It all began when a teenage girl in Surrey ran away from home 19 years ago.
She was found a few weeks later and not much more was heard about her. If she had been a normal girl, that would have been that. But the temporary disappearance of Sheikha Shamsa al-Maktoum, now 37, daughter of one of the Arab world’s richest leaders, has come full circle and into the glare of publicity.
The woman who four years after that escape became Shamsa’s stepmother, Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, has now run away herself, seeking a divorce, and reports suggest that a direct line runs from the one flight to the other.
When Princess Haya, 45, and Shamsa’s father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, 69, the ruler of Dubai, go to the High Court in London this month, far more may be discussed than maintenance and child custody.
At issue will be the Sheikh Mohammed’s relationship with his sprawling family of six wives and 23 children, his conduct in the emirate he rules, and wide legal issues involving jurisdiction over divorce between different countries, particularly between western and Arab ones.
Sheikha Shamsa, according to reports at the time, was a headstrong young woman who had aspirations for a western lifestyle. Daughter of a “minor wife” of Sheikh Mohammed, who was then Dubai’s crown prince, she nevertheless enjoyed the trappings of his lifestyle: he is said to be worth £3 billion and owns the largest racehorse operation in the world, Godolphin.
One day, she hopped into a Range Rover on the family’s Longcross estate in Surrey, drove it to the edge of Chobham Common, and ran off.
By the following year she was back in Dubai. A police investigation — which never seems to have gone anywhere — is said to have been told that she had been found by a search team in Cambridge, abducted from the street and flown back to the Gulf in a private jet.
If that is true, it would involve a serious criminal offence. Nevertheless, Sheikh Mohammed and his family apparently suffered no serious consequences: they remain regular fixtures on the racing circuit, maintain Longcross and at least two other estates in Britain, and are often photographed with the Queen. The case of the missing sheikha was gradually forgotten.
Fast forward more than 18 years and Shamsa’s sister was photographed last December in Dubai with two prominent public figures: Princess Haya, who as well as being Sheikh Mohammed’s wife is also half-sister of King Abdullah of Jordan and a United Nations goodwill ambassador, and Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former UN human rights commissioner.
The sister was Sheikha Latifa, 34. In what may be the central episode of this whole story, she had herself run away in March of last year, before being recaptured on a yacht in an extraordinary joint naval operation by India and the United Arab Emirates off the coast of Mumbai.
The whole story was scarcely believable, but Latifa had left a video behind, apparently unbeknownst to her captors. In it, she described a lifetime of being held virtual prisoner in Dubai, partly because of her attempts to speak up for Shamsa in the years since the Surrey escape bid.
Shamsa was also, she said, a prisoner.
The photograph, in which Princess Haya and Mrs Robinson were both clearly willing participants but Sheikha Latifa seemed dazed, was intended to prove that the princess was a “loved but troubled woman” rather than a prisoner. But this claim set off a storm of protest, and was contradicted by the friend with whom she had fled, a Finnish fitness instructor, Tiina Jauhiainen.
What precisely happened between these events and Princess Haya’s departure a few months later is not known exactly. One well-sourced report says that Princess Haya began investigating the circumstances behind Sheikha Latifa’s story and came to disbelieve the “official” account.
While in Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed lives a very traditional life, separately from his wives and their families. In Britain with Princess Haya it was different, one source says. While his other wives have never been pictured in public, he and Princess Haya lived in a British way — sharing the family estate in Newmarket, being seen at fashionable social events together.
That fits Princess Haya’s background: educated at Bryanston School in Dorset and Oxford University, she is the model of a modern royal. While Dubai and Sheikh Mohammed himself have tried to portray her flight negatively — “You betrayer, you betrayed the most precious trust, and your game has been revealed,” he wrote in a poem he published on Instagram — it may be that she decided to revolt against the type of family life he led back home, and his treatment of Shamsa and Latifa.
Now the High Court has to decide whether it has jurisdiction over the custody arrangements of the couple’s two children — Sheikha al-Jalila, 11, and Sheikh Zayed, 7.
The UAE is not a signatory to the Hague Convention, which dictates that custody be settled in the country where children are normally resident. The legal arguments are yet to be revealed, but it is clear that Princess Haya is likely to oppose their return to Dubai, where her husband has the authority of a near-absolute monarch.
Mrs Robinson has been unwilling to discuss the case, saying that she intervened with Sheikha Latifa purely at the request of her friend, Princess Haya, whom she knew through their UN work.
Princess Haya has said nothing. However, in January she was persuaded to give an interview on Irish radio to defend the position in which she had placed Mrs Robinson. “It’s not anything other than a private family matter,” she said, of Sheikha Latifa. She might also have been speaking of herself but, if so, she may turn out to have been mistaken.