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 i