United Nations and the BHA would do well to take heed and learn lessons of former Newmarket school governor’s stand against Sheikh Mohammed

David Walsh
February 20, 2021, The Times

At a certain point in Panorama’s 32-minute report, The Missing Princess, broadcast last Tuesday, a troubling story became disturbing. From wondering how Princess Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum was coping with being held captive by her father, the ruler of Dubai, the viewer’s concern was for the young woman’s safety.

The princess is one of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s many children. Latifa, 35, has twice tried to escape Dubai against her father’s wishes, the more recent attempt coming in early 2018.

At some point Latifa received a phone and used it to send secret video and text messages to confidantes in Europe. She described in detail her incarceration and in one of her final videos, it seemed as if her spirit had been broken.

“I am really reaching a point now where I am just getting so tired of everything,” she said. “I don’t want to be a hostage in this jail. I just want to be free. I don’t know what they are planning to do with me. The situation is getting more desperate every day.” Soon after the messages stopped and friends have not heard from Princess Latifa for several months.

From her interview with Panorama, it was clear that her close friend Tiina Jauhiainen believes Latifa may be dead. It is difficult to understand why Sheikh Mohammed would not wish to end the speculation by proving the princess’s wellbeing. So far, there has been nothing from Dubai, except for a carefully worded statement.

The outside world watches with trepidation, while its leaders respond with timidity. At the United Nations, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says it will question the United Arab Emirates about Princess Latifa. Boris Johnson said that he was “concerned but would wait and see how [the UN] get on.” Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, expressed concern, without proposing to do anything.

Last March a judge in the family division of the High Court in London said allegations that Sheikh Mohammed had abducted his daughters, the princesses Shamsa and Latifa, were proven. Shamsa’s abduction happened on the streets of Cambridge 21 years ago. No one has been charged for that crime.

Sheikh Mohammed is friend to the Queen, and he is by far the leading owner of racehorses in the UK. The British Horseracing Authority has rules regarding the suitability of those who own racehorses and consider outcomes in civil cases before deciding who can be registered as owners. Even with the High Court judge’s words ringing in their ears, the BHA has remained silent. Inside the regulatory authority there is said to be a belief that “if the Government do nothing, we can do nothing”.

No place in the UK has benefited as much from the Sheikh Mohammed’s wealth as Newmarket in Suffolk. He was at an English language school in Cambridge when he went racing for the first time. That meeting was at Newmarket and it was the beginning of a long relationship with the town.

Newmarket is the heart of Godolphin, an equine empire that breeds and races top-class horses all over the world. In the town and surrounding areas, evidence of the Sheikh’s wealth is everywhere. It is seen in the cropped hedgerows that flank his land, in the classy royal blue jackets that stable staff wear.

Take the road called Duchess Drive out of town, travel three miles south towards the village Saxon Street and everything you see on your right-hand side is Sheikh Mohammed’s.

Sheikh Mohammed’s close relationship with the Queen can not mask uncertainty (MARWAN NAAMANI)

There is Dalham Hall Stud, a 3,300-acre farm so opulent even the stallions could be forgiven for not wanting to get out of bed in the morning.

The Sheikh also bought the Dalham Hall estate, with a further 3,000 acres. Closer to the town there are three Godolphin training centres; a pre-training yard off the Hamilton Road near Newmarket racecourse. On the other side of town there is Moulton Paddocks where Charlie Appleby trains one team of Godolphin horses and not far away, Stanley House — where Saeed bin Suroor oversees another team.

Appleby trained 227 horses for Sheikh Mohammed last season, while Bin Suroor had 179 under his care. With other trainers being sent Godolphin horses and the pre-training yard, it is not a stretch to say that the Sheikh has in excess of 500 horses in training at Newmarket. In a relatively small town (population 16,660), Godolphin is a major employer and “the boys in blue”, as called by townspeople, are the best paid and enjoy the best conditions.

The Sheikh has been generous to the town. Take a walk from the clock tower overlooking the High Street onto what looks like a village green but is a recreational area called The Severals and there is an impressively modern sports pavilion. It was built in 2010 at a cost of £660,000. Sheikh Mohammed paid for that.

On the western entrance to the town, there is a bronze statue of the Queen, standing alongside a mare and foal. Erected as a gift from the people of the town to commemorate the monarch’s 90th birthday, it was unveiled by the Queen on November 2, 2016. The hope had been that public contributions would cover the cost. “Now that we’ve got to £23,000,” one of the organisers said after the first two months, “how long do you think it will take to get the other £650,000?” No one saw the statue getting built until Sheikh Mohammed wrote the cheque.

His greatest contribution has been his support for the state secondary school, the Newmarket Academy. Once a fine school, standards had slipped at the Academy when Sheikh Mohammed got involved. Every classroom got new furniture, and the entire school was recarpeted, repainted and renovated. Computers and electronic flip boards were installed. A new library was built and filled with 20,000 books, all paid for by a £1 million donation from Sheikh Mohammed.

“This community is incredibly lucky to benefit from the ongoing support and vision of Sheikh Mohammed,” said Nick Froy, principal at the Academy in 2018. “His kindness and determination will change the lives of everyone in this town.”

Why then did town councillor and former teacher Michael Jefferys feel a certain unease as he set off to a meeting at the Memorial Hall on the High Street on October 1, 2018?

Item five on the agenda for that evening’s meeting of the Town Council was “to consider bestowing the title of honorary freeman of the town to his Royal Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum”. Rachel Hood, mayor at the time, believed that Sheikh Mohammed’s support for Newmarket deserved this recognition. Hood is wife of trainer John Gosden.

Others on the council agreed with the mayor. There were others though who did not feel it appropriate to make Sheikh Mohammed “freeman” of Newmarket. Six months previously Princess Latifa released a video made before her failed attempt to leave Dubai in which she spoke of being held against her will by her father.

As is customary, members of the public were invited to attend the council meeting. That evening an estimated 40 showed up, which was more than normal. A number were invited to address the council on the question of granting freeman-ship to the Sheikh; some spoke for, others against. From the reaction of those in the Hall, it was clear the majority were against.

A young man spoke passionately about human rights abuses in the UAE and the teacher in Michael Jefferys found reassurance in the idealism of youth. Jefferys’ unease related to his relationship with the Newmarket Academy. He had been maths teacher and vice-principal at the Academy until his retirement in 2012 and he was still on the board of governors.

His own children had done well at Newmarket Academy and he had seen the impact of Sheikh Mohammed’s support. He wanted what was best for the school but how, as a member of the council, could he vote to make Sheikh Mohammed freeman of the town? He spoke against.

Other council members did likewise and as it became clear there was no chance of getting the two-thirds majority necessary to confer the honour, it was decided to simply write a letter to Sheikh Mohammed thanking him for his “phenomenal support” for the community.

“I’m so glad we stopped it happening,” Jefferys, who is now mayor of the town, says. “It would have been embarrassing, especially when you consider it was the ‘freeman’ award that was being proposed.”

After the non-vote, Jefferys was interviewed on a BBC Look East news bulletin and spoke about the outcome. People at the Newmarket Academy suggested that it would be better if, in the future, he avoided saying anything critical of Sheikh Mohammed. He said he could not give that undertaking. In that case, they said, he would have to resign as a school governor.

I like the fact that Jefferys stood up for what he believed because these days, so few do.