The Fairy Tale Is Over for Dubai’s Royal Family

Sheikh Mohammed’s wife has fled her home—and that may just be the beginning of his troubles.

Ola Salem
July 10, 2019, Foreign Policy

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein of Jordan attend the Royal Ascot race in England on June 19, 2014.

Everything about the story of Haya bint al-Hussein has always been remarkable. The half-sister of the current Jordanian king, Princess Haya has long been the most publicly visible and widely known of the six wives of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. She was often seen by her husband’s side at regional and international functions, greeting dignitaries and delivering speeches—all highly unusual for the wife of a Persian Gulf ruler.

She has recently become remarkable in a different way. Last week, it emerged that she became the latest notable instance of a growing trend in the Arab world: women fleeing their homes to seek shelter elsewhere. Princess Haya is at least the third royal known to have deserted Dubai’s ruling family, leaving the glittering city-state sometime this spring for the United Kingdom with her two children: Zayed, 7, and Al Jalila, 11. Sheikh Mohammed, who is also the vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, then filed a lawsuit against the princess in a U.K. court.

Much of the drama is still shrouded in mystery. But a series of court cases in Britain may soon offer a window into a major scandal involving two of the most notable royal families in the region.

An indication of that scandal is legible in a poem reportedly composed by Dubai’s ruler and posted on social media by one of his close associates on June 22. In the poem, Sheikh Mohammed refers to a woman’s treachery and lying. The full text, according to my own translation, reads:

Some wrongs are called betrayal, 
And you broke the boundary and betrayed. 
O you who betrayed the most precious of trust,
My sorrow revealed your game.
Your lie, let it be known, its time has passed,
We care not about “we were, and you were,”
I have proof of conviction,
About what you did.
You loosened the reins of your horse, 
and the biggest mistake was that you lied.
You know your acts involve an insult, 
But you only insulted yourself.
You no longer have a place with me,
Walk away with whoever you were busy with.
Let your wickedness help you, 
I care not whether you live or die.

Sheikh Mohammed is known as a poet; he has often marked political and social occasions through a form of poetry popular in the Persian Gulf known as Nabati. Still, it’s unusual for an Arab, much less a prominent Arab ruler, to publicize a dispute with his wife, much less openly suggest that he had been the victim of infidelity.

The poem, which resembles the ruler’s earlier published work in style, essentially confirms prior speculations that the princess had left the palace. But beyond that basic level message, it can’t be considered an objective guide to the scandal. The poem’s narrator suggests that it was written as a final resort, after he discovered a “game” involving his wife and a third person. He says the woman’s lies and personal transgressions (“loosening the reins of your horse”) killed their marriage. (Sheikh Mohammed is famously fascinated with horses, as Princess Haya is an accomplished equestrian, but the meaning of the metaphor is left ambiguous.) Sheikh Mohammed suggests that he has proof of Princess Haya’s guilt, which he says tarnishes her name, not his.

There are reasons to doubt the veracity of this account and of Princess Haya’s moral culpability for leaving Dubai. She is not, after all, the first to flee from Sheikh Mohammed. In February 2018, Sheikha Latifa, one of Sheikh Mohammed’s daughters from an Algerian mother, attempted to flee her palace home. She was captured while sailing on a yacht across the Indian Ocean and forcibly returned to the UAE. The entire saga would have remained secret if not for a video she left behind, where the now 33-year-old princess talks about the lack of freedom, lack of choice, and domestic violence she faced under the orders of her father.

Princes Haya, a United Nations goodwill ambassador, assumed responsibility for straightening out this scandal—but the results came across as a clumsy cover-up. Last December, Princess Haya invited her friend, Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, to Dubai to meet with Sheikha Latifa, after months of international concern over her safety. Robinson later released pictures of her meeting with a dazed-looking princess but was quickly criticized for taking part in what was widely considered a public relations stunt. Princess Haya also faced backlash; several NGOs wrote to the United Nations to complain about what they described as a blatant conflict of interest. Her reputation as a philanthropist and human rights defender, spanning decades, took a hit.

