Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum is expected to be absent from Royal Ascot this week after last year’s revelations in a court case.
The sheikh has previously been a guest of the Queen in the royal box but is not expected to attend the meeting. Palace sources had indicated in October that he would not be invited into the royal box again.
Sheikh Mohammed, the owner of the Godolphin stable, has been a leading figure in racing for three decades but has become something of an embarrassment to the sport after a High Court judge ruled that he ordered the hacking of phones belonging to his estranged wife, Princess Haya, and her British lawyer. He was also found to have ordered the abduction of his two daughters.
Godolphin has 40 horses running at Ascot this week, including Creative Force and Naval Crown in the Platinum Jubilee stakes on Saturday.
There is uncertainty over whether the Queen will attend, and if he does it is likely to be announced by Buckingham Palace shortly before the event. She did attend Royal Ascot on day five last year but, now aged 96, she has pulled out of recent public appearances.
Ascot organisers expect 270,000 racegoers to attend across the week but have cut the capacity in some areas compared with pre-pandemic years.
The Royal Enclosure will have 1,000 fewer people permitted, while the Queen Anne and Windsor enclosures will be reduced by 4,150 and 2,000 respectively. The Royal Enclosure Gardens has been extended, however, to create more space next to the track, and an expanded Village Enclosure will be open again for the first time since 2019.
Several meetings before the pandemic involved outbreaks of anti-social behaviour, which led to Ascot organisers putting in place enhanced measures, including sniffer dogs to deter racegoers bringing drugs to the meeting. Racegoers may also be breathalysed by stewards and refused admission.
An Ascot insider told The Times: “Everyone is aware of the need to control anti-social behaviour as much as possible and we have a zero-tolerance approach to that with very visible stewarding.
“We are very hopeful that as with other race meetings since the pandemic that everyone will behave appropriately.”
No one seems to know if Sheikh Mohammed is going to attend the Cazoo Derby at Epsom. The race has certainly been good to him: he has had the Derby winner in two of the past four years. He has three runners, one of which, Nations Pride, is third-favourite. All that is certain is that if he does turn up, no one is going to stop him. And you can be equally sure that no one is going to talk about it.
This is the omerta of racing, the sport’s embarrassment, its terrible silence — because on the one hand, Mohammed is the most powerful player and the most successful owner in British Flat racing, but on the other, if you follow recent legal cases, he shouldn’t be allowed to own a single racehorse, let alone three Derby runners.
When you ask the Jockey Club whether Mohammed should be welcomed at the Derby, it defers to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA). The BHA, in turn, is quite clear on this in its published Ownership Guidance Notes. These state that “the BHA must be satisfied that the applicant is suitable to be registered ”. Under this suitability guide is a section entitled “Honesty and Integrity”, the first point of which is “whether the applicant has been convicted of any criminal offence in Great Britain”.
If Mohammed did not have sovereign immunity, he probably would have been. We can say this because two years ago, the High Court in the UK found that on the balance of probabilities, he was responsible for the abduction of two of his own daughters.
No matter, the BHA also determines suitability according to whether “the applicant has been the subject of any adverse finding by a judge in any civil proceedings”. Well, how long have you got?
This has come to a head for this year’s Flat racing season because, in March, the High Court finally settled the long-running dispute between Mohammed and Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein, the youngest of his six wives. Sir Andrew McFarlane, the president of the family division, found that Mohammed had conducted a “campaign of fear, intimidation and harassment” against her and “domestic abuse” which was “conducted on a scale which is entirely outside the ordinary circumstances of cases heard in the family court”.
The details include phone-hacking and writing poetry which contained death threats. On at least two occasions, Princess Haya found a gun on her bed with the safety catch off.
The BHA could, if it chose, act on its broader interpretation of suitability because there is plenty of legal detail here. Cambridgeshire police did investigate the abduction of Princess Shamsa, one of Mohammed’s daughters, in July 2000 but hit a dead end when it was blocked from Dubai.
Princess Latifa, Shamsa’s younger sister, attempted to flee Dubai in 2018 but was seized from a boat by Indian commandos off the coast of Goa, drugged and then returned to Dubai.
A United Nations panel ruled last year that Latifa was handed over between India and Dubai in a “de facto swap” for a businessman accused of bribery in India. Does that sound like a suitable owner? If the jury is still out, the secret recordings of Latifa, made after her abduction from the boat, which were shown in a Panorama investigation last year, are quite chilling. “I am in a villa,” she says. “I am hostage. The villa has been converted into a jail. All the windows are barred. Every day I am worried about my safety and my life.” And so it goes.
