Inside the lavish but medieval world of Dubai’s sheikh

Ben Macintyre
August 2, 2019, The Times

A court case in London is expected to lay bare the reality of life in the UAE

The legal battle between Princess Haya bint-al-Hussein and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum has ramifications not only for Dubai but Britain’s relations with the emirate

“Discover all that’s possible”, urges the official Dubai tourist website, encouraging visitors to escape to the city state for a sun-soaked holiday.

What appears not to be possible — or at least very difficult — is to escape from Dubai, if you happen to be a female member of the royal family.

This week the estranged sixth wife of Dubai’s ruler asked a London court for an order that would protect her child from being forced into marriage, just months after fleeing her husband’s country. She is the third royal princess to attempt to escape from the sumptuous, secretive and intensely traditional palaces of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

The escalating legal battle between Princess Haya bint-al-Hussein, 45, the daughter of the late king of Jordan, and the 70-year-old sheikh is putting an unprecedented spotlight on one of the world’s wealthiest and most mysterious royal families and the restrictive lifestyle imposed on its princesses.

The case goes far beyond an isolated royal marriage breakdown and custody battle: the contesting parties represent two of the most powerful ruling dynasties in the Middle East with connections to the British royal family, and will be fought out by two of Britain’s most high-profile divorce lawyers, with important ramifications for diplomatic relations both in the region, and between Britain and the United Arab Emirates.

On Tuesday, Princess Haya applied to the High Court for custody of their two children, a non-molestation order and a forced marriage protection order a legal instrument passed 12 years ago to protect people forced into marriage and to prevent forced marriages from taking place. Sheikh Mohammed, who is also the prime minister and vice-president of the UAE, has challenged the custody petition of his youngest wife and is seeking an injunction for the immediate return of their children to the city state.

The Oxford-educated princess, the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan and half-sister of Jordan’s ruling King Abdullah, is now believed to be holed up under close protection in the £85 million mansion near Kensington Palace she bought from the Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal in 2017.

The scene is now set for an epic legal battle, and probably the most expensive divorce settlement in British legal history, amid revelations about what life is really like for the stupendously rich and rigorously controlled Dubai royal family – all of which would have remained secret had not the judge, Sir Andrew McFarlane, lifted reporting restrictions last week.

“There is a public interest in the public understanding, in very broad terms, proceedings that are before the court,” Sir Andrew ruled.

In an unlikely departure from royal, legal, and diplomatic protocol, Sheikh Mohammed has resorted to poetry in the wake of the breakdown of his sixth marriage. In a poem posted online, written in the classical Arabic style known as hijāʾ (“lampooning” or “invective”), he accused an unnamed woman of betrayal.

“We have an ailment that no medicine can cure,” he wrote. “The era of your lies has ended …you no longer have any place with me…”

The case will be fought out by two of the most formidable divorce lawyers in the business. Princess Haya is represented by Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia, known as the ‘Steel Magnolia’, who previously represented the Prince of Wales in his divorce from Diana, Princess of Wale, and Paul McCartney in his divorce from Heather Mills.

In the sheikh’s corner is Lady Helen Ward, who represented Guy Ritchie in his divorce from Madonna, and former Formula One magnate Bernie Ecclestone in his split from his second wife Slavica.

Among those watching the proceedings closely will be members of our own royal family. The Shiekh, who owns the successful Godolphin horse racing stables, is on friendly terms with the Queen, and last month received a trophy from Her Majesty after one of his horses won at Royal Ascot. Baroness Shackleton is a close friend of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall.

Princess Haya regularly joins the Queen at Ascot

Sheikh Mohammed married Princess Haya in 2004, and has some 23 children by two “official” and four “unofficial” wives. His personal wealth has been estimated at $4.5 billion.

Princess Haya, described as “the liberal face of the monarchy”, is believed to have fled from Dubai after discovering “disturbing facts” in connection her step-daughter, Princess Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, 33, who also attempted to escape from Dubai last year before being intercepted aboard a yacht in international waters near India, and returned to royal control – or, according to her supporters, captivity.