Princess Haya seems to have taken some of this criticism to heart—not only the personal critiques but also those directed at her husband. In one of her last public interviews on Jan. 5, she said she would cease defending Sheikh Mohammad if she found that Sheikha Latifa’s story of abuse were true. Not long after the interview, Princess Haya ceased appearing in public. She has remained inactive on social media since February and did not show up in June at the annual Royal Ascot horse race tournament. Sheikh Mohammed attended as usual, photographed alongside the Queen of England. His poem was published on the last day of the tournament.

The unprecedented poem caused an outpouring of rumors across the region about what triggered her disappearance, with rumors of adultery running rampant. But a person close to Sheikha Latifa, who was involved in her escape attempt, suggests that Princess Haya’s departure was motivated by a desire to save her children from an abusive father. Tiina Jauhiainen, who appeared in a selfie taken by Sheikha Latifa during her fleeing attempt, told me: “She must have opened her eyes for wanting a better future for herself and her children. She wouldn’t want them to marry someone they wouldn’t want to marry or be locked up.”

Princess Haya’s arrival in the U.K. highlights the cases of Sheikha Latifa and another daughter of Sheikh Mohammed, Sheikha Shamsa, who was kidnapped in London in 2000 and returned to Dubai. David Haigh, a London-based human rights lawyer representing Sheikha Latifa, has tried for more than a year to present her case before a British court, in hopes of compelling Dubai to allow her to return. He says any court case that Princess Haya now pursues to attempt to stay in Britain would ultimately help Sheikha Latifa.

“This is perfect for us now. Princess Haya will need to show [Sheikh Mohammed] is a dangerous man for her kids,” he said. “Obviously we are not happy for Haya, but it will give Latifa a good chance.” Any testimony that Princess Haya presents on her own behalf—including Sheikha Latifa’s 39-minute video and an additional 10 minutes of unseen footage her lawyer has been holding on to—could implicate the ruler of Dubai in British courts, not only on her own behalf but that of her stepdaughters, too.

Princess Haya’s departure hasn’t just lent greater legitimacy to Sheikha Latifa’s torture and imprisonment allegations. It also offers a striking contrast between Dubai’s image as an attractive place for international business and its reality as a place where woman are often disadvantaged by a discriminatory culture and legal system.

The UAE is currently the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council that has no laws prohibiting domestic violence against women. In divorce cases, domestic violence is not even considered when ruling on custody, according to Hiba Zayadin, a Human Rights Watch investigator for the UAE. In cases of divorce, the father automatically retains legal guardianship, although a mother can continue to raise pre-teenaged children, unless she remarries or is found to have violated sharia. Given her husband’s position and his public accusations of infidelity, Princess Haya would have no hope of keeping her children if she decided to pursue divorce in Dubai.

Princess Haya’s decision to flee to the U.K., rather than to her own home country of Jordan, may have been motivated by a search for a judicial system that consistently enforces the rule of law. If she went to Jordan, the government would have been under intense pressure to return her to Dubai.

Despite Sheikha Latifa’s failed attempt to flee, a number of wealthy women in the UAE, including two royals, have emailed Haigh with similar videos to the one the princess had recorded, documenting dire living conditions, pleading for help. The trend is in line with a growing number of women speaking out in the region, contesting religious and cultural policies that favor patriarchy.

Of three women I have spoken to in the past few weeks who have fled the region and sought asylum abroad, all have expressed a lack of faith in the system of sharia that is meant to protect their rights—so much so that some said they have abandoned Islam altogether.

The disappearance of Princess Haya—one of the most privileged women in the region, married to one of the richest and most powerful men in the world—carries the additional message that even women in the region’s ruling class are quietly suffering. Princess Haya’s unprecedented international status explains Sheikh Mohammed’s own unprecedented decision to go public about the troubles in his marriage.