Headlines have a way of coming back to haunt you. Two years ago, in an interview with the society magazine, Tatler, the glamorous Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein, wife of the billionaire Emir of Dubai, was hailed as “changing the way women are perceived in the Middle East”. Alongside a picture of the 45-year-old Jordanian-born princess relaxing with British royals – with our own Queen the only one wearing a head scarf – Haya spoke of how she “absolutely” supports equal rights for women, adding “if not a little more”.
Now, though, this poster-girl for a new generation in the Gulf’s super-rich ruling families has fled Dubai, via Germany, and is about to embark on a High Court battle in London with her husband over custody of their two children, Jalila, 11, and Zayed, 7. Haya is said to be claiming she is in fear for her life.
The saga throws a spotlight on the lives of this younger generation of Gulf royals (Haya is 23 years younger than her husband), many of them regular visitors to London – if not part-residents here. They may have the financial resources to buy anything that takes their fancy – Haya’s present “bolt-hole”, as it has been described, is an £85-million mansion in the ultra-exclusive Kensington Palace Gardens, where neighbours include Saudi royals, Russian oligarchs, and Indian steel magnates – but they are trapped between traditional expectations back home, and the pull of the freedoms that life in the West offers.
Sharpening that focus has been the death in London this week of 39-year-old Sheikh Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasimi. In the UK, this graduate of Central St Martin’s Art School ran his own Soho-based fashion label, but back home he was being prepared as heir to his father, the Emir of Sharjah, Dubai’s more conservative neighbour.
Khalid, as he preferred to be known in the fashion world, had only been propelled into this dynastic role in 1999 by the death of his older brother, at the age of 24, from a heroin overdose at a family property in Surrey.
Details of Khalid’s death are being investigated, but his body is reported to have been found at a “sex and drugs orgy” at his Knightsbridge penthouse. And Princess Haya’s decision to flee Dubai and abandon her 15-year marriage is also being linked with the disappearance from public life of her husband’s 33-year-old daughter, Princess Latifa. The Emir of Dubai has 23 children and six spouses; Haya is sometimes referred to as his “junior wife”. Last year there was an international storm when Latifa (like her older sister Shamsa before her) had attempted to escape Dubai.
As a high-profile BBC documentary chronicled, she was forcibly returned to her father when the yacht in which she was travelling was seized in the Indian Ocean. Princess Haya had been fronting the Emir’s efforts to counter allegations that he had kidnapped and was now imprisoning Latifa as punishment for wanting to escape the “gilded cage” of palace life in Dubai.
Through her international connections – Haya had been involved on the ground in humanitarian relief projects in Haiti, Palestine and Liberia – she had invited the former Irish president and UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, to visit Latifa in Dubai. To accompany pictures released last December of her meeting with the runaway princess, Robinson said that Latifa was “clearly troubled” and was now in the “loving care of her family”.
Some sources in Dubai, however, are now suggesting that Haya subsequently discovered her husband had been lying to her about the circumstances of Latifa’s return, and was so horrified by what she found out that it caused her to start laying plans for her own escape with her two youngsters.
New rumours, though, have also now emerged that allege the princess had enraged her husband by lavishing gifts on a former British army officer who was her bodyguard – though they have not been substantiated. Neither the Emir nor Haya have responded to the slew of allegations being reported.
Mary Robinson has offered no clarification, saying only this week that Haya “still is my friend”. Haya’s husband has been slightly more forthcoming, posting a poem on Instagram that accuses an unidentified woman of “treachery and betrayal”. “You no longer have a place with me,” it reads. “I do not care whether you live or die.” And Haya is saying nothing, apart from appointing the celebrated British lawyer, Fiona Shackleton, to represent her in court. Baroness Shackleton has a reputation a “royal expert” after acting for both Prince Charles and Prince Andrew in their divorce cases.
“In Dubai, the Emir and Princess Haya have always been presented as a close couple and seen together in public,” says writer and Rice University Texas academic, Jim Krane, who lived in the city state for many years and published Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City. “My office used to be in the same tower block as Haya’s, and the story was that the Emir was so ‘modern’ he would come and pick her up from work, not that I ever witnessed it”.
The reality behind such hype for women in the Gulf’s ruling families is very different, argues Krane. “In good times Dubai manages better than others in the region to embrace both Western values and its own traditions, but there is always an underlying conflict.
And when that tension bubbles to the surface, as it is doing now, it is always tradition – autocratic, tribally-based, rooted in Sharia law – that prevails.” Princess Haya is an outsider in this world. She is the daughter of the staunchly pro-Western King Hussein of Jordan, who died in 1999, by his third wife, Queen Alia. Haya was just two when her mother was killed in a helicopter crash in 1977, and was raised in a much more open society than Dubai by a father she has described as loving and always available, breakfasting every day with his children, going away on weekend trips with them, and encouraging both boys and girls to aspire.
Haya studied at Bryanston School and Oxford University. Unlike the man she married in 2005, Haya’s four-times married father only had one wife at a time – including two Western women, British-born Antoinette Gardiner (Princess Muna, mother of the current king, Abdullah), and the American Lisa Najeeb Halaby (Queen Noor). Life in Dubai after she married would have been very different from in Amman, the Jordanian capital. “The Jordanian royals are regarded by their Gulf cousins as being the most liberal and open,” says a British former counsellor who worked for the ruling family for many years who does not want to be named.
“When I first arrived I remember being told by one prince laughingly, ‘you won’t find anyone locked under the stairs in any of our houses’.” But the Jordanians are also, he adds, poor, and so dynastic and political factors may have played a part in Haya’s betrothal to the Emir – as well as their shared love of horses. Before her marriage, Haya had been the first Arab woman to compete at Olympic level in showjumping at the 2000 Sydney Games, while the Emir owns the stables and stud farm at Dalham Hall, near Newmarket.
In some ways, the life that Princess Haya has enjoyed since her marriage was part of Dubai’s corporate brand as the more open-minded, Western-friendly part of the Gulf. In contrast to Saudi Arabia, where the ban on women driving was only lifted last year, she holds an HGV licence, and has travelled the world as a UN Messenger of Peace.
Yet these freedoms have limits, which seems to have been the stumbling block for royal women like Princess Latifa. “For them,” writes the prominent Saudi activist and scholar, Hala al-Dosari, “it is unbearable.
They have the means to live differently, and a high level of exposure to women from other cultures”. Rahaf Mohammed, the 18-year-old daughter of a prominent Saudi provincial governor, made international headlines earlier this year when she barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room rather than allow herself to be returned home to conform with traditional views of a woman’s role.
Speaking in Canada, after she was granted asylum there, she explained: “I had money, but I didn’t have freedom… All I wanted was freedom and peace of mind.”
Princess Haya’s high profile was meant to eclipse any misgivings caused the cases of Princess Latifa and Rahaf Mohammed. Now she is doing the opposite as she embarks on what will be one of the most expensive legal cases in history. However much she may wish it otherwise, she is still some way from achieving that ambition she set out in the Tatler interview – “to understand what life [is] like without the royal machine”.