On it goes with racing, too. Mohammed’s racing empire — Godolphin — earned a one-two in the 2,000 Guineas in April, the first classic of the Flat season. At this early point in the campaign Mohammed is, by some distance, leading the Owners’ Championship.
The top five in those standings make for interesting reading. In second is Shadwell Estate, which is the racing arm of Mohammed’s brother, Hamdan, who died in March last year, and in fifth Ahmed Al Maktoum, another family member.
Over four decades, the family’s dominance has been incredible. Mohammed was the top owner first in 1985, which started a winning streak where he — or Godolphin, which is the same thing — won 12 times in 15 years, the other three winners being his brother Hamdan.
Since 1985, only four people other than Mohammed and Hamdan have been champion owner, and one of those was Princess Haya. That doesn’t really count, because as another judge declared in the Mohammed divorce settlement: “The racehorses were clearly not owned by HRH [Haya]. They were simply run in her colours.”
In other words the family, led by Mohammed, have been for a long time by far the greatest investors in British racing. The extent of their investment in and ownership of Newmarket, British racing’s capital city, is considerable. They employ thousands of people.
Why the omerta around Mohammed? Because he is a foundation stone of the British racing industry, and no one wants to see what would happen if you pulled it away. Even aside from kidnappings and domestic abuse, this is an uncomfortable reality that racing needs to confront. Mohammed is 72; what happens when he is no more?
However if, as it appears, Mohammed does not pass the suitable owners’ test, British racing should not be waiting — it should be confronting this now. Yet the sum of his censure after these court cases are the noises that the Queen, who has accepted racehorses as gifts from him before, will no longer welcome him in the Royal Box at Ascot nor share the royal procession with him in her carriage.
The problem, of course, is that racing would be crippling itself if it did choose to freeze out Mohammed and Godolphin. But it goes further than that.
Last year the BHA made a statement in which “concern” was shared about the Panorama revelations. It also stated that the BHA had been in contact with the government about the situation, saying: “We cannot discuss contact with the government further and we are not going to confirm whether we are or are not taking any action.”
That was 16 months ago. When asked by The Times about Mohammed, the BHA said that the situation had not changed.
The point is that Mohammed is more than a racehorse owner — he is prime minister and vice-president of the United Arab Emirates. When the Duke of Cambridge made an official visit to Dubai in February, one of his hosts was one of Mohammed’s sons.
This, therefore, is in part a story of the establishment, and in part about the sport’s self-preservation. There are, you hope, very few people found by a civil court to have kidnapped and abused who would get to win the Derby, but, on Saturday, Sheikh Mohammed may be one of them.
It is one of those strange and heady days when you’re being driven towards New York, but the New York that you‘re being driven towards is not the one you love so much and lived in for five years, but a hamlet with a main road cutting through it like a vicar’s knife — not New York, New York, but the bucolic English one of the East Lindsey district of Lincolnshire in the parish of Wildmore in the Fens. My companion at the wheel here is someone I have known for fourteen years. We met in Dubai on our way then to a war zone. Dubai will feature in this story, but it is peacetime freakery, another story for another day, which brings us together here.
We are in the middle of a discussion. It is about an abduction which took place fifty miles to the south of here, nearly twenty-two years ago, in the university town of Cambridge. The weather is unseasonably hot and my friend opens the window. All this talk of abduction grates the soul. It sparks within me such a flurry of thoughts, I want to write them all down, maybe even explore the idea of making a film about them one day. This is because at the heart of this incident is a kind of self-inflicted wound whose pain is so sharp, so deep, it possesses an ability to transform what you think about a place.
This is why the eccentricity of where we are driving through — New York in England — somehow fits with a country increasingly uncertain about what it is anymore. There is even a token yellow cab and immaculate NYPD police car to our right. The giant Uncle Sam effigy, confusing as hell, glints in the noonday sun. It is like a page from a magical realist novel. Yet the topic of our discussion is real, not fiction at all. It is the Cambridge abduction of Princess Shamsa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, a terrible and swift prohibition of a young life which took place in England when the victim was a mere 19 years old. An incident brutishly exacerbated today by the failure of Cambridgeshire police to press any charges, albeit for reasons beyond their control.
