Young woman evaded perimeter guards and video cameras to slip through open gate
It was the black Range Rover that started the panic, according to Sheikha Shamsa al-Maktoum’s friends. Abandoned near a stable block at her father’s sprawling Surrey estate, they say, its discovery one morning in mid-July last year confirmed the security staff’s worst fears: Shamsa had run away.
Shamsa’s former riding instructor and other insiders have told the Guardian how the unruly 19-year-old’s disappearance sparked chaos on the Longcross estate near Chobham in Surrey where her father, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, installed his family every summer.
To undermine the vast security operation which her father had placed around his children apparently to protect them from kidnap attempts – highly trained close protection officers, perimeter guards, video surveillance and rigorously enforced security drills – Shamsa simply drove the Range Rover to a corner of the estate, dumped it and slipped through an open gate on to Chobham Common, friends say.
It was only when the vehicle was discovered the following morning that the alarm was raised, according to Lucy Stevenson, who worked with Shamsa and her sisters for five years. By then Shamsa had disappeared.
At Longcross, a desperate search operation swung into action, former employees said. Sheikh Mohammed flew in by helicopter from his racehorsing base in Newmarket to take charge of the hunt. All staff were sent out, on horseback or in cars, to search for the runaway. According to Ms Stevenson, the search found nothing except a mobile phone, which Shamsa is believed to have dropped on the common.
The Guardian revealed this week that Cambridgeshire police are investigating allegations from a woman describing herself as Shamsa who said that she was kidnapped from a street in Cambridge in August last year by members of Sheikh Mohammed’s staff and returned to Dubai against her will. She asked police for help via a British solicitor in March, and detectives are trying to establish whether events took place as the woman describes and whether any criminal offence has been committed.
Sheikh Mohammed has declined to comment on the investigation or the circumstances of Shamsa’s disappearance, which the Guardian put to him through his London office and through his London lawyer, Peter Watson at Allen and Overy.
Ms Stevenson, who worked for Sheikh Mohammed from 1992 until 1997, says she first heard about Shamsa running away when she received a phone call from a member of Longcross staff demanding to know whether Shamsa had made contact.
Although she had left Longcross to work at her mother’s stables, Ms Stevenson had remained in touch with Sheikh Mohammed’s children, especially Shamsa. They would go shopping in London together, Shamsa would telephone her from Dubai and they would buy each other birthday presents.
She was on the second day of a holiday at her sister’s home in Norfolk when the call came through from Longcross. “I obviously said no. It was then that she told me that she had run away,” Ms Stevenson said. “She told me not to say anything, and please keep it quiet.”
Ms Stevenson was amused but unsurprised by the call; she had known Shamsa to be a headstrong young woman, fascinated by the lives the western girls at the stables were allowed to lead. But she did not think any more about it until after she returned to Surrey.
A day or two later, at work, she noticed a white VW Golf containing two men drive into the stables, circle around the car park and then leave. When she left work at 5pm she noticed the car again, this time with only one person in it, parked behind a bush on the other side of the road. As she drove away, it followed her and she began to get frightened. When it was still behind her an hour later after she had toured through several Surrey towns she drove to Staines police station and reported the car to officers.
“The police told me they couldn’t tell me who the car belonged to. I refused to leave and go home until they verified who the owners were. He [the policeman] went away and then called me into a little back room and said the name you have given us is connected with the car.”
Furious, she threatened to go to the press with the story of Shamsa’s disappearance, but was talked out of it.
Yesterday, she said she had changed her mind after reading the Guardian’s story on Monday. “I kept quiet for so long because I was a little bit dubious about who we were dealing with. But I had not realised that there was a police investigation going on.”
She later heard from other Longcross staff that they had been made to sign confidentiality agreements which had the effect of forbidding them talking to anyone about Shamsa’s disappearance.
She said that there were many rumours about Shamsa over the following weeks. Subsequently, some friends still working for Sheikh Mohammed in Dubai have told Ms Stevenson that Shamsa is there but has not been seen in public.
Sources say that Shamsa is believed to have spent time living in the Elephant and Castle, south London, in July and August 2000.
Ms Stevenson’s account provides a fascinating insight into the family life of one of the world’s richest and most influential Arab leaders. Every summer, from Royal Ascot to the end of the flatracing season, the entire family and their enormous entourage would would set up home at Longcross. Former employees say that while in Britain, Shamsa, her elder sister, Maetha, and two younger siblings lived separately from the other children at Valley End house, rather than in the main house at Longcross.
Sheikh Mohammed’s children lived under a rigorous security regime, former employees say. Whenever the children left the estate, they had to be accompanied by their close protection officers and a senior male member of estate staff, all of whom were in radio contact.
Each child had a codename, and routes had to be outlined on a map broken down into coded sectors. Protection officers would take up vantage points around the common to track their movements.
At Longcross, the two main entrances were protected by electronic gates and guardhouses. Another set of electronic gates behind the main house divided it off from the rest of the vast property.
When they went out riding on Chobham Common, one bodyguard would have to struggle along behind Shamsa and her group on a mountain bike. According to Ms Stevenson, Shamsa took almost daily delight in galloping off, forcing the bodyguard to try to catch up.
“She just didn’t like authority, she didn’t want to be told what to do,” one friend said. “She could see through the close protection guys, she hated all the pomp and circumstance and all the yes sir, no sir.
“She was a little character but there was no malice in her. She just seemed to have a western girl’s head on her shoulders and a desire for a bit of freedom and perhaps was prepared to pursue that a bit more than the other children or girls, who all knew their place in the family.”
Within months of Shamsa’s disappearance, the entire Longcross operation was closed down as Sheikh Mohammed restructured his British operation. More than 80 horses were removed and by January almost all the staff had been made redundant. At least three claimed unfair dismissal but settled before the cases were heard.
Sheikh Mohammed still owns the property, which is beautifully maintained. But none of the family has returned to Longcross since.