having attempted to hack the phones of Latifa or her friends or associates, or ordering others to do so. He has also previously said he feared Latifa was a victim of a kidnapping and that he had conducted “a rescue mission”.
NSO denies the leaked list of numbers is that of “Pegasus targets or potential targets” and says the numbers are not related to the company in any way. Claiming that a name on the list is “is necessarily related to a Pegasus target or potential target is erroneous and false”.
Jauhiainen and Jaubert were released after a short period of detention, with the Finn relocating to London. Latifa was held under house arrest back home, and after a while managed to smuggle out fresh videos to Jauhiainen to tell more about her plight. “I’m a hostage. I am not free. I’m enslaved in this jail,” she angrily said.
But in the past three months there has been a notable change, involving two of the women Latifa tried to message from the boat. In May, Taylor posted a picture on Instagram of Latifa, sitting in a Dubai shopping mall, with her and Bouchiki, to show she was enjoying a degree of freedom at home.
Then, in June a picture followed of Latifa inside Madrid’s main airport, indicating she had been able to travel abroad. “I hope now that I can live my life in peace without further media scrutiny,” the princess said in a statement released by her lawyers, suggesting after the years of conflict some sort of accommodation with her father had been reached.
With the passage of time, it may never be possible to establish definitively how Latifa was recaptured at gunpoint.
NSO said that the fact that a number appeared on the list was in no way indicative of whether that number was selected for surveillance using Pegasus.
NSO also insists the database has “no relevance” to the company. The company said it may be part of a larger list of numbers that might have been used by NSO Group customers “for other purposes”.
However, two people familiar with the operations of NSO who spoke respectively to the Guardian and Washington Post, both on the condition of anonymity, said the company had terminated its contract with Dubai within the last year. The decision was at least in part the result of an investigation into claims Dubai had used NSO technology to monitor members of Sheikh Mohammed’s family.
As the latest revelations show, new information keeps emerging. A recent report from USA Today said that Dubai have may have prevailed on the FBI to demand that US satellite provider KVH hand over location data on an emergency basis.
Dubai and the FBI have declined to comment on the report, while KVH said it cooperated with law enforcement “when compelled or permitted under existing laws”.
Jauhiainen and others who were campaigning for Latifa to be released have previously wondered whether the satellite uplink on the Nostromo was as secure as they thought – and it has already proved possible for the BBC to recover the course of the yacht from examining the headers of emails sent from the boat.
But the disclosure that Latifa’s friends and family are on the Pegasus project database could also prove significant in finding out how she was recaptured on the high seas.
This article was amended on 29 and 30 July 2021. An earlier version indicated that Jaubert had been on board the Nostromo when the two women arrived at the yacht; in fact he and a crew member had gone out on jetskis to meet them. And an attribution was added to the statement that Latifa and Jauhiainen had originally intended to go to Sri Lanka.
Princess Latifa has called for police to reinvestigate the disappearance of her sister in 2000.
FORMER PRESIDENT OF Ireland Mary Robinson has said the UN Office of the High Commissioner should “seek the release” of Dubai princess Sheikha Latifa and her sister.
Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said last month that she was “horribly tricked” over a photo taken of her with Princess Latifa, the daughter of the Dubai ruler Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum– who has said she is being held hostage by her father.
In February 2018, Princess Latifa Al Maktoum reportedly tried to flee Dubai, but her friends said that commandos stormed a boat carrying her off the coast of India.
It is claimed she was then brought back to the Emirates by her father.
Amid increasing international concern for the woman’s welfare, in December 2018 Mary Robinson attended a family lunch on invitation from Dubai’s royal family, and was photographed with the princess.
Robinson has said she made a “mistake” and was “naive” in relation to the case.
Speaking to Euronews, Robinson said it is important now to focus on seeking the release of Latifa and her sister, princess Shamsa, who has been missing since 2000.
“I think it’s actually very important now to support the Office of High Commissioner, the High Commissioner who has asked for proof of life and to actually go further with the mandates of the office and seek the release not just of Latifa, but also of her sister. That’s where the focus has to be,” she said.
