Inside Dubai’s secretive society

Two months ago Princess Haya, the wife of Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, apparently fled to London. The Times Middle East correspondent, Richard Spencer, who lived in the city for three years, reveals the personal and political tensions beneath the emirate’s five-star resorts and all-seeing surveillance cameras

Richard Spencer
August 17, 2019, The Times

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum (in yellow), the ruler of Dubai, and, right, his wife, Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, at Meydan racecourse, 2018

It’s hard to escape notice in Dubai, city of 1,000 selfies and 10,000 closed-circuit TV cameras. That is how a lot of people want it: it is a city that attracts people who are visible, or who want to become visible, or who have something to sell, including often themselves. At the exclusive end, it is a world centre of the diamond market, and what is more for show than diamonds? At the other, public relations companies set up “paparazzi” shots of footballers who want to be pictured gambolling with their wives and children in five-star hotel swimming pools to counter some tabloid story of infidelity or marital split. (Actual paparazzi have a tougher time of it in these parts.)

But then there are those who actually want to escape. That’s where the closed-circuit cameras come in. “They are on every corner of Dubai. I can assure you, we have the whole city covered,” a Dubai police chief, Lt Colonel Nasser Ibrahim Kazim, boasted to a slightly startled journalist a few years ago. He was talking about a jewellery thief, who had been tracked on video from start to finish as he made his way across the city with £7 million of gems before being arrested. But it was something of a wake-up call to the rest of the population, too, especially its transient one of nearly three million expatriates, many of whom – at least the wealthier westerners – often live their day-to-day lives rather blithely, as if they were hanging out for a while in a modernist Surbiton. “We have expanded our systems and we have set up surveillance cameras in any new area that has been developed,” Kazim went on. The cameras are wired up to facial recognition technology. From the airport to the mall, one handy phrase has it – you are never out of sight from the moment you arrive till the moment you leave, and someone always knows where you are. There are 3,000 cameras in Dubai airport alone, apparently.

Spare a thought, then, for Dubai’s reluctant royal princesses, the ones who have all the gems they could possibly want but still seem as eager as thieves to make their getaway. Every couple of years some big story comes up about Dubai, something that makes everyone gawp at Dubai, sometimes for good, often for glitz – biggest mall! Tallest building! Maddest off-shore residential complex! – and sometimes for bad. The princesses fall into the latter category, and though this year’s story rather came out of the blue, it had been brewing for some time.

The sheikh’s wife: Princess Haya with Prince Charles in 2016

It was Princess Haya bint al-Hussein who managed to escape, and more secrets may spill out from there. The wife of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, she is a princess twice over – by marriage and by birth, as daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan. The reason her sudden arrival in London, armed with Britain’s most sought-after divorce lawyer, Fiona Shackleton, came out of the blue was because it had seemed that hers was a fairytale marriage.

While her husband, the beady-eyed, bearded Sheikh Mohammed, with his love of horses and the desert and Arabic poetry, represented the often forgotten traditional side of Dubai life, the glamorous, public school-educated, fashion-conscious princess represented what it had become: modern, ambitious, confident. In appearance, she often resembled more an expat housewife of the posher variety, the ones found lunching in vegan juice bars in the beachside suburb of Jumeirah, than a regular Gulf consort. Though to be fair, we don’t really know what a regular Gulf consort looks like, since most royal wives are never seen in public.

Then one day, probably in March, it was over. We still do not know why this was, or how Princess Haya made her run for it, through the guarded palace corridors, along Dubai’s main thoroughfare, Sheikh Zayed Road, a sort of eight-lane river of Toyota Land Cruisers and Maseratis with sharp-topped steel skyscrapers lining the banks, to the intensively policed airport. It is widely assumed that if, as reported, she travelled to London via Germany, it was to establish her claim to asylum, in some sense of the term, making her flight officially known to non-British authorities. Britain has historic ties and familial relations with the Maktoum family, and it is widely thought we allowed Princess Haya’s stepdaughter, Sheikha Shamsa, 18 years old at the time, to be kidnapped back to Dubai in 2000. However, we do not know this for sure; we do not know exactly how and when Princess Haya left, if Sheikh Mohammed knew about it, or whether he would have stopped her leaving even if he had the opportunity.