Before making her bid for freedom, Princess Latifa made a video claiming she had been imprisoned and maltreated on the orders of the sheikh, apparently as a safety measure to be posted online if she was caught. In the video she makes a series of claims against her father, including violent abuse at the hands of his staff: “Basically, one guy was holding me while the other guy was beating me, and they did that repeatedly”.

Last September Amnesty International alleged that after her recapture, Princess Latifa was held “incommunicado in an undisclosed location” in a way that “possibly entailed multiple violations of international human rights law by both India and the UAE, including arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearance.”

In a bizarre episode chronicled in the BBC documentary Escape from Dubai: The Mystery of the Missing Princess, Princess Latifa apparently left the UAE overland to neighbouring Oman aided by a Finnish capoeira teacher, Tiina Jauhiainen, and a former French spy, Hervé Jaubert. Using an inflatable and jetski to travel 26 miles into international waters, she was picked up by Captain Jaubert’s yacht Nostromo and sailed for Goa.

The boat was boarded off the Indian coast by armed men, believed to be Indian and UAE security forces, who allegedly beat crew members and flew off with the princess away in a helicopter, according to witnesses. Her Instagram account was deleted soon after.

Latifa has not been seen since last December, when she was photographed at a meeting with former Irish president Mary Robinson. Ms Robinson said afterwards that the “troubled young woman” regretted making the video and was now “in the loving care of her family.” A former UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Robinson was accused by human rights groups of aiding Emirati propaganda. She said she had been invited to the meeting by her fiend Princess Haya, who was then at the forefront of Dubai’s efforts to rebut the kidnapping allegations.

Emirati authorities have dismissed the claims of mistreatment and abduction as fiction, claiming Princess Latifa is “vulnerable to exploitation” and was kidnapped by Captain Jaubert.

The case has potentially embarrassing implications for Britain if, as reported by The Sunday Telegraph, the princess was handed over to the UAE in return for a British arms consultant.

The escape attempt by Princess Latifa came 18 years after another daughter of Sheikh Mohammed, Princess Shamsa al-Maktoum, also attempted to flee, equally unsuccessfully. In 2000, Princess Shamsa, escaped from her father’s mansion near Chobham, Surrey, by driving to the edge of the estate in a Range Rover, abandoning the car and then getting through the perimeter fence. In a letter to a cousin, she had complained that her father would not let her go to university.

Princess Shamsa was last seen in August of that year on the streets of Cambridge from where she was reportedly abducted by the sheikh’s staff and then secretly flown to Dubai on a private plane. She has not been seen in public since, and supporters claim she is being held, in a drugged state, in one of the royal palaces.

Cambridgeshire police opened an investigation, which has since closed through insufficient evidence.

Before last week’s ruling, Sheikh Mohammed and Princess Haya issued a statement saying the High Court proceedings were “concerned with the welfare of the two children of their marriage and do not concern divorce or finances”. But the case is certain to involve the most detailed exposure so far of the gilded, murky world of Dubai’s royal family, and in all probability an enormous divorce settlement.

Princess Haya is one of the most visible members of a notoriously publicity-averse family. She was educated at Bryanston school in the UK and studied philosophy, politics and economics at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She competed in show-jumping at the 2000 Olympics, served on the International Olympic Committee and has been a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations world food programme.

The case may well focus on what “facts” about the earlier attempted escape prompted Princess Haya to flee. A spokesman for the campaign group Detained in Dubai said: “We already know that Princess Latifa fled the UAE seeking asylum and alleging unspeakable abuse at the hands of her father”.

In her 40-minute video Princess Latifa talked about the restrictions on her life, and referred to the earlier attempt by her sister to run away. “If you are watching this video it’s not such a good thing, either I’m dead or in a very, very bad situation,” she said.

Princess Haya is said to be seeking political asylum in Britain, and as a former Jordanian official she may be able to claim diplomatic immunity. Fearful of kidnapping, she is believed to be under the protection of a private security firm.