I had forgotten how much I hated this case. We drive on in limited silence to the villages of Tumby and Haltham, in what feels like a disconnected cosmos. The story is still present because it remains unresolved. Usually, family abductions relate to the illegal removal of a child from his or her parents or guardians, rarely do they entertain the possibility of the forcible action of a parent on a child, more of which later. It is as if we are left with only a giant, uncomfortable void. The proverbial horse, if you wish, has already bolted.
Talking of which, none of this is helped by the fact Princess Shamsa is the daughter of the Queen’s very good horse friend and billionaire ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Dubai is of course the second largest Emirate in the UAE (United Arab Emirates), a federation of seven Emirates presently in sustained mourning over the recent death of former UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. As well as a popular citadel of luxury shopping, however, Dubai happens also to be where approximately 250,000 foreign labourers are alleged to live in conditions described by Human Rights Watch as ‘less than humane’. I have been there eight times. I have always been met with a kind of sweeping hospitality. I still can’t get my head around it.
In some kind of sick celebrity universe, I suppose you would have to describe Princess Shamsa as the least ordinary victim of a suspected kidnapping. If something similar had not happened later to her sister Latifa, it would still be bad enough. Princess Shamsa’s father’s net worth is approximately $14 billion. He is a successful man, an inquisitive and acquisitive human being. They say he is also a poet who was first published under fictitious names such as Saleet and Nedawi. All things not being equal, he will likely be a person who gets what he wants in this world.
Not only does the Sheikh possess a love of horses, he owns the magnificent Godolphin stables, including those admired so much by the Queen which are situated in Newmarket close to Cambridge. Indeed, these serve as the base for Godolphin’s entire British operations. Her Majesty will also no doubt enjoy the Sheikh’s use of the name Godolphin. It is after the Godolphin Arabian, a stallion from the desert that became one of the three founding stallions of the so-called modern Thoroughbred. In such circles, pedigree is all. Princess Shamsa liked horses too.
A wild hare darts across the field to our left and I find myself wondering if Princess Shamsa still has a fondness for horses. Even if hidden from the world, I wonder if she is permitted to race across shimmering sands and feel the warm desert sun on her face. There are online photographs of Princess Shamsa on horseback. These are from her teens when she appears untroubled and free. I wonder if today’s Princess Shamsa can go online, or find a way to do so. Could she perhaps even be reading this?
Presumably, Princess Shamsa knows Newmarket well. The stables are close to the estate to which she was reportedly driven by four armed men — just imagine such a thing — on the night of her reported abduction. Could it also be possible that her abductors in the course of going about their business disturbed the horses? Our solid-hoofed friends can sense a thing or two when it comes to fear or untowardness.
It is good galloping terrain here in Lincolnshire. As the very English flatlands yield to yet more blue sky, my friend and I feel an antithetical chill still thinking about Princess Shamsa. It is reported that she was put on a helicopter from Newmarket, perhaps even at five o’clock in the morning. This was to somewhere in northern France from where she was transferred to a Dubai-bound private jet. As the fertile lands of Europe gave way this time to the occasionally oil-rich sands of the Middle East, what were Princess Shamsa’s thoughts? Was she sleeping?
The high life, indeed, I am thinking, as a passenger jet in the sky leaves a far less menacing trail.
These chills don’t go away, either, and that’s the problem. My friend and I feel a second one learning on my phone that she is described by a cousin as ‘cheeky and full of life and adventure’. I feel another because initially she fled from her family’s Longcross Estate in Surrey on a day just like today, unexpectedly warm and upbeat. I feel a fourth because England is a country she partly grew up in and knew very well, and which has, in all important respects, badly let her down. ‘She really loves England,’ writes sister Latifa, in a letter to Cambridgeshire police, ‘all of her fondest memories are of her time there.’
An investigation was eventually begun by Cambridgeshire police a year after the abduction. This was only after Princess Shamsa made contact somehow through an immigration lawyer. Unfortunately, Cambridgeshire police officers were then blocked from travelling to Dubai to follow this up.
This is where it all starts to get very murky. Especially if we care about justice. There were Freedom of Information requests made to the UK foreign office, now the FCDO, about why exactly the decision was made to halt the investigation. But these attempts were rejected outright, the refusals on the basis that the UK and UAE relationship could be harmed.
Institutions and relationships aside, I defy anyone today not to feel at least a shudder of pain thinking about the nervous heartbeat of a young female foreign national, apparently wanting to make a difference for women in the Arab world especially, a guest effectively not only in this country but now at the mercy of this country, being instantaneously abducted in the middle of an unsuspecting night out with friends — the lightness of her youth, in one final swoop, made eternally burdensome, dark, leaden, and eventually lost.
