First Princess Latifa tried to flee by boat and almost made it to India—before being sent back. Then Princess Haya, Sheikh Mohammed’s “public wife,” refused to return from England. Now the sheikh is battling her in court over their children.
February 20, 2020, Vanity Fair
Amid the fine horses competing in this year’s Royal Ascot, the red-coated postilions driving the Queen of England in her carriage, and the rabble in immense grandstands, one man stands in the event’s most exclusive VIP area wearing a black silk hat. Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the leader of Dubai, more often wears the traditional headscarf and white robe, or kandura, of Dubai, one of the seven states that make up the United Arab Emirates—but for the most important race of the season, he makes an exception.
The sheik is a progressive who bows to the laws of capitalism as well as the mosque, and so unlike the dictators of old that he writes his own poetry. “Mohammed is articulate, erudite, and suave—a Davos type,” says a businessman who has dined with him in Dubai. He’s also one of the biggest racehorse owners in the world, and friendly with the queen, who adores horses so much she rarely misses an event—and she has also, over the past 30 years, made $8 million in betting rounds.
The sheik was able to be with his friend the queen today, but someone else was absent—the sheik’s own queen of a sort, his “public wife,” Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, whose father, King Hussein, was the truly progressive leader of Jordan for decades. Haya, who at 45 is about 25 years younger than her husband, is the first Arab woman equestrian to compete in the Olympics, representing Jordan in show jumping during the 2000 Sydney Summer Games. She seemed like the perfect wife for the sheik: a paragon of the new Arabia, independent but also devoted to her man. “She was a breath of fresh air for him, because she’s not the kind of Arab girl you’re going to get anywhere else,” says a friend of Haya’s.
Educated at the University of Oxford and with highlights in her hair, she’s also the first woman in Jordan to hold a driver’s license for heavy machinery—to transport her own horses to shows. “Haya is very intelligent,” says Sven Holmberg, who served with her on the International Federation for Equestrian Sports. He says she would arrive to meetings via the sheik’s jet and donated millions toward a home in Lausanne, Switzerland, for the federation’s use—though Holmberg says he clashed with her over the use of controversial drugs in the sport, which she apparently supported more than him.
Yet Mohammed was without not only Haya today, but also any of his other wives, which have numbered at least six over the years, nor any of his reported 30 children. News was pinging around the world that Haya had fled Dubai months earlier, and, curiously, her departure seemed connected to the alleged fate of two of Sheik Mohammed’s daughters by one of his other wives. The younger of the two, Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, 34, had even attempted to escape Dubai in 2018 on a boat registered in the U.S. and piloted by a French American captain.
Soon, Mohammed would sue Haya in a high-profile London court for the return of their two children, 8 and 12. British papers are calling the divorce one of the highest-profile royal breakups since Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and, with Sheik Mohammed’s fortune most recently estimated at $4 billion, the most expensive separation in the history of their country.
The picture starting to come together of Sheik Mohammed was less progressive, where women are concerned, than one had imagined.
The story of Sheik Mohammed and Haya’s parting of ways is a winding tale, full of unexpected twists and turns and the font of so many rumors that I could barely keep them straight. The Persian Gulf states are involved in an information warfare campaign at the moment—in particular, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are pitted against Qatar—and conspiracy theories in many realms abound. It’s possible to even hear impassioned explanations of how the real killers of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident and Washington Post columnist, were actually Qatari spies who framed the Saudis to get back at them for the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. (And, by the way, part of why the Saudis blockaded the country was said to be jealousy over Qatar landing the 2022 World Cup.)
Theories about Haya’s departure too have come hot and heavy. Dubai is the Gulf’s shining beacon of merchant capitalism, if not democracy, with relatively open borders, a massive expat population, and fanciful real estate projects like the world’s tallest building and the world’s largest choreographed fountain system. But in the public square, some topics can be off-limits—such as Mohammed’s wives and daughters. The sheik himself has made his opinion on such loose talk known: “It is said that human scorpions dwell on the earth in the form of gossipers and conspirators, who trouble souls, destroy relationships, and subvert the spirit of communities and teams.” (Neither Sheik Mohammed nor Haya responded to requests from Vanity Fair for interviews.)
Yet in private among Arabian experts, royal-watchers, and journalists in the West, each move in Haya’s departure from Dubai has been scrutinized. If Haya’s escape has something to do with Sheik Mohammed’s daughter Latifa fleeing on the yacht, is it possible that the downside of the sheik’s monarchical prerogative may be felt through the heirs, as it is so often? The sheik needs to run his state and keep his offspring from embarrassing him, and he may do that in a strict and potentially brutal way.
Many are also questioning why Sheik Mohammed, who is known to keep close tabs on his citizens, would have allowed Haya to leave when Dubai has more surveillance than anywhere on earth, with 35,000 cameras trained on street corners. (Washington, D.C., has about 4,000.) If he had an inkling things were awry in his marriage with Haya, wouldn’t he have asked one of his ministers to monitor his wife’s digital footprint and even revoke her privileges on their (multiple) private planes?
