The runaway princess: London court case could shed light on a power struggle in the Middle East

Kim Sengupta
July 20, 2019, Belfast Telegraph

A London court case could shed light on a power struggle in the Middle East … and reveal why the wife of Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed is seeking asylum in the UK

Creating controversy: Haya Bint al-Hussein (right) and Sheikh Mohammed Rashid al-Maktoum

Legal battle lines have been drawn up for a court case in London at the end of this month in which unprecedented revelations are expected to be made about one of the most powerful monarchies in the Middle East.

The case, involving the ruler of Dubai and his sixth wife, comes with some extraordinary chapters of intrigue, claims of violence, and accusations of abuse – all of which have received widespread international publicity.

Last year, Haya Bint al-Hussein, married to Sheikh Mohammed Rashid al-Maktoum, and her friend, former Irish president Mary Robinson, appeared together in photographs that led to immediate controversy and criticism.

They were pictured alongside Latifa, a stepdaughter of Princess Haya, who disappeared from the United Arab Emirates in February 2018, but was then arrested on a yacht, the Nostromo, by the Indian coastguard and returned to Dubai.

Princess Latifa was seized along with Hervé Jaubert, a French intelligence officer and a Finnish friend, Tiina Jauhiainen, who had helped plan her escape for months.

Five other navy vessels – three Indian and two Emirati – were reported to have been involved in the operation. The governments of both countries provided little information as to what had taken place.

Before fleeing, Princess Latifa had recorded a video saying that were it to be released, “either I am dead, or in a very, very bad situation” and accused her father of severely mistreating her and her sister, Shamsa.

Princess Shamsa had fled from her father’s estate, near Chobham in Surrey, in 2000. She was seen in Cambridge in August that year before disappearing. She later turned up in Dubai after, allegedly, being forced back home.

In the photographs with Princess Haya and Ms Robinson, 33-year-old Princess Latifa was unsmiling, looking listless. Mrs Robinson subsequently gave an interview to BBC Radio 4 in which she described Latifa as a “troubled young woman” who regretted making the video claiming abuse.

Human rights groups accused the former Irish president of repeating the Emirati royal family’s propaganda; she responded she was merely giving her views after being invited to the meeting by Princess Haya, her friend.

Seven months on, and Princess Haya has herself fled the UAE. She is now living in London at a house near Kensington Palace, which she bought from Lakshmi Mittal, the billionaire Indian born steel magnate, for £85m two years ago.

She has asked for police protection and has also engaged a private security firm that has senior former Scotland Yard officers in its hierarchy.

Princess Haya, educated at Badminton School then St Hilda’s College at Oxford, knows members of the British royal family, including the Queen and Prince Charles.

She is said to have asked for political asylum and there is also talk of legal proceedings for divorce from Sheikh Mohammed and custody of the couples’ two children, a seven-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. The sheikh has 21 other children with his other wives.

The princess is being represented by Fiona Shackleton QC who acted for Prince Charles in his divorce from Princess Diana. Sheikh Mohammed is being represented by Helen Ward QC who has acted for Andrew Lloyd Webber, Paloma Picasso and Princess Diana’s stepmother, Countess Raine Spencer.

There have been a number of reasons offered for Princess Haya’s departure from Dubai. One is that she found out what really happened to Latifa and Shamsa and felt she could no longer continue to be a member of the royal family and live safely in Dubai. Another account holds that Princess Haya incurred Sheikh Mohammed’s anger by becoming too close to a bodyguard, a former British Army officer. One former British soldier, involved in the private security sector in the Gulf, says: “There were definite rumours of a Barry Mannakee kind around for a while, I don’t know if it’s true or not – the guy involved is back in the UK. You won’t see him in the Gulf any time soon, I suspect.”

Mannakee was a police personal protection officer for Princess Diana and allegedly had an affair with her. He was moved from his post and later died in a motorcycle crash. No evidence has been produced to show that Princess Haya was intimate with the bodyguard, who works for a UAE-owned security company.

Emirati officials complain that opponents of the royal family and the government are seeking to use personal issues for agendas of their own. Their explanation of the Princess Latifa case, for instance, is that it is an attempt at blackmail.

They point to an interview given by Helene Jaubert, the ex-wife of Hervé Jaubert, on The Daily Beast website in which she claimed: “The whole plan was for Hervé to help her escape and once he got her out, the daughter was going to get to the dad and say I want $3m or else I’ll tell all to the media. It was a con. It’s a corrupt scheme gone haywire.”

The allegation is strongly denied by Princess Latifa’s friends and by Hervé Jaubert.

There are also claims from Emirati sources that regional rivals Qatar and Iran are behind stories of royal feuds. No evidence has been provided to back this charge, but there are possible political ramifications to what is unfolding with Princess Haya.

There have been reports that the UAE asked the British Government to help return Princess Haya home. This is denied by authorities in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

But some of Princess Haya’s friends fear that the UK may give in to pressure. The wife of an Emirati businessman, who did not want her name disclosed, said that: “We can see the power (the UAE) has in Great Britain, it forced the Government to carry out an investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood, who the Emiratis hate. What happens if there is an asylum application and it’s rejected? What if there is Saudi pressure as well – the two (ruling) families are very close; who knows what can happen.”

However, it seems highly improbable that someone with Princess Haya’s influential connections in this country, and resources, not least formidable legal ones, would allow her to be simply deported back to the Emirates.

There are other possibilities of diplomatic and political friction. Princess Haya is the daughter of the late ruler of Jordan, King Hussein; the current ruler, King Abdullah, is her half-brother.

Jordan’s finances are in difficult straits. The peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians, the economic part of which was recently presented by Jared Kushner in Bahrain, also does little favour to Jordan, which hosts a very large number of Palestinian refugees.

Amman has consistently pushed for a two-state solution, the prospects for which are pushed even further back by Donald Trump’s son-in-law’s proposals. Jordan would need Emirati and Saudi help to cope with problems this is likely to pose.

At the same time, Princess Haya, an Olympic equestrian for Jordan, is hugely popular in the country and any perception of mistreatment of her would lead to resentment, which may in turn affect Jordanians working in the Gulf.

The story of the princess and her departure from the Emirati royal family will have widespread repercussions – well beyond the confines of the High Court in London.