Yes, Princess Shamsa’s world at the time was a million miles from our own — opulent, otherwordly, lavishly appointed — but this is no reason to forget that abduction is unacceptable. Abduction, let us remind ourselves, means the taking of a person against their will. Ask the Ukrainians abducted in Russian-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine what they think about abduction. They say it cuts irreparably deep into our sense of place in the world. It shatters everything we know and we love. I don’t know of any other high-profile missing persons whose case has been made to disappear, along with the missing person.
In 2019, the plot thickens further. A UK High Court judge formally rules that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum has abducted not only Princess Shamsa but also Princess Latifa. This is after a boat 20 miles off the coast of India in international waters is seized in 2018 with Princess Latifa on board. She is with Finnish friend Tiina Jauhiainen. Latifa, just like her sister Shamsa, is whisked straight back to Dubai, where ‘hostage’ footage is later released. ‘I don’t really know if I’m going to survive this situation,’ she says. ‘I don’t know what they’re planning to do with me.’ Even former Irish president Mary Robinson describes her role in the case of Latifa as the biggest mistake of her life after she previously describes Latifa as ‘troubled’. Mary Robinson, it should be remembered, was also a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and now openly believes Princess Latifa is being held against her will.
Because Princess Shamsa is seized in England, it falls under English Law. Because it took place in Cambridge, it remains like a gauntlet slapped down right in front of Cambridgeshire Police. Even human rights lawyer David Haigh claims to have new evidence on the case but is still getting nowhere. The last heard of this fresh attempt was in October 2021 when it was reported that arrangements were still being made to have it presented. This is the same indomitable David Haigh who himself was in contact with the United Nations working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances.
A quick look at everything written about Princess Shamsa makes for uncomfortable reading. We are reminded for example that Conservative politician Alec Shelbrooke once accused Tony Blair’s government of what he called ‘backroom deals’. An even more precise article alleges it was then foreign secretary Robin Cook — famous for his so-called ethical foreign policy — who shut down the inquiry. There is even one uncomfortable reference in the Express newspaper of Princess Shamsa having been tortured in Dubai.
Or have I got this all wrong? Could it still be the simple case of a caring father worried about a missing daughter, who finally gets to find her? The Shiekh’s only official comment on the story is to register relief at having found what he calls his vulnerable daughter.
Alas, whatever else we believe, the waves created from all this still crash heavily on the credibility of the British Establishment. I personally find it painful to contemplate that aides acting for the Sheikh made representations to the Foreign Office, and that these clearly made a difference. In a land constantly telling the rest of the world of its triumphs of justice for the rights and freedoms of its people, we really are a sham at times.
Back in London, I weigh up the practicalities of both an article and a film. I find I am less confident about the latter. The main challenge would be in telling a story of someone who is not here. I made a one-hour documentary for the BBC about a sculptor who through illness couldn’t speak. That was hard enough. Films prefer their leads in them. Yet I know Princess Shamsa’s ‘presence’ in a film could, if done well enough, be her very absence — and her resultant enigma, if you like, acting like a kind of muse. I learn that the BBC through Panorama have already made a film — others too — and I am left wondering if mine should not appeal more to the poet in the father than the cage in the child.
Out of growing frustration, I ask one or two friends why they think no charges have been brought. The consensus of opinion is that Dubai and the UAE are just too important to London for the relationship to be jeopardised. (Witness the long succession of powerful mourners from this country that have been visiting the UAE over the past few days.) One friend suggests the UAE is essential ‘strategically’ in the region. Someone else points out that we do sell an awful lot of arms to them, almost £350 million’s worth since Boris Johnson became PM.
Then why, I ask my friends, did the UAE abstain the day before in what was the first ever United Nations vote on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? ‘I thought you said they were our allies,’ I say. Later, when the UAE welcomes President Assad of Syria — Assad’s only other trips outside Syria during the war have been to Iran and Russia — a lot of people are left more than scratching their heads.
That evening at sundown, mistakenly thinking I have read just about everything on the subject of the abduction, I find for the first time one small mention by the BBC that they spoke to someone who had regular contact with Princess Shamsa in Dubai. ‘You didn’t need to be a doctor to know that [she] was tranquillised all the time,’ they say.