The British courts could hear evidence about the alleged kidnapping of Latifa, and could even call on the vanished princess to testify. Captain Jaubert, who says he planned her escape attempt, claims to be authorised to speak on her behalf. He has already commented on the custody battle between the sheikh and Princess Haya in statement issued through Detained in Dubai.

“Because Latifa is tragically unable to testify before a UK court . . . I have direct authority to speak on Latifa’s behalf,” said the former French intelligence officer. “Even if he [Sheikh Mohammed] got partial custody, I am certain that the first time the children went to the UAE they would become captives and never be allowed to see Princess Haya again”

He also commented on the earlier disappearance of her half-sister Shamsa: “Latifa told me how her father ordered nurses and doctors to use major tranquilizers to turn Shamsa into a docile and subdued woman.”

The current city is very much the creation of Sheikh Rashid al-Maktoum, who oversaw the expansion of its trading infrastructure, with Emirates Airline following on closely from Jebel Ali port, and his son, the current ruler, Sandhurst-trained Sheikh Mohammed.

Whether he has been guided by a far-sighted twist on his father’s economic, build-it-and-they-will-come expansionism, or egotistical folly is something about which Dubai residents as well as academics argue regularly. Despite constant prophecies of doom, the move into tourism and property development, advertised through the constant search for headlines gushing over the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa), its glitziest hotel (Burj al-Arab), or its craziest villa complex (Palm Jumeirah), has seen spectacular economic growth and made many natives and expatriates alike millionaires.

All the while, the Maktoums have maintained the facade of Islamic values and the traditional lifestyle of Gulf potentates. As prime minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed is in theory answerable both to the president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi, and, to a very limited extent, an elected federal council. In practice, he leaves the UAE’s federal policies, particularly over defence and foreign affairs, to Abu Dhabi and focuses on his autocratic, absolute rule over his own much smaller emirate.

Sheikh Mohammed has cultivated strong ties to Britain, with a highly successful racing stables and numerous properties including the Surrey mansion, a Newmarket stud and a large Scottish estate. A former owner of the Racing Post newspaper, he spends most of the summer flat racing season in the UK before returning to Dubai.

Dubai has always been different from the other sheikhdoms that have lined the Gulf coast for centuries.

Its ruling clan, the Maktoums, spring from the same cultural background. But from the moment they split off from a larger tribal confederation in the mid-19th century, and set up home on the shores of Dubai creek at the north-east end of the Gulf’s Arabian shore, their fortunes have been intertwined with Britain.

In that sense, the choice of London as the venue for the latest twist in a long-running family story is only natural. This is also why, despite the many complaints that the two places have about each other, Britain and Dubai continue to seek good relations, whatever the cost to good public relations.

The dispute involving his half-sister is also problematic for King Abdullah of Jordan, whose country relies on financial support from the UAE. The unwelcome focus on the sheikh’s private life and the nature of his regime, comes after a four-year economic slowdown in Dubai caused by lower oil prices.

Sheikh Mohammed’s nephew, Marcus Essebri, told the Australian TV news show 60 Minutes that the legal case in Britain would expose the reality of life for the Dubai princesses: “The one person who knows the truth about what happened to my cousins Latifa and Shamsa is Princess Haya,” he said. “I hope she uses the court case to tell the world how they have been treated.”

Dubai has denied allegations that it approached the UK government for help in seeking Haya’s return.

The sheikh’s state of mind as he heads into a legal showdown with his estranged wife my be judged by his poetry, which he says is inspired by “personal experience, event or situation”. He adds: “I have never written any verse without it being a reality of my life.”

The poetic potentate of Dubai may regret resorting to online publication, however, if his verses turn up as legal evidence. “I do not care if you live or die . . .” he wrote. Or the faintly threatening: “His swords of excellencies are sharply cutting while in scabbards, imagine when he draws them?” Whatever their artistic merits, these may not be appropriate sentiments for a British divorce court.

A wildly expensive clash is looming, involving allegations of imprisonment, torture and skulduggery, between two legal lionesses, between the scions of two royal families, and between a proud and secretive ruler and an angry fugitive princess. This seems less the gentle and reflective stuff of poetry, than a dramatic Hollywood courtroom blockbuster.