Fraught private life of Arab dynasty

July 4, 2019, The Times

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum and his wife Princess Haya at Royal Ascot in 2017

The Maktoums of Dubai are one of a string of Arab royal families whose histories are entwined with Britain. But those histories have not always been easy.

The ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, 69, is a familiar figure here. Often seen at Royal Ascot, he is friendly with the Queen, largely through their shared love of horses. He has also, back home, turned Dubai into a byword of modernity, celebrated for its financial services industry, glitzy bars and nightclubs.

His private life is more traditional and much more fraught than his image would suggest. He has had six wives, only two of them publicly acknowledged — Sheikha Hind al-Maktoum, a cousin often called his “dynastic wife”, and the younger Princess Haya.

Sheikha Hind is mother to 11 of his surviving children. Their eldest son, Sheikh Rashid, fell out of favour amid reports that he shot a palace employee while under the influence of drugs. He died four years ago, at the age of 33.

The couple’s second son, Sheikh Hamdan, 36, educated at Sandhurst and the London School of Economics, is now crown prince.

Sheikh Mohammed’s two youngest acknowledged children are Sheikha al-Jalila, 11, and Sheikh Zayed, seven, both by Princess Haya. Among the other nine, by four women who have never been officially named, are the full sisters Sheikha Shamsa and Sheikha Latifa.

Sheikha Shamsa ran away from the family estate in Surrey in 2000. According to reports, she was later seized and flown back to Dubai, where no more was heard of her until Sheikha Latifa fled by boat last year.

In a video she sent to Detained in Dubai, a campaign group, Sheikha Latifa said both sisters had been held in Dubai against their will. Sheikha Latifa was recaptured by Indian and UAE naval vessels off Bombay.

The book Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City by Jim Krane sets the Maktoum family problems in the context of Dubai’s rise under Sheikh Mohammed’s grandfather, Sheikh Saeed, and father, Sheikh Rashid.

In the 1930s, Sheikh Saeed faced opposition from family rivals and a group of modernising merchants. The emirate almost fell into civil war.

Saeed called a truce to celebrate the marriage of his son, Sheikh Rashid, inviting the extended family. When the rival cousins arrived, Bedouin warriors shot them.

Some of the rebellious merchants later had their eyes put out, and the rebellion was over.

Sheikh Rashid went on to oversee the development of Dubai into the region’s premier trading hub.