Unsettled now, I meet up with a BBC producer friend. He is recently out of hospital but knows the case well and he even smiles when he remembers I like to wear my heart on my sleeve in my work sometimes. By contrast, it is a bleak Soho afternoon. Avoiding the delicious artisan scones, cream cakes and cheesecake at Maison Bertaux, we sit down at our small table and drink coffee. Because of the close proximity of the other tables, and our own deliberately low voices owing to the sensitivity of our subject, it is impossible to hear each other properly. My friend leans forward and whispers loudly into my ear as a result that the best way to justify any new stab at the subject is to get a quote from someone in the police or Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) at the time. Get them to admit they were lent on, he is effectively telling me. Then you have yourself a film. A tall order, I suggest back. Sounding like an old-fashioned insurrectionary, he suggests that any such complicity must always be confronted.
Half an hour later, I hold the door open and we head back into the cold of Greek Street. ‘We owe it to the princess to keep her story alive,’ concludes my producer friend. I can’t work out if this is a commission or not but promise to send him a pitch document anyway.
Inspired by now, I track down another friend, someone I want to see anyway. Like my producer friend, I have also been ill. This, along with the pandemic, is why this friend and I have so much catching up to do. Incidentally, this man once worked for the Crown Prosecution Services (CPS). Perhaps he can guide me, I am thinking.
We arrange to meet on the top floor of Tate Modern, a recent successful location in Netflix’s ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’. Staring down at the Thames and London Millennium Footbridge, I ask out of genuine curiosity what it was like ‘back in the day’ working for Keir Starmer, the former boss of the CPS.
‘He was always on top of his brief,’ says my friend. ‘But he wasn’t what you would call a dazzler.’
Our view from the table includes a particularly sun-slapped St Paul’s Cathedral. As we continue catching up, I am thinking about the famous whispering gallery in the cathedral’s dome where two people can confide in each other while facing in opposite directions, and have their whispers return all the way back to them, full-circle, so to say. Unfortunately, it feels a bit like a whispering gallery that I have conjured up here. I say this to my friend in the naive hope that I am not being disingenuous by suddenly mentioning the case of Princess Shamsa. My lawyer friend is relaxed, even more so than I remember. He is also right and proper. He acknowledges only the strange case of Princess Diana’s butler Paul Burrell who was discovered with more than £4 million of Princess Diana’s possessions and trinkets, including images of Charles and her children in the bath. (To which, Princess Diana’s mother, as reported by Tina Brown in ‘The Palace Papers’ recently, commented: ‘I hope his balls burn.’) Anyway, my friend asks, without prejudice, if Burrell’s charges were not suddenly dropped? ‘Are you suggesting something?’ I say.
My next stop is Cambridge, where the story for Princess Shamsa so regrettably began. I meet up with my driving companion who picks me up at the station. We are pleased to see each other. On the back of what the BBC producer said, I mention that I have just been reading on the train a report by Georgia Goble in the university magazine Varsity from October 2021 on how it was alleged that the British Foreign Office ‘lent on’ Cambridgeshire Police to halt the investigation. This was to avoid what this time is called ‘diplomatic embarrassment’. (Naturally, the Foreign Office have denied having any involvement in the investigation or its outcomes.) Over and over, I have read different versions of this moment and am still getting nowhere.
Interestingly, Varsity’s article is written at the same time as the University of Cambridge called off a record donation of £400 million from the United Arab Emirates. The change of mind is to do with the UAE’s alleged use of Pegasus spyware, a revelation that comes after The Guardian’s well known Pegasus Project shows a leak of more than 50,000 telephone numbers which it believes are connected to people of interest to clients or customers of NSO Group. This is the Israeli corporation behind Pegasus, a company advised, no less, by Cherie Blair, whose husband’s government just so happens to have been responsible for the halt in Princess Shamsa’s case in the first place. These two facts are not considered related.
Importantly, though, the primary government in the Pegasus case that is accountable for selecting hundreds of UK numbers appears to be the UAE.
So not everyone can be lent on, I am thinking. This is the takeaway moral behind the £400 million being turned down. I also wonder what government thinks of standards.
My good friend and I enter the street leading to the University Arms Hotel where on August 19 almost twenty-two years ago, Princess Shamsa was staying. Here it is, right in front of us, the rebuilt elevation like a cleaned-up wound after its fire in 2013. I forget for a moment that this is not only where Princess Shamsa stayed but also where up to four of her father’s operatives had arrived.
