Strange case of the sheikh's daughter

Stuart Millar and Jamie Wilson
December 10, 2001, The Guardian

A young woman claims she was forced abroad in mystery involving leading Arab family

At the end of March Cambridgeshire police received a call from a British solicitor with a bizarre tale to tell. The resulting conversation sparked a police investigation involving allegations of kidnap and the family of one of the Arab world’s most famous leaders.

Cambridgeshire police are investigating whether there is any substance to the allegations, which centre on a late summer evening in August last year.

A woman, who claims to be Sheikha Shamsa, 19, daughter of the enormously wealthy crown prince of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, says she had gone to a bar in Cambridge with two other people.

After leaving the bar, she alleges, they had been walking along a road out of the city when a car had pulled up alongside them. According to her account, it contained at least four men whom the woman claims were from Sheikh Mohammed’s personal staff, all of them apparently Dubai nationals.

The woman alleges that she was ordered into the car and taken to one of the Maktoum properties in Newmarket.

The following day, she says, she was flown to Dubai by private jet.

“If this happened like she says, it was well done, quite a well-planned operation in that they got her out before anyone knew about it,” one source said.

Jet fleet

The police have a duty to investigate and are trying to ascertain whether the woman is Sheikha Shamsa as she claims, and whether any of these events happened. It is not clear whether any offence has been committed. The Maktoum family have six private jets, which fly under the title Dubai Air Wing but which are used exclusively for family, horse racing and other personal flights.

Two of the fleet, a Boeing 737 luxury business jet, tailnumber A6-HRS, and a smaller Gulfstream G-IV, tailnumber A6-HHH, spend most of the summer months in Britain to ferry the family and their staff around during the flatracing season. The Guardian has established that for most of August 2000, both aircraft were operating in the UK. One of them made at least one return trip to Dubai during this period carrying passengers. But there is no evidence that the woman claiming to be Sheikha Shamsa travelled on any of these flights.

The planes are based at Farnborough airport in Hampshire but the Maktoums prefer to fly in and out of Stansted airport in Essex because it offers better access to their properties in Newmarket.

The Guardian has made exhaustive attempts to talk to Sheikh Mohammed about this investigation.

A letter to the sheikh was faxed to his London lawyer, Peter Watson of Allen and Overy, with a request that it be forwarded to the sheikh for his response. Two days later, Mr Watson told the Guardian he had “not been able to arrange for this to be done”.

We also faxed the information to the managing director of the Dubai London office, Mr al-Shaibani, whom Dalham Hall – the sheikh’s Newmarket HQ – told us was responsible for handling Sheikh Mohammed’s personal business in this country.

The same letter was sent to an email address for media inquiries listed on Sheikh Mohammed’s personal website, On the site, he claims to read his emails every night.

But Sheikh Mohammed and his representatives have not responded. Whether or not the events the woman alleges took place, the very existence of a police investigation involving the family of such a high profile and influential foreign royal is extremely sensitive for Britain’s diplomatic and trade activites in the Middle East.

Sheikh Mohammed is widely recognised as the driving force behind the continued economic success of the tiny emirate. Although his eldest brother, Sheikh Maktoum al-Maktoum is the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed has taken over the reins from his late father, Sheikh Rashid, who transformed Dubai from a collection of rag tag buildings surrounding a trading port to the economic hub of the Gulf region, aided by the discovery of oil and gas reserves in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Born in 1948, Sheikh Mohammed is the third of four brothers who are reputed to get $1m a day each from oil revenues. He has long had close associations with Britain, attending Sandhurst and training with the British army and the RAF.

But he is best known as the world’s leading owner of recehorses through the Godolphin racing stables, which he has built into a global force. His centre of operations is the vast Dalham Hall stud in Newmarket, where he and his son, Rashid, have two mansions surrounded by acres of countryside and protected by imposing iron fences.

A former owner of the Racing Post newspaper, he spends most of the summer flat racing season in the UK while the entire operation moves back to Dubai for the winter. According to Sheikh Mohammed, he and his wife, Sheikha Hind have seven sons and nine daughters.

It may be that the kidnap allegations turn out to be no more than a domestic dispute, as was the case earlier this year in a remarkable incident involving Sheikh Mohammed’s eldest brother, Sheikh Maktoum al-Maktoum. In April 2000, officers from the Metropolitan police’s elite organised crime group and Hampshire police were alerted that the three young sons of Sheikh Mohammed’s eldest brother, Sheikh Maktoum al-Maktoum, had been abducted by a group of four Arab men.

Sealed off

The call was made by the boys’ nanny. A senior officer in the operation said: “The initial report was that they were watching the circus in Chelsea and the nanny had gone to get ice cream for the kids. Because it was reported like that, you have to take a certain amount at face value.”

As more than 200 officers swung into action, police received word that the children were in a car on their way to board a plane at Farnborough airport. Officers racing to the scene were instructed to prevent the plane taking off, and the airport was sealed off by armed police.

“Our force control room felt rightly that they had to give instructions to stop the plane,” the police source said. “We thought members of a royal family were being abducted, and it seemed like we were going to have to do this spot-on because there would be a lot of politics in the aftermath.” But when officers finally boarded the plane, they found only Sheikh Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and vice-president of the United Arab Emirates, and his young Moroccan wife, Sheikha Bouchra, preparing to fly to France to watch the racing at Longchamps. The children arrived at the airport shortly afterwards, accompanied by the four men, who turned out to be the sheikh’s personal bodyguards.

The incident was eventually put down to a dispute between Sheikh Maktoum and his wife over where their sons should be educated. He wanted them to return to Dubai, while she wanted them to go to school in London. Police established they were going to be flown on a separate flight to meet their father in France before travelling on to Dubai.

“It took us a little time to unravel it,” the officer said. “I saw these very fit bodyguards and it just didn’t appear right. We felt there had been a family dispute which had resulted in the father giving the instructions.” Police concluded Sheikh Maktoum had instructed his bodyguards to pick up his sons and fly them to France.

Family ties and high stakes

  • Dubai is one of the seven states – together with Abu Dhabi (the capital city), Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah – comprising the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country which borders the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, and measures 83,600 sq km.
  • Just 3,885 sq km in size, and with a population of 913,000, Dubai is the second largest of the states, after Abu Dhabi, but ranks as the UAE’s most important port and commercial centre. Last year, GDP amounted to £10.23bn.
  • In common with the rest of the UAE, Dubai is a Muslim country in which traditional Arab dress is worn. But, with a burgeoning tourist trade, it is less traditional than many Muslim countries: marriages are arranged, but women have equal educational rights and increasingly work outside the home.
  • Power in Dubai is concentrated in the hands of the royal family. Following the death of Sheikh Rashid bin Said al-Maktoum in 1990, his son, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum, took over as ruler and as a member of the supreme council of the UAE, while his three brothers have held ministerial positions.
  • With each of the brothers earning a reported $1m a day from crude oil alone, the family are also immensely successful at horse racing. One survey, for Total Sport magazine, placed them as the ninth most influential people in the British sporting world.