In February, princess Latifa urged Cambridgeshire Police to reinvestigate the disappearance of her older sister, princess Shamsa.
Latifa said Shamsa was also captured by her father.
Shamsa, now 38, was abducted from the streets of Cambridge on August 19 2000 and has never been seen in public since. It is believed she was returned to the United Arab Emirates.
Cambridgeshire Police previously confirmed “aspects” of their 2001 investigation – which found insufficient evidence to take any action – will be revisited, although the force insisted the investigation is no longer “active”.
Last week, a UN spokesman said it is yet to see evidence from the United Arab Emirates that Dubai’s Sheikha Latifa was still alive, a fortnight after seeking proof.
The United Nations Human Rights Office had asked for evidence about the daughter of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum after the BBC broadcast a video shot by Latifa saying she was being held captive and feared for her life.
Rupert Colville, spokesman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the organisation has spoken to the UAE’s diplomatic mission in Geneva.
“We’ve held discussions with representatives of the UAE government here in Geneva, but I don’t have any particular progress to report,” he said.
Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum’s plaintive cries from her captivity are heart-rending. Here is a young woman who has been locked up by her father, the ruler of Dubai and the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. Rapunzel may be eating off gold plates in her villa jail but she can’t escape.
In her recent video she sounded desperate, and her family insinuate she is mad. The 35-year-old had tried to flee but was kidnapped by armed commandos. Her sister Shamsa “disappeared” in a similar snatch two decades earlier.
Of course, we tell ourselves, this could never happen in the West. Except that watching the documentary Framing Britney Spears, it didn’t feel dissimilar. Since 2007, following a very public breakdown, all Spears’s assets of $60 million, her career and medical information have been controlled by her father, even after the singer went to court last year in an attempt to end the arrangement. She refused to sing in her gilded cage so was first called manipulative, then insane.
The documentary showed a young woman who had been stripped of her freedom by western society, her father and the media. After what she endured in the public eye as a sexualised child star, it’s amazing she is still standing.
Male interviewers would joke with the polite, eager-to-please teenager about the “cheap slutty girl who put out” and proposition her on air. Meanwhile Justin Timberlake was lauded when he boasted about taking her virginity. To his credit, he has now said he feels guilty that he benefited “from a system that condones misogyny”, but few others have apologised for their part in this young mother’s descent into a psychiatric hospital.
It’s bizarre that women are still hounded, perhaps even more now than they were at the turn of the century, before smartphones. Carrie Symonds, whatever you think of her politics or her fiancé, is also being portrayed as a meddling witch. She is the latest in a long line of women in No 10 who have been vilified for living with a prime minister. I thought after Cherie Booth was forced to apologise for trying to juggle all the balls and dropping one that the situation might improve.
Now Symonds has added Marie Antoinette to her titles of Lady Macbeth and Anne Boleyn because she wants to repaper the PM’s Downing Street flat in the designer Lulu Lytle’s fern scrolling wallpaper. But it’s her fiancé who should be dunked if he is appealing for charity to pay for their renovations.
Symonds has had to cope with a now easily recognisable cycle of abuse. It started with the seemingly innocent celebration of geisha-like pictures of her in prairie dresses and highlighted tresses, before moving rapidly to the implication, drawing on usually disgruntled male sources, that she was manipulative and hysterical, the power behind the throne who couldn’t control her temper or her dog.
After that she was described as Princess Nut Nut. Now she is being cast as fighting other women, having called the sitting room bequeathed by Theresa May a “John Lewis furniture nightmare”, though I can’t see the former prime minister minding that.
You could say this young mother has exploited her own position by posting perfect photographs of herself on Instagram but I wonder whether this is just a way of trying to take back some control in an increasingly hostile, obsessively scrutinised world. Mrs May did the same with her leather trousers; if they were going to compare her pins to Nicola Sturgeon’s then she might as well get in first.