We swing into the comparative innocence of a university car park and I cannot believe how swiftly some of these new academic buildings are being constructed, even assembled. Life moves on. Not everything is retained. The bad things in life are often edited out. If you don’t remain awake you might wake up in a world you no longer recognise.
I am here to introduce my friend to a professor at the university, and the three of us proceed with a friendly stroll past academic building after building, including a veterinary centre where we are told advancements on equine cancer detection are progressing well. ‘If your horse gets paid £50,000 a shag,’ smiles my professor friend, ’you’re going to want him fit.’ I wonder if the nearby Godolphin Stables with their capacity of up to 115 horses are in any way involved. I am also thinking about Princess Shamsa’s sister Latifa appealing directly to Cambridgeshire police to re-investigate the kidnapping of her older sister, and again how she was for a while held in solitary confinement — in what another BBC report describes as a ‘jail villa’. As the sun reflects generously on a very English stretch of reeded water, I watch a group of young students sat happily together in the sun. Today, Shamsa will be almost 40 years old, her own youth long since snatched in this very town.
Conversely, I go on to watch as a cluster of older academics move silently from one thought to another while entering the Fellows’ dining room of a prestigious Cambridge college. Even the lawn outside looks gifted. When I quietly mention the abduction of Princess Shamsa over food to those sitting around the large and erudite table, I am careful to mention it in the same breath as the refused £400 million by Cambridge University. At first, the person opposite jokes with affection that any university donation is really just money-laundering put to good use. I say that I rather admire the ethical stand taken by the university over Pegasus and the UAE, even if we do still have the problem of the case of Princess Shamsa.
At this moment, a distinguished figure to my left, enjoying a healthy but delicate vegetarian curry, acknowledges that they themselves once sat on such committees and enjoyed doing the right thing. This, too, is strangely gratifying, reminding me that principles really are like second nature to some.
Everyone seems to agree that the outgoing vice-chancellor at the time — Stephen Toope — did a more than decent job in suspending the £400 million. By coincidence, even Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s recent divorce from Princess Haya of Jordan was in part because of Pegasus revelations, The Guardian saying that the phones of Princess Latifa and Princess Haya, who fled to the UK in 2019, both appeared in the data.
After dessert, our conversation shifts to militancy among the young, and it is agreed — for some reason in the context of South Africa — that the young today accept the status quo far more readily than their predecessors ever did. I happen to say I discovered this very point myself in Johannesburg when meeting members of the ANC there — humbling, elderly men, imprisoned with Mandela.
Are we experiencing something similar here, I am allowed to wonder? My friend drives me back to the station. Why else is there is no protest among the students that we drive past in the street over the abduction? Is it left only to older academics these days to fight such battles? Or is it now felt that it is the important matters of race and our relationship with the past that needs addressing first?
At least human rights lawyer David Haigh is still trying to keep it real. Importantly, he is not critical of Cambridgeshire police at all. ‘A brazen offence has been committed on a British street,’ he has recorded in one statement: ‘It’s astonishing that this case hasn’t been solved after more than 20 years, but credit to the police for not giving up. They can rely on us for all the help and evidence we can give to bring the kidnappers to British justice.’
Retired DCI David Beck from the Cambridgeshire police told the Sunday Mirror recently that he has no idea why he was prevented from investigating the case, but did mention ‘significant sensitivities’.
Despite Mary Robinson’s registered regret, the UN Human Rights Council on February 18 this year tweets an image of Princess Latifa in Paris next to new UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet. Unfortunately, the timing is thrown into doubt by the presence of Christmas lights in the background, with some sceptics even suggesting it is a publicity ploy to help the Dubai and UAE Expo still taking place at the time.
I am afraid to say the Anglo-UAE relationship suffers yet another pounding last week with news that French authorities are opening a case against Interpol President Ahmed Nasser Al-Raisi of the UAE over what seems to be worrying accusations of torture against British citizens Matthew Hedges and Ali Issa Ahmad, detained when Ahmed Nasser Al-Raisi was a senior security official in the UAE.
Today, the writer of this piece sends genuine condolences to the people of the Emirates over last week’s death of their long-unwell ruler Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Offering his own condolences, MI6 Chief Richard Moore tweets that he is visiting the UAE for what he calls ‘discussions with our excellent Emirati strategic partners and friends’ and I can’t help but wonder if Princess Shamsa features in the conversation. It is certainly true that with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) formally elected now as the new president of the UAE, there is a great opportunity for some kind of a serious reboot and, indeed, fresh chapter. His presidency grants him power over all seven Emirates, including Dubai.