It is one thing for him to have asserted his rights over his daughters such as Sheikha Shamsa, rights which Gulf tradition at least gives him; another to hold his wife captive, a wife moreover with a considerably longer royal heritage than his own. Princess Haya, a member of Jordan’s Hashemite dynasty, is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.

The sheikh’s daughter: Sheikha Latifa

Nevertheless, escape is how it is being seen, and if Sheikh Mo, as he is irreverently known in Dubai, is being traduced in the telling, he has only himself to blame. For escaping Dubai has become a meme over the 13 years that he has run the emirate. There was Sheikha Shamsa, who ran away from the family estate at Longcross, Surrey, rather than return to Dubai, but was found at a Cambridge pub a few days later by the sheikh’s security entourage, reportedly bundled into a car and stuck on a private jet back home. Then last year Sheikha Shamsa’s full sister, Sheikha Latifa, by one of Sheikh Mohammed’s “minor” wives, made an even more dramatic escape, driving across the desert to Oman, taking a ride out to the yacht of a French former secret service agent who had offered to help, and then sailing across the Indian Ocean. As with Shamsa, it was not to be. This time it was India who came to Sheikh Mohammed’s aid, its navy joining forces with the Emiratis to board the yacht and take all on board captive. The Frenchman, a man called Hervé Jaubert, and Sheikha Latifa’s best friend, a Finnish fitness instructor called Tiina Jauhiainen, were held in Dubai for a few days and then released, with threats. Latifa was not so fortunate. If Sheikha Shamsa’s case is anything to go by, her friends will be lucky if they see her again. Seemingly, no one has seen either of the sisters in public since they were reportedly returned to Dubai.

The sheikh’s daughter: Sheikha Shamsa, the first royal escapee

Why do so many people want to escape from Dubai? For it is not just royals. When the financial crisis struck the city in 2009, the escapers became the stuff of legend. Expats who lost their jobs, were overloaded with the cheap debt that paid for their luxury lifestyle and knew that, in Dubai, debtors’ prison was still very much a real prospect, headed straight for the airport. Their BMWs and sports cars, famously, were left to gather dust in the car park, until the hire-purchase companies cottoned on and towed them away. (In one or two cases, the culprits guiltily stuck the keys in the post, to arrive once they were safely back in Britain or New Zealand or wherever.)

Although it seems reprehensible in some ways, anyone who has lived in Dubai, as I did for three years, understands why they did so. “You always feel things could go very badly wrong in Dubai, at any time, and you wonder how you would get out,” says one woman who lived there for six years in her twenties. She is a Dubai cheerleader – “I had the time of my life there,” she says – but everyone knows there’s some truth to the grim stories. In my time there, I met some of the people who didn’t make it. One Briton was living on the streets (secretly – vagrancy is absolutely not allowed), victim of a classic Dubai trap. He swapped jobs and went home for a few weeks before starting with his new employer, unaware of a Dubai practice whereby your bank account, which is tied to your employment, is instantly frozen if your pay stops going in. Once frozen, his automatic credit card payments stopped, and he was in default. This caused problems with his car loan, and by the time he returned to Dubai a request had been lodged at the airport to seize his passport. Without his passport, he could not take up his new job and resume his repayments. It took nearly a year before a charity stepped in to give him a loan, by which time he was sleeping on park benches. Others – particularly, it has to be said, non-Europeans – simply go to jail, many languishing for years, unable to pay their way out.

Dubai is, though, a more complex story than that. Life is often lived on the edge in countries where the rule of law has not kept up with social and economic development – China springs to mind – and those who do not live defensively often live high before a fall. But a lot of people leave simply because so many want to live there in the first place. Dubai’s population 50 years ago was around 59,000. Today’s three million are 85 per cent foreigners, who come for the jobs, the opportunity to strike it rich, or in the case of residents from other Arab states, because it is one of the few well-functioning places in which they can actually live and raise a family. I was living in Dubai when Egypt and Libya rose up against their crusty dictators and collapsing economies. When I asked Libyans what kind of society they wanted, a few said democracy, a few said Islam, but a lot just said, “Dubai.”

The Hilton hotel at the Jumeirah beach resort

Other countries in the Gulf are rich, of course, and employ foreigners to do all sorts of jobs, but everyone knows that is just oil money, and the jobs are menial. In Dubai, you can work for proper companies, learning real skills: skilled construction jobs, banking, trade, retail, public relations. You can even set up your own business. Sure, there’s no democracy, and Arabs are as aware as middle-class Brits that there is a naffness, a tackiness to the place, but that is not the steepest price to pay for a salary. The UAE’s average income was $44,000 – £36,000 – a head last year. In Libya’s best year before the revolution, it was $12,000 – and Libya has more oil than Dubai.