Being a prime minister’s partner doesn’t automatically make someone a target: Denis Thatcher and Philip May were always seen as benign, smiling figures. But women in the public eye just aren’t treated in the same way as men. Every woman I interview, from the council clerk Jackie Weaver to ministers and actresses, has had experience of abusive trolls and sexist keyboard warriors, rape and death threats. Men seem to want to watch them self-destruct. Some use humour to tackle the misogynist online bullies, others quietly retire.
I once met Monica Lewinsky, a dignified, intelligent woman, and felt horrified at how journalists and commentators had traduced her while lauding Bill and Hillary Clinton. It happens to female sports pundits too. Sonja McLaughlan, the BBC reporter, was driven to tears last weekend by vile abuse directed at her following her Six Nations rugby interviews, and was then sneered at by the bullies for having cracked.
These tales don’t crop up in interviews with men: they usually look blank if you ask them how many death threats they’ve received. Such abuse is a way of keeping women in the shadows and punishing them for speaking out or behaving too loudly and it has to stop. Women shouldn’t have to quit social media and become mute. As Lewinsky explained to me, “whenever this kind of vitriol and misogyny is directed towards one woman, it reverberates to all women”.
But a new generation is refusing to play: stars like Carey Mulligan and Taylor Swift are calling out the snide sexual remarks, despite being denigrated as spoilsports. In the past year, women who have become crucial to efforts to counter the coronavirus have also demanded respect. When I interviewed Professor Sarah Gilbert, one of the developers of the Oxford vaccine, and Kate Bingham, who procured it, they took on their detractors.
No one dares denigrate them as witches; they’re wizards. Symonds should be allowed to get on with her new environmental job and the prime minister can take responsibility for his own wallpaper.
Some of the gifts were accepted after the sheikh’s youngest wife, Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, 46, fled to London with their two young children in March 2019. Two months later the princess, a former Olympic equestrian, was invited to join the Queen for tea at Windsor.
The revelation of the continuing gifts comes after the Queen was urged to use her influence over the sheikh to secure the release of two daughters he had abducted. Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, spoke this weekend of her regret at failing to use her prestige as a former United Nations human rights envoy to intervene on behalf of Princess Latifa, 35.
Robinson had lunch with Latifa in 2018 and later described her as a troubled young woman.
Through a shared love of horses Mohammed has developed a friendship with the Queen that transcends normal royal protocol. He is regularly invited to join her at Royal Ascot.
Mohammed, 71, prime minister and vice-president of the United Arab Emirates, has invested a fortune to make Godolphin in Newmarket, Suffolk, one of the premier racing stables.
John Warren, the Queen’s racing manager, declined to comment yesterday about the gifts from Godolphin since 2019 or on rumours that further horses had been accepted. A Buckingham Palace spokeswoman said that it “would not comment on private matters”.
The Queen does not buy horses. All the 55 horses that carried her silks during the last flat season were from the royal stud, except the nine given by Godolphin. The age of some of the Godolphin horses meant that they must have been given after the princess fled to London. Mohammed is reported to have given the Queen four yearlings each year since 2009.
Six of the sheikh’s gifts won a race last year: Lightness, Just Fine, Inveigle, Wakening, Chosen Star and Desert Flyer. They collected £34,440 in prize money but cost the Queen about £270,000 in training fees. The previous year five other horses from Godolphin carried the Queen’s silks in flat races.
The Queen’s association with the sheikh is expected to come under the spotlight again this week as a new audio recording is released from Latifa, who the High Court found had been abducted by her father.
In the recording she recalls one of the sheikh’s senior aides saying that her father would take no notice of pleas to release her.
She says: “He is saying, ‘Nobody can make your father let you be free, nobody. Nobody is stronger than him.’ Yeah, it is all like brainwashing, they are trying to discourage me.”
Latifa was seized in 2018 by armed men while escaping Dubai on a yacht with Tiina Jauhiainen, a friend who had been her martial arts instructor. She has also appealed for her freedom in videos from her “villa jail”.