And, in yet another theory, British papers have made much of Haya’s alleged relationship with a bodyguard. In a poem about an unnamed woman Sheik Mohammed put online around the same time that Haya disappeared, he wrote, “O you who betrayed the most precious of trust / My sorrow revealed your game.” He continued, “You loosened the reins of your horse.”
Haya and Sheik Mohammed had their first romantic spark at an equestrian event in Spain and married in 2004. “I was surprised Haya was marrying someone who was so Arab, because I always thought she’d end up with an English landowner,” says the friend of Haya. “But she was crazy about Sheik Mo—madly in love with him.” Mo loves pomp and circumstance, and Haya was a bit quirkier and more down-to-earth; she didn’t mind cracking jokes at her own expense, such as when her father gifted her a horse, named Scandal. She explained that she’d told him, “Daddy, every princess has a scandal and if you want mine to come with four legs rather than two, you’d better buy it for me.” Haya and Mohammed’s nuptials were not arranged, but before they became a couple, oil-poor Jordan was in financial distress, and these days, the UAE is reportedly one of the country’s largest investors.
Though Haya was raised in Jordan as the adored daughter of a king, the sheik’s family in Dubai ran a very different kind of monarchy. Jordan’s royal family is closer to the British model: Princes and princesses have patronage, run organizations, and are highly visible (the American-born Queen Noor, who became Haya’s stepmother after her mother, Queen Alia, died in a helicopter crash when she was a toddler, comes to mind). But Dubai’s monarchy is mostly closed and private. Sheik Mohammed married his first wife, Sheikha Hind bint Maktoum bin Juma al-Maktoum, in a five-day ceremony including 100 camel races in the 1970s; since then, she has rarely, if ever, been in a photograph seen by the public in 40 years of marriage. They have 12 children together.
Though women in Dubai are increasingly becoming business and government leaders, the Emirates also enforce the law of male guardianship, which means that husbands and fathers control the destiny of their wives and daughters. Women can only work with permission of their husbands; must have a lawful excuse for refusing to submit to sex with spouses; and any unmarried woman, Emirati or expat, who appears at a hospital pregnant in Dubai can be arrested, including a woman having a miscarriage. Perhaps most importantly for Haya, any woman who divorces her Emirati husband and seeks to remarry must grant full custody of her children to the first spouse.
I spoke with two Emirati women who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the state. The first said she left Dubai at 18 for Europe, where she received asylum and is hoping to study as an engineer. “You can see a free woman without the hijab in the Dubai malls, but behind closed doors, you cannot know what’s happening,” she says, adding that after puberty, she was not allowed to leave her home without permission and a guardian. She explains the rationale for this thusly: “Honor is a big thing in the Arab world, and family honor is within the girl—her virginity is the family’s honor,” she says. “If that honor is gone, the reputation of the family is gone. So, the girl has to pay the price.”
The second woman is the daughter of a royal. She said she left the Emirates in her late 20s because “regardless of my age, I was treated like a child.” She adds, “Anyone who comes from the high-up royal level I come from is restricted from doing anything, culture-wise, that can annoy the public.” After beginning a covert romantic relationship with a British man, she ran to England. “I left an email in my sister’s inbox explaining everything: I hated the country, the injustice, the lack of freedom, and the Emirati men,” she told me. Her family, astonished, did not inform their community. “My family has decided to hide the fact that I left them due to our differences, and instead have been creating stories of me—studying in London, continuing my higher studies, living with a maid in an apartment (all paid for by my parents) when people ask about my disappearance,” she says. More recently, pondering her actions, this woman did ask her mother for forgiveness. Her mother responded that she felt her daughter had exposed the family to “unforgettable shame, disgrace, and dishonor.”
In the palaces of Dubai’s royal family, among Mohammed’s brood, some of the same cultural and religious ideology is prevalent. Even though princesses have high status in the country, their situation is not necessarily to be envied. “You have the fancy title of being a princess, and of course you have people waiting on you [hand and foot], but you’re essentially a prisoner,” says an Arab dissident. “You’re not supposed to socialize. You don’t have a normal life.” Though some women in Dubai’s royal family are educated abroad and have public profiles, others simply bear children, spend their monthly stipend, and remain quiet. “If you want to be in favor, you buy into what the king does. If you’re not, you’re pushed aside and nobody really cares about you—you’re not a high-profile monarchy anyway,” says a source with knowledge of Dubai’s royals.
By the time Haya became involved with Sheik Mohammed, if not before, one would think she would have known all of this, but perhaps she was too in love with Mohammed to realize the enormity of her choice in marriage. “I think Princess Haya falls into the category of the type of princess who learned that once you marry into the family, you have to play by their rules. And their rules include self-preservation at all costs,” says the source who has an understanding of the region.
But Haya must certainly have been aware that by the time they wed, something odd had already happened to one of the sheik’s daughters. In 2001, according to The Guardian, Sheik Mohammed’s daughter Sheikha Shamsa bint Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, a tall, dark-eyed college student and equestrian who once ranked behind Princess Anne in a long-distance horse race, abandoned her black Range Rover near the stables at the al-Maktoum Surrey estate. When the vehicle was discovered the following morning, Sheik Mohammed boarded a helicopter from another racing area to join the hunt. Shamsa was eventually found in Cambridge, after which she was reportedly snatched by bodyguards and returned to Dubai; her father followed up by moving 80 horses off the property and firing nearly all of the estate’s staff.