“In Dubai, I just had the opportunities I couldn’t see my friends getting in London,” my young interviewee says. In 2008, when she graduated, friends were sharing rooms and struggling to pay for Tube tickets as London’s property bubble peaked and the economy nosedived. In Dubai, she bought a Porsche, partied and dined out, and had a job that opened doors to the future. “I knew there was a darker side,” she says – the labour camps in the desert, where workers from the sub-continent lived in sometimes atrocious conditions, the lack of free speech, the debtors’ prisons. But she figured nowhere was perfect.

That remains the case today. “As expats, you live in a little bubble,” says another woman who, like the first, asks to remain anonymous in case she ever goes back. This self-described representative of the middle-aged serial expatriate has just moved back to the United Kingdom after more than two decades living all over the world, ending in Dubai. “It’s not until you leave that you look back and think, ‘Every time I went in and out, my picture was being taken. They have my fingerprints. You can’t do anything without handing over your ID.’ That’s part of the way Dubai operated – it was very regimented, which was why everything worked, but I realised that the government were in control of everything.” Still, she adds, there are worse things in expat life than proper roads, uninterrupted electricity supplies and clean and safe surroundings. “Life was easier there than anywhere else we lived.”

To understand how Dubai got to be where it is today, and its peculiar relationship with foreigners and particularly Britons, who make up by far the largest western expat contingent, it is necessary to understand the Maktoum dynasty. This is something surprisingly few residents or visitors bother to do, which is a shame, as they are fascinating.

You always feel that things
could go very badly wrong, at
any time. How would you get

The Maktoums settled in Dubai in the 19th century, when it was still a small pearling village, after they fell out with the larger Nahyan clan who continue to rule Abu Dhabi down the Gulf coast. The British empire, which was just starting to take an interest in the Gulf, offered the Maktoums protection in return for loyalty, and a friendship was born. To survive in the lifeless creekside desert, the Maktoums tried a novel experiment – tax-free trade. The zero income tax that makes the place so enticing to bankers today is not some latter-day neoliberal experiment, but rooted in its history. It was an act of genius – every time greedier rulers in Iran and Iraq raised taxes, more and more wealthy merchants took the short trip to Dubai, where their descendants nowadays operate Toyota franchises, real estate businesses and finance companies.

All went swimmingly until 1930, when the ripples of the Wall Street crash hit the Gulf – as they were to do again in 2009. Demand for pearls collapsed, trade went off a cliff, and the people starved. They also rose up against Sheikh Saeed, the ruler and grandfather of Sheikh Mohammed. Some went so far as to demand constitutional rule and a form of democracy. Sheikh Saeed acted swiftly. Inviting the ringleaders to his son Rashid’s wedding, he stationed Bedouin sharpshooters on the roof, who killed them. A few of the rebellious merchants had their eyes put out with iron rods, for good measure.

The dynamic young Sheikh Rashid was more forward-looking than his father, though he too brooked no talk of democracy, or of the pan-Arab nationalism that was on the rise. He gradually took over the running of the city, bridging and dredging the creek to build a container terminal, laying down the airport, expanding settlements into the desert. He took out huge loans to do all this, and was told he was being wildly overambitious, but Jebel Ali port became the Middle East’s biggest and the airport overtook Heathrow to become the world’s busiest by international passenger numbers. The Gulf is the only place from which you can fly to any country in a single hop.

Meanwhile, young Mohammed was brought up in the now semi-retired Sheikh Saeed’s palace, something that is worth remembering when you consider the psychological roots of autocracy. In his memoir, My Story, he describes his grandfather as “the kindest man I have ever known” and says his people “loved him so”. There is no mention of the small matter of the merchants’ eyes. The paradox is that Dubai emerged from its darkest crisis with the foundations laid for a modern city years ahead of its Gulf rivals, with roads, schools, hospitals and the infrastructure of a trading hub.

For those who are not being exploited, unlike the Bangladeshi labourers, or falling foul of the bankruptcy laws, there is an element of parody about Dubai life, the cleanliness, the order, the emptiness – call it The Truman Show, call it Desperate Housewives, as many do. The target market for Dubai’s growth is the aspiring middle classes, be they British, Arab or from anywhere else, for whom life in a villa on a compound with its own private primary school, golf course and gym is a step up in life.