Concern about the princess’s plight has been spreading at the UN. Her supporters at first requested help from the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, overseen by the UN Human Rights Council, which has put her on its list of cases. Her ordeal has been referred to three more bodies: the special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the special rapporteur on violence against women; and the committee on the elimination of discrimination against women. UN officials attended an online conference where the new audio was played, alongside video testimony from the princess. “You could see they are taking it very seriously,” her lawyer, David Haigh, said. “You cannot fail to be affected by these videos.”
Jauhiainen has published an open letter to the Queen appealing for her to use “whatever influence” she has with the sheikh to secure the release of Latifa and her sister Shamsa, 39, who was abducted in Cambridge in 2000. She wrote: “Given you so obviously value justice, freedom and family and that you command universal respect, I truly believe your intervention could help bring the ordeal of these two women to an end.”
Mohammed’s British properties include the 3,300-acre Dalham Hall estate in Newmarket, the £75 million Longcross estate near Cobham, Surrey, and a 63,000-acre Highland estate.
The former president can use her global influence to pressurise Dubai
For those of us who celebrated Mary Robinson’s election as Ireland’s first woman president in 1990 the vapour trails of euphoria lingered long after she had left Aras an Uachtarain seven years later. She was a feminist who did not just talk the talk; she had walked the walk to Leinster House and the Four Courts as a senator and a senior counsel, chipping away at the patriarchal edifice to carve out improvements in women’s lives. Her election as the head of this state came at the end of a decade of horrors for Irish females, most notably the medieval evisceration of Joanne Hayes at the Kerry Babies tribunal; the tragic death of Ann Lovett, 15, with her newborn baby at the feet of a statue of the Blessed Virgin in Granard; the court-approved dismissal of Eileen Flynn from her teaching job in Wexford for cohabiting with a married man; and two viciously fought referendums on abortion and divorce when women’s feelings were hurled around like rocks by warring cavemen.
In a delicious irony it was a sexist attack on Robinson by the former EU commissioner Pádraig Flynn the weekend before the presidential election, when he accused her of portraying “a newfound interest” in her family during the campaign, that ensured her victory. As president she often aligned the office with vulnerable women, particularly by visiting refuges for survivors of domestic abuse. Her ultimate act of feminist symbolism was when she visited the Pope on International Women’s Day, eschewing the Vatican’s requirement that women dress from head to toe in black and, instead, sporting a sprig of mimosa, Italy’s women’s-lib emblem, on a vivid green dress. Her visit as president to famine-blighted Somalia, where she made a point of privately meeting women community leaders, catapulted her into the role of UN high commissioner for human rights.
Watching Robinson’s apologia on last week’s BBC Panorama programme about the kidnapping, captivity and disappearance of Princess Latifa of Dubai was like watching one of your heroes fall from grace. When someone damages the very cause that had enticed you to invest your respect in them, the shattering of that regard is gut-wrenching.
Robinson has, at long last, conceded she was used as a patsy by Dubai’s billionaire ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum in an international propaganda exercise to conceal his crimes. He had his daughter abducted by armed commandoes on board a yacht off the coast of India after she tried to escape his tyrannical clutches in 2018. “My father is the most evil person I have ever met in my life,” she said in a video she secretly recorded. Latifa was back under lock and key in Dubai when Robinson, while attending a conference in Paris, received an invitation to lunch in the glittering Arab emirate from Latifa’s step-mother, Princess Haya. One of the sheikh’s six wives and mothers of his 25 children, Haya had become friendly with Robinson before her marriage, during a sojourn in Ireland working with horses in the 1990s. She paid for Robinson’s flight to Dubai.
Latifa has said Haya told her that, if she passed the test of sitting docilely at lunch, she might enjoy greater freedom. The younger woman knew nothing about this “Mary” who came to lunch and said that, had she known she was a former human rights commissioner, she would have confided in Robinson. Instead, the conversation at lunch was about sport, veganism and the environment. Robinson has said Haya told her Latifa was suffering from bipolar disorder and that she did not discuss this with the younger woman, having no expertise in the condition.