When this news spilled into the press—via Shamsa hiring a London barrister and also reportedly calling British police from Dubai—there was an outcry. In London, the government opened an investigation into whether she had been taken out of the country “against her will.” But the investigation apparently languished, and Shamsa remained in Dubai, though she has not appeared in a photograph circulating on the internet or elsewhere in the intervening 18 years.
THEY LOCKED THE DOOR, BUT THE COAST GUARD THREW A STUN GRENADE. THEIR CABIN BEGAN FILLING WITH SMOKE.
This was curious on its own, but not as strange as the case of Shamsa’s younger sister Latifa. Known as a daredevil for her expert skydiving, Latifa even appeared on the cover of the local newspaper, says Jim Krane, a research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute and author of City of Gold, a fascinating contemporary history of Dubai. “Latifa was portrayed as an über-princess who, like her brothers and dad, had taken on the world, doing risky things like skydiving and enjoying life,” says Krane.
In the sheik’s royal family, extreme sports were not only accepted but considered a virtue. Behind the scenes, however, Latifa claimed to have a terrible relationship with her mother and barely any relationship with Sheik Mohammed, according to Tiina Jauhiainen, a Finnish woman who was Latifa’s personal capoeira instructor—and who, bizarrely, became part of Latifa’s escape plan. Latifa would later speak bitterly of how she was simply one of the three daughters that the sheik named Latifa, which he’s explained means “friendly, kind, and supportive” in Arabic—and was his mother’s name too. “My mother was unique, tranquil, and gentle,” he wrote in one of his books. “My mother loved all her children deeply, but I always felt I was closest to her heart…. She ate only after we ate. She rested only after we were asleep, and she rejoiced only after our grief had dissipated.”
Yet this skydiving daughter, this Latifa, would be someone quite different.
At the highest level of Arab royalty, men often house their wives in different palaces, and this is thought to be the case with Sheik Mohammed, says Jauhiainen. “Mohammed has so many official wives and unofficial wives—all these families are separate and barely know each other,” she says. “The wives and daughters might meet at public events like weddings, where the women’s wedding is separate from the men’s. How they know each other is very much based on their social media profiles: ‘Oh, this person has a better life, this person gets to travel.’ ”
At Latifa’s family’s palace, Filipino maids satisfied her every care, says Jauhiainen. Latifa’s family even had their own leisure center with a pool, yoga room, and rooms for hairdressers and manicurists. But Latifa wanted little to do with the five-star lifestyle: She spent most of her time at the family’s stables, caring for horses and her pet monkey. She became a vegan, cooking her own curries, and said she liked animals more than humans, according to Jauhiainen.
She was also plotting something dramatic. Claiming that Shamsa had been kept under house arrest and drugged after her escape, and that Latifa herself had also been imprisoned in solitary confinement and beaten when she tried to escape to Oman and stick up for Shamsa, Latifa announced her own departure from the country.
It was a quest that was many years in the making and involved a cast of unexpected characters, including not only Jauhiainen but French former spy Hervé Jaubert, who has said he was employed in Dubai making submarines before he was accused of embezzlement—a charge he denies. Years earlier, Latifa read Jaubert’s book Escape From Dubai, in which he wrote about Sheik Mohammed with disdain—even commenting on the time the sheik was caught doping horses in a race and suspended from the sport. “…After his ban is expired, it is unlikely that Sheik Mohammed will ever run in another horse race again if he can’t have this public arena to further inflate his ego,” wrote Jaubert with a poison pen.
In his book, Jaubert was also highly sympathetic to women in Dubai, declaring, “Emirati women are tired of being married to their cousins, traded for camels, and being treated like chattel.” He explained that for his own departure from the country, he camouflaged himself as a woman, “dressed in black from head to toe with an abaya—veil, ponytail, perfume and all.” He did this for one express reason: “This was the best way to go around Dubai without being questioned or even addressed by another person. It was like being invisible.”
Jaubert’s book must have been heady reading for Latifa. And after surreptitiously corresponding with Jaubert for several years, on February 24, 2018, according to Jauhiainen, she and Latifa had a royal driver drop them off at a café where they often met for breakfast. In the bathroom, Latifa took off her black abaya, applied makeup, and put on tinted sunglasses. She also dropped her cell phone into a garbage can.
Then, Jauhiainen says, the two of them drove to the Omani border, where they met Jaubert, who would pilot the yacht, and one of his crew, who brought along Jet Skis. They rode the skis about 15 miles out to the boat. “It was very rough sea, in the middle of the ocean—just the craziest day ever,” says Jauhiainen. They planned to go to Sri Lanka, and after that, the United States. Latifa had thought about heading for the United Kingdom but was worried that her father’s connections would make it hard for the country to allow her to remain, Jauhiainen says.
This motley crew sailed for eight days, eating granola bars after finding the galley overrun