This does, though, lead to a sense of alienation. One friend of mine, a Korean-Russian called Julia Kim, sent me a sad note about why she had run back to Moscow halfway through my time there, leaving her husband and his exciting job behind. I did not realise how unhappy Dubai had made her, though I’ve heard many similar stories. “When we came in 2007, I was very happy to start a new life in the desert,” she said. She’d worked for the Bolshoi, thought she had something fresh to offer Dubai, and was excited by the thought of starting out anew, knowing no one.

But as the months passed, the emptiness did not fill. As I heard many say, particularly “trailing spouses”, it is hard for older people, too old to go clubbing, to make friends in Dubai. Transience is its essence; relationships are functional. Everyone wants to make enough money for a house deposit back home. No foreigner can gain permanent residency, as permission to stay is entirely tied to your job, so there is no point in becoming too attached, even if some families are there for generations. Kim was born in Uzbekistan’s Korean community, which had been exiled to Tashkent by Stalin in the Second World War, and only moved to Moscow when the Soviet Union collapsed, so she never expected life to be easy. “Life in Dubai was a million times harder,” she said. “I couldn’t find anyone who could understand me, or listen to me.”

Burj Khalifa

None of my friends wanted for the trappings of expat life, and no doubt, for Princess Haya, the material side of life was catered to beyond my humble imaginings. But while Sheikh Mohammed is one of the world’s richest men, being married to him put her at the epicentre of Dubai’s oddness, where its traditions and its modernity – its outward drive and its closed-off introspection – meet so uncomfortably. Like most foreigners, I never made friends with an Emirati in my time there. (And when I say most foreigners, I include those more culturally similar – I checked with Saudi and Pakistani friends still living there, both of whom said this was true for them too.)

My wife and I tried hard with some Emirati neighbours, but were met with polite bafflement. A Briton who lived there in the early days told me it wasn’t always like this, but that the influx from outside had turned the locals in on themselves, away from the public nature of their old lives by the creek into high-walled villas. This will have been as true for Princess Haya as anyone. In Britain, she and the sheikh lived the life of an ordinary albeit aristocratic western couple with their children in Dalham Hall, a stately home near their Godolphin stables in Newmarket. But in Dubai, she lived separately with her children, as do all of Sheikh Mohammed’s wives. She must have been as lonely as Kim.

Meanwhile, the Dubai show goes on. My Saudi friend, a multimillionaire businessman who can live anywhere, is thinking of leaving. The real estate mania, which makes the economy so vulnerable to boom and bust, and the lack of responsiveness of an autocratic government are starting to get him down. The mistakes that led to the crash of 2009 have simply been repeated, he says.

I had a T-shirt, jeans and my
passport. I left my fancy life
behind because I was empty

This is what journalists at the time predicted. In his first and last majlis or meeting for international journalists, in late 2009, Sheikh Mohammed scowled as we quizzed him about economic mismanagement, environmental sustainability and democratic accountability. It was very unlike the traditional niceties of the conventional majlis of notables that is the core of governance, what passes for consultation, in the Gulf states, where hierarchies are strictly observed. I think he simply could not understand us: how could we carp, when he had built so much, made so many fortunes, when Dubai was the name on everybody’s lips?

Two months later, he was forced to go to oil-rich Abu Dhabi for a $20 billion debt bailout. It was an abject humiliation, and it can still be seen on his face, many believe. He seems noticeably angrier, less confident, more suspicious. Four days into the following new year, an enormous celebration was held for the opening of his pride and joy, the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai, a needle full of empty offices and luxury apartments heading 828 metres (2,716ft) into the sky. As the fireworks popped, the television screens told us it had been renamed the Burj Khalifa, after Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi. The bailout, it appeared, came in return for a public restoration of the true hierarchy of the United Arab Emirates. The cameras found Sheikh Mohammed’s face, locked in a silent fury.

My family and friends watched the fun from the roof of our villa. Kim did not watch with us. That was the day she had chosen to dump the bling and the high-fashion dresses, and taken the Sheikh Zayed Road to head for the airport and home. “I had a T-shirt, jeans and my passport,” she says. “I left my fancy life behind because I was empty. And for me, Burj Khalifa was the Tower of Babel.”