On Christmas Eve Dubai issued photographs and film footage of the occasion to rebut international concerns that Latifa was being held prisoner. When the BBC challenged her about her role in December 2018 Robinson said Latifa was “clearly troubled” but she was “in the loving care” of her family.
Last week the Irish woman admitted she had been duped. “I was misled, initially by my good friend princess Haya, because she was misled.” The unanswered question is why Robinson has waited until now to admit her mistake. Four months after the images of the lunch were released Haya herself fled Dubai with her two children and petitioned for a divorce in London. She told the court she was “terrified” of her husband, that he had intimidated her with guns, and planned to marry off their 12-year-old daughter.
Haya said she began to see through his lies about Latifa’s mental health when she visited the young woman in a locked and guarded house on December 6, 2018. That was nine days before Robinson came to lunch. Yet there is no indication that the human-rights champion protested at the release of the film and photos a further 10 days later.
The sheikh did not testify in court. Instead, he brazenly hosted an international conference on women’s rights, which was addressed by Ivanka Trump, a daughter of America’s then president. While it is almost understandable that someone whose father is a self-confessed “pussy” grabber would give her imprimatur to a misogynistic regime, one expected better from Robinson. She would know that Dubai’s laws discriminate against women in regulating marriage, child custody and inheritance. Naivety cannot explain her behaviour, because she is far from naive.
On March 5, 2020, the London court ruled that Latifa was held for three years on her father’s instructions after her first attempt to escape in 2005, and that he had ordered her abduction and forced return to Dubai in 2018. The judgment also stated that Sheikh Mohammed had arranged the kidnapping of her older sister, Shamsa, from Cambridge in 2000. She has not been seen in public since.
I believe Robinson remains sincere in her beliefs about women’s rights and suspect she feels devastated at being exploited, to the endangerment of Latifa, who has vanished since that lunch. Haya and Robinson are, to different extents, victims of the tyrant sheikh too. The Irishwoman, however, has the global influence as well as the cultural and jurisdictional independence to make amends.
Robinson’s biography on the website of the Elders, an international elite formed by Nelson Mandela which she chairs, describes her as “a forceful advocate for gender equality, women’s participation in peace building and human dignity”. Sadly, she needs to prove it, all over again. She can do that by leading the charge to find Latifa and her sister Shamsa, and by forcing the rest of the world to stop turning a blind eye to wealthy tyrants.
Meanwhile the rest of us might think twice about holidaying in Dubai, thus contributing to the tourism revenue that helps immunise a wicked father and leader against any threat to his authoritarian hold on his country.
The missing Dubai princess has appealed to British police to reinvestigate the fate of an older sister who disappeared in Cambridge two decades ago, according to a smuggled letter.
Princess Latifa, 35, who says that she is being held captive by her family, said that police could help to free Princess Shamsa, 39.
The older sister ran away in 2000 from a Surrey estate owned by her father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. She was seized two months later. Cambridgeshire police investigated the case at the time but were blocked from pursuing it to the United Arab Emirates.
“All I ask of you is to please give attention on her case because it could get her her freedom,” Latifa, 35, wrote in the letter, which has been shared with the BBC. “Your help and attention on her case could free her. She has strong links to England. She really loves England, all of her fondest memories are of her time there.”
Details of what happened to Shamsa, who was staying at the Longcross estate, near Chobham, when she fled, were only fully revealed when Latifa, who is her full sister by one of Sheikh Mohammed’s six wives, ran away herself in 2018.
In a video recorded and sent to the campaign group Detained in Dubai, to be released only if she were recaptured, she described how Shamsa had been held in prison and then drugged to keep her docile after her escape attempt.
Latifa said she herself had tried to escape before. This time, she almost made it to India on a yacht owned by a Frenchman, Hervé Jaubert, along with a Finnish friend, Tiina Jauhiainen, but they were intercepted by the Indian and Emirati navies.
