The escape of a high-profile royal casts an uncomfortable glare on women’s rights in the Gulf Arab monarchies amid a stream of runaway cases and asylum bids
First came Latifa, the previously unknown 33-year-old daughter of the ruler of Dubai who attempted to flee the United Arab Emirates by ship before her forced return. Then came Rahaf al-Qanun, the Saudi teen who barricaded herself in the Bangkok airport and launched a viral demand for refuge, which was granted by Canada. Finally, at least three sets of Saudi sisters have escaped to various locales over the past year, seeking asylum from the country’s male guardianship system.
But none of those cases can be compared to this week’s revelation that Princess Haya, the glamorous equestrian, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, and wife of the ruler of Dubai, had fled the United Arab Emirates after 15 years of marriage – taking along their two children.
The flight of Haya, 45, came to light when a “poem” attributed to her husband was posted on Instagram by an adviser. In what reads more like an angry rant and less like classical Arabic verse, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum lambasts his wife for alleged infidelity, concluding: “I don’t care if you live or die.”
The stylish blonde is the most high-profile woman in recent memory to flee a gilded existence in the Gulf, and her escape presents unique challenges to the Emirati authorities. Unlike Latifa – one of dozens of children born to obscure wives and branded a “troubled” young woman after her forced return – Haya cannot be so easily dismissed.
“I simply do not expect that a forced capture and return of Princess Haya could ever pass the muster of public and political scrutiny. Princess Haya is a grown woman with a history of living in Europe, she’s well known to the international political community, and is likely to be far more conscious and demanding of her rights to asylum abroad,” said Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Canada.
The greatest issue in contention will be the fate of the children: daughter Al Jalila and son Zayed. Under UAE law, a Muslim father normally gains custody when a son turns seven and a daughter turns nine. Zayed is already seven, and Al Jalila is eleven, meaning that Haya would certainly have lost the rights to her children had she sought a divorce in Dubai.
Over the past year, a stream of runaways and attempted escapes by Saudi and Emirati women has cast an unwelcome glare on the restricted lives of women within the Arab monarchies, even as they seek to project a modern image to the Western world.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has gone to great lengths to promote his country as one undergoing massive societal change. He partially lifted a ban on women driving and told CBS ahead of a high-profile US tour in 2018 that “there is no difference between men and women”. It is notable, however, that his own wife was nowhere to be seen on that tour, and indeed has never been seen in public.
Princess Haya is of a different stock, following in the tradition of her late mother, Queen Alia, and other Jordanian royal women who have presented a cosmopolitan face to the world. And she served that role for Dubai with apparent enthusiasm, unique among Sheikh Maktoum’s six wives for her ubiquitous presence at public events, taking on roles ranging from UN goodwill ambassador to President of the International Equestrian Federation.
She even went so far as to participate in the PR cleanup after Latifa’s forced return, appearing alongside her step-daughter as part of a controversial attempt to show all was well in the family.
It is increasingly unclear whether Haya smiled for the cameras alongside Latifa out of genuine conviction that the young woman had been rescued or under some form of coercion. Already, activists are calling on Haya to speak out on Latifa’s behalf and for the United Kingdom to revisit the case.
“The UK should lobby the UAE to release Latifa instead of the UAE lobbying the UK to turn over Haya. Haya is a free woman, Latifa is not,” tweeted Herve Jaubert, the French former spy who captained Latifa’s escape ship before her abduction at gunpoint.
Despite mounting media attention, Princess Haya has remained silent until now. She appears to be focused on her custody battle in London, where she owns a mansion in the exclusive Kensington area. The next hearing is set for July 30 and 31, CNN quoted the Royal Courts of Justice as confirming in a statement, without mentioning the individuals by name.
The children are both Emirati citizens, which could make the custody ruling subject to UAE law.
“The tactic of Princess Haya would have to be that the kids were in some danger if they were to be returned to the UAE. The UK court does not have a reason to rule on custody as the kids and mother are not UK citizens. The courts’ only purview is to rule on asylum,” said Momani.
The fate of Princess Latifa – who has not been seen since the singular publicized “home visit” by former Irish president and Gulf speaking circuit regular Mary Robinson – may well figure into Haya’s argument.
Haya in the past has insisted she is not a feminist but believes men and women have complementary roles, a common refrain among conservatives in the region and the world for that matter.
But she has also stated that she would not compromise on her personal freedoms.
“Remember, above all else, we are all born free, and that no one can put you in a cage except yourself,” she told the magazine Emirates Woman in a 2017 interview, in which she heaps praise on her husband.
Haya’s Twitter account now features a background of feathers, or what appears to be the side of a falcon.
Her last social media post dates back to February of this year. It is a black and white photograph of her and her father, the late King Hussein, dancing. In the caption, she calls her father the “king of hearts” and promises to live her life as he taught her, and to impart his values in her children.
There is no mention of her husband, Sheikh Maktoum, in the post.