Whatever the truth about Princess Shamsa, whatever the truth about Anglo-UAE relations, it is an uncomfortable irony that the only person of innocence involved in the abduction remains the only person being held. I do hope that by the time I next go to New York, whichever New York it is, Princess Shamsa is ‘free’. The media has been achingly quiet since October 2021. No cameras, not even mine, are presently whirring. There are other subjects in the big bad world out there also crying for attention. Even with Covid attempting at long last to exit the world stage, it is the existential despair of Ukraine dominating much of the world news. Afghanistan for example doesn’t even get a look-in.
As for the still unresolved case of Princess Shamsa, England’s lost princess, the painter Wyndham Lewis, a man with a dodgy enough reputation of his own, once said that the English pride themselves in never praising themselves. Well, it saddens me to say, there is little to praise here anyway.
Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum’s former security manager who was in charge after the sheikh’s wife had a two-year affair with another bodyguard is fighting an unfair dismissal battle.
Mark Bromilow, 41, who served in the Royal Marines and is a former world powerlifting champion is claiming that he was wrongly picked for redundancy due to a flawed process.
He has alleged that favouritism was shown to other guards who kept their jobs even though they had less experience than him.
Mr Bromilow became a team leader in 2016 and was later promoted to lead a dozen close protection officers guarding Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum and his family at his UK base in Newmarket, Suffolk.
He stepped into the role in March 2019 to replace Russell Flowers who quit after a two-year affair with Sheikh Mohammed’s sixth and youngest wife Princess Haya.
Reference to the ‘scandal’ surrounding Princess Haya, 47, was made when Mr Bromilow’s case was aired at an employment tribunal on Thursday in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.
The one-day hearing heard how Mr Bromilow was among eight guards in Newmarket who were made redundant in September 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, which meant that members of Dubai’s ruling family were largely staying away from the UK.
Princess Haya fled her home in Dubai with her two children in fear of her life after being confronted by her husband about her affair with married Mr Flowers.
She was represented by high profile lawyer Fiona Shackleton (right) in a bitter High Court battle against the sheikh who was seeking the return of their children to Dubai
During the hearings, which the sheikh tried to keep private, the judge ruled Princess Haya had suffered a ‘campaign of intimidation’.
Family court judge Sir Andrew McFarlane heard evidence of her relationship although Mr Flowers was not named in the court judgment. He was identified at a later date.
Mr Bromilow argued at the employment tribunal on Thursday that the process for redundancy selection did not properly take into account his seven years of service of loyal service, and his wide experience in the security industry.
The hearing was told that he had worked for five years in personal protection in Baghdad and had also protected ships from Somali pirates since leaving the Royal Marines.
He said it was unfair that others with far less experience were inexplicably given higher marks in a ‘scoring’ exercise to decide which staff should lose their jobs.
Mr Bromilow of Methwold, Norfolk, and Mr Flowers were employed by UK Mission Enterprise which provides security for billionaire Sheikh Mohammed.
The Knightsbridge-based company boasts on its website that it offers ‘a 6 star quality private concierge service to exclusive VIP Clients, across the areas of property maintenance, in-house recruitment, procurement, finance, IT and human resources service’.
Mr Bromilow who now works as a fitness instructor claimed that one of the people awarding marks for different categories was best friends with a guard who ended up being removed from the redundancy process and kept his job.
But Sue Aslett, the company’s former head of human resources said the employee was kept on as he had an ‘established relationship’ with the ‘client’ who liked to see familiar faces.
Mr Bromilow who is claiming that he was unfairly dismissed by UK Mission Enterprise, said that he was told that he would be ‘invited to come back’ if more guards were needed, but he was not approached when the company advertised for four new close security operatives in April this year.
His barrister Mike Magee said the company which had made a total of 63 redundancies in 2020 was effectively owned and managed by the Dubai Royal family.
He said: ‘The company itself provides a range of services to support the extended Dubai Royal family in the UK including security services, housekeeping and a whole series of ancillary support functions.
‘The company was set up at the behest of the Dubai Royal family and Sheikh Mohammed.
‘It’s quite clear that Dubai pulls the strings in terms of the respondent organisation… I’m going to suggest it is owned by the Dubai Royal family.’
Sue Aslett, the company’s former head of human resources, responded that she only answered to the firm’s managing director, and was unable to give any information about the ownership of the company.
She said that redundancies were necessary due to ‘a requirement to reduce the head count because our clients were not coming to the UK’ during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ms Aslett added: ‘By default our workforce could not be maintained because we didn’t have the work for them. We were in a pandemic and had sufficient reductions in workload to the point where people had nothing to do.’
When asked by Judge Richard Conley if the Dubai Royal family had insisted on job cuts as owners of the company or ‘influential clients’, she replied: ‘No one wanted a redundancy situation.’
Mr Magee asked her: ‘Obviously you were aware of the situation regarding Princess Haya?’
She replied: ‘I was aware in terms of rumours. I was not in a client facing role.’
Mr Magee went on: ‘You would be aware there was a scandal around that and as a result of that, Mr Flowers was dismissed from the company.’
Ms Aslett responded that Mr Flowers had resigned and had not been dismissed.
Mr Magee continued: ‘Were you aware that following on from that, Mr Bromilow was required to go and give detailed information to investigators for the Dubai Royal family?
‘And he gave a full account of what he knew about this situation. He gave it to investigators. It was in fact representatives of Sheikh Mohammed.’
Ms Aslett replied: ‘I am not aware of that.’
Mr Bromilow said he was unhappy that the different categories which staff were being marked on when being assessed for redundancy did not include fitness which he described as ‘a vital role’.
The hearing heard that the guard who was later excused from the redundancy process had helped draw up the categories in his role as an employee representative, and had excluded fitness.
Mr Bromilow described it as a ‘conflict of interest’ because the guard had performed poorly in a fitness test and would have feared that including it would count against him.
He said he raised concerns about the fairness of the scoring system, but was ignored.
He added: ‘In my opinion, I had no flaws or misdemeanours against me, and I should have scored maximum points.
‘It was not conducted correctly. I was not given a fair crack of the whip when I had been there seven years and been an honest team leader and manager.
‘I would like to think they were happy with the service I provided. I got promoted through the ranks.’
Under cross examination by UK Mission Enterprise’s barrister Daniel Barnett, he said he agreed that the role of close protection operative ‘requires upmost discretion’.
Mr Barnett pointed out that Mr Bromilow’s solicitors had sent a letter in November 2020 which ‘hints at security breaches involving one of the subjects’.
The letter also alleged that Mr Bromilow had been targeted in ‘bad faith’ over information he had about one of the subjects he was guarding.
Mr Barnett suggested: ‘The reason why these things were put in that letter was because you thought if you threatened to make certain things public, then you thought UK Mission Enterprise would be willing to settle their claim.’ Mr Bromilow replied: ‘No, sir’.
Mr Bromilow also questioned why only security teams in Newmarket had been targeted for redundancy while all guards based in London were allowed to keep their jobs.
But Richard Hardaker, the company’s head of close protection, said the London security staff were ‘a specialist group of individuals’ involved in different work as a result of an incident many years ago which had ‘put somebody’s life at risk’.
He said that they gave support to help protect members of the Dubai Royal family when needed, but it was not their primary role.
Mr Magee described the redundancy process as a ‘capricious lottery’ and ‘fundamentally flawed’ with the two people awarding scores to each guard having little knowledge of their skills.
He added: ‘The obligation was on the respondents to deliver a system with a fair assessment and outcome.’
But Mr Barnett said there was no suggestion that the two scorers had been ‘put under any pressure’ to come up with their marks and it had not been suggested should have done the job.
He went on: ‘It is said that the criteria was subjective, not objective. But the question is whether they are capable for fair assessment.’
Mr Barnett said it was ‘reasonable’ that the other guard was excused from the redundancy process as he a ‘very long relationship going back years in double figures with the main principal’.
He added: ‘He was just someone who was too important to let go.’
Judge Richard Conley said he would deliver his judgement on the case in the New Year.
Family court judge Sir Andrew McFarlane stated in his fact-finding ruling in favour of Princess Haya, that she had ’embarked upon an adulterous relationship with one of her male bodyguards’.
He also found the sheikh had carried out a campaign of fear and intimidation which included divorcing her without telling her, arranging for guns to be left in her bedroom and attempting to have her abducted by helicopter.
The princess now lives at a £85m home in Kensington, London, with her two children.
Mr Bromilow, who runs a personal training business called Commando Strength states on his website that he was crowned London’s strongest man, represented England in world powerlifting events and was a World Champion in Deadlift Powerlifting in 2019.
UK Mission Enterprise denies the claim and the hearing continues.
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.”
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.