Last week BBC Panorama updated the story by releasing more videos, this time secretly recorded in 2019 by Latifa on a phone smuggled into the villa in Dubai where she said she was being held captive.
It is not clear how the letter being revealed now was released. The BBC said it was written in 2019, though dated February 2018, before her escape, to disguise the details of its origins. It has been passed to the police.
The letter repeated Latifa’s earlier claims about her sister’s treatment after she was flown back to Dubai from England in 2000. “She was kept incommunicado with no release date, trial or charge,” it said. “She was tortured by getting her feet caned.”
Cambridgeshire police confirmed that they had received the letter and said it would be added to a continuing review of the case. “This is a very complex and serious matter and as such there are details of the case that it would be inappropriate to discuss publicly,” the force said in a statement.
The Foreign Office subsequently confirmed that Dubai, which has close relations with Britain, had approached it about Shamsa’s case when her disappearance was being investigated.
A senior police officer who was blocked from investigating the kidnapping of Shamsa at the time of her abduction claimed last year that the truth about the case was being suppressed to save official “embarrassment”. David Beck, the detective chief inspector who was in charge of the original investigation, was denied permission by the Crown Prosecution Service to travel to Dubai to interview witnesses, and the investigation was dropped.
He said he had been prevented from reviewing the police files in the case despite being required to give evidence in the High Court.
“They said in the statements in court they quoted ‘significant sensitivities’ and to me ‘significant sensitivities’ means someone is going to get embarrassed,” Beck said. “Well, personal embarrassment is not a reason for withholding the truth about the evidence.”
Last week Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said that the video footage was “deeply troubling” and that Britain would “watch very closely developments on that front”.
As part of custody hearings in London in 2019 connected to Sheikh Mohammed’s divorce from another wife, Princess Haya of Jordan, he issued a statement that Shamsa was “vulnerable” and that he had ordered a “rescue mission” for her in 2000. However, the judge, Sir Andrew McFarlane, ruled that the sheikh had ordered the abduction of both daughters.
It is not that no one knew about the kidnapping of Princess Shamsa from the streets of Cambridge in August 2000. She managed to get word out through a lawyer, and police began an investigation (Richard Spencer writes).
The princess had fled the estate of her father, Sheikh Mohammed, near Chobham, Surrey, in a black Range Rover before heading to Cambridge. Once there she checked into the University Arms Hotel but on August 19 her break for freedom came to an abrupt end. Shamsa was captured by a team of her father’s operatives who had been trailing her since her escape. It was not long before she was back in Dubai and, after police were blocked from travelling there, the investigation stalled.
So for almost two decades everyone forgot about the free-spirited 18-year-old. One person who did not was her younger sister Latifa. She was 14 at the time and the punishment meted out to Shamsa, rather than cowing her, made her even more determined to follow suit. She made her own first escape attempt two years later, heading over the border from Dubai to neighbouring Oman before being captured and returned home.
Later on, she saw her sister emerge from incarceration a shell of the girl with whom she had grown up. “She had to be led around by her hand,” Latifa said in one of the statements leaked to the BBC. “She couldn’t open her eyes. She was given a bunch of pills to control her. Those pills made her like a zombie.”
Other than that, Shamsa is the invisible princess. Her brothers, sisters and cousins are celebrities in Dubai, with Instagram accounts showing glamorous lives with all the luxuries that come with having a Gulf emir as your father.
Her older brother, Sheikh Hamdan, the crown prince, keeps a white tiger as a pet. A cousin, also called Latifa, shares the family passion for horses and competed as an equestrian at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Sheikh Mohammed says both princesses are being cared for in the bosom of his family. He says they have declined requests to speak to a lawyer. The UN has asked for proof of life.
The sheikh is absolute ruler of his emirate and there is little any outside power, including Cambridgeshire police, can do to stop him treating his daughters as he wishes.
In 2000, though, Dubai was much less well known than it is today, something of a magnet for British tourists, football stars, influencers and businessmen. The battle for Shamsa and Latifa, and for the image of the Maktoum family, has some way to go yet.