When the glamorous, estranged, 46-year-old Princess Haya of Dubai quickly retreated, not to the welcoming bosom of her Jordanian family but straight to the British courts to try to keep custody of her children, a harsh spotlight was firmly beamed onto the patriarchal societies of the Middle East.
For more than a decade, Haya used her rarefied and highly privileged position as the consort to the ruler of Dubai to promote humanitarian causes, not knowing she would be at the centre of a looming expensive legal battle over her own children’s protection and wider cultural gender issues.
Their marriage break-up is playing out amid huge international attention but it is not just about a high-profile divorce of one of the world’s richest men, the 70-year-old ruler of Dubai and vice-president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. His $6 billion global empire includes the Godolphin stables in Australia headed by Bart Cummings’s grandson, James Cummings (Godolphin’s Cross Counter won last year’s Melbourne Cup).
It embraces women’s rights, child protection, cultural issues and, as a sideline, even some poetic threats.
At stake is the international reputation of Dubai — once the exotic mid-flight hub for Qantas travel to Europe as well as intra-country friendship in the volatile Middle East.
So far the recriminations of the case have caused shockwaves among the couple’s high-powered friends and associates. Such is the sheik’s influence, he is close friends with Queen Elizabeth, bonding over a mutual love of horses and racing.
Haya, meanwhile, has sought sanctuary in her luxurious Kensington Gardens mansion, bought for $140 million two years ago from steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal. Her next-door neighbours, in Kensington Palace, are Prince William and his wife Kate.
Where it was widely assumed that Haya had fled her 15-year marriage as the sixth wife of the sheik in May because of widely reported treatment of some other female members of the Dubai royal family, the court has heard of another very powerful reason for Haya’s actions: forced marriage.
On the first day of the preliminary hearing in the Royal Courts of Justice this week, the president of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, overruled a request from Maktoum and allowed publication of the fact that the princess had applied for a forced-marriage protection order and wardship of their two children.
This particular protection order normally applies when a person, usually underage, is under imminent threat of being made to enter a marriage contract against their will.
Haya, using the same lawyers who represented Prince Charles in his divorce from Princess Diana, was also seeking a non-molestation order, a type of injunction that protects against harassment or threats.
Maktoum wants the children, whose names and details the court has suppressed, to return to Dubai. He too has some big-hitter lawyers: Helen Ward QC previously represented clients such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Guy Ritchie and Bernie Ecclestone.
When The Weekend Australian first met Haya in Dubai in 2010, she was an influential member of the International Olympic Committee, positioning for the Gulf state to host the Olympics in 2020 or 2024 and shaking up the staid International Equestrian Federation as its generous president.
Her love of horses was sparked when she was just two years of age: her mother, Queen Alia of Jordan, was killed in a helicopter crash and her father gave her an orphaned foal to care for. She reflected how looking after something else vulnerable was the best way to alleviate pain.
Then in her teens her world broadened, as she interacted with other athletes in competing internationally and got a trucking licence to transport her horses to showjumping competitions. She competed at the Sydney Olympics while earning a political degree at Oxford, before switching to Olympic leadership.
Her work in Dubai was heavily focused on creating much-needed food banks to alleviate hunger in the Middle East and Africa and, in 2007, then UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon named her a Messenger of Peace and she became a founding member of the Global Humanitarian Forum.
But back then she was also in love with Maktoum and was incredibly proud of his horsemanship as well as his poetry. So the deeply wounded words from the sheik in his latest creative efforts, released on Instagram the day his wife was in court, will have struck a nerve.
Some of the lines from Maktoum in a cryptic poem that have been directed towards her are: “Some mistakes are known as betrayal, and you have transgressed and betrayed”; “You traitor, you betrayed the most precious trust, you exposed your games and nature”; and the final line, “I do not care whether you live or die”. On the first day at the family court appearance, Maktoum posted an oblique poem mentioning “shining swords with sharp blades”.
It is speculated in Dubai circles that Haya was having an affair with her bodyguard, a former infantry soldier who was based at Dalham Hall Stud in Newmarket and that their relationship was discovered by the sheik — who has six wives — when he unexpectedly dropped into London after attending a Dubai wedding earlier this year.
But it is believed that Haya had fastidiously organised for herself and the children to leave Maktoum, using the assistance of a German diplomat to avoid raising the suspicions of the ever-watchful acolytes of the royal court and accessing about $50m held in international accounts.
Over the past few months she has been in London preparing for the coming custody case, which will be heard in early November. In all that time she has only been seen at the court and in a picture tweeted this week by her younger brother, Prince Ali bin Hussein.
Haya and Maktoum have together released a statement saying the court case has nothing to do with their separation or divorce and is only related to the children.
In her decision to flee to London, Haya may have also thought hard about the best jurisdiction to obtain custody: a Western court that looks at the best interests of the children rather than the heavyweight influence of the parents. And there are also political ramifications.
By distancing her private issues from Jordan, her half-brother, Jordan’s King Abdullah, has been able to try to keep crucial diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates. The UAE employs hundreds of thousand of Jordanians and it was a big financial backer of the country in helping it to host more than one million Syrian refugees.
And of course Haya is well aware of the personal ramifications of spiriting the children away from their father and their country. Family court analysts believe that taking up a hefty portion of documents tendered to the court will be details of allegations about how young royal women in the region have been previously treated, stemming back as far as two decades ago, in order to support her position.
Two of those cases involve Maktoum’s daughters from another wife, princesses Shamsa and Latifa.
In 2000 Shamsa, then aged 18, absconded from the family’s vast estate at Longcross, Surrey, avoiding bodyguards, CCTV and an inner security fence by driving to a gate and running into the adjacent woodlands. She was believed to have been found some weeks later in Cambridge and was then abducted off the street and flown back to Dubai.
Latifa said in a video smuggled out to a human rights organisation, Detained in Dubai, that Shamsa was now like a zombie and forcibly fed drugs. “(She is) surrounded by nurses, they watch her take her pills, these drugs to control her mind, so her life is totally controlled,’’ Latifa said.
That video last year warned of horrendous consequences if she too was caught in an attempt to find freedom outside of Dubai.
Latifa was captured by Indian and Emerati commandos while escaping on a yacht organised by a French spy, and she was returned to Dubai.
When there was a furore about her condition, Haya organised for her close friend, the former Irish president and former UN high commissioner for human rights Mary Robinson, to visit and reassure the world all was fine.
But the accompanying pictures of Latifa show a vacant look, and Robinson’s words were barely comforting.
“This is a troubled young women with a serious mental condition, receiving psychiatric care … in the loving care of her family,’’ Robinson said.
Back then Haya said one thing, but given the developments of the past few months, she may have been preparing her own hasty exit.
“What’s important to us as a family is to ensure she is all right,’’ Haya said of Latifa.
“If I thought for a single second that any shred of this is true, I wouldn’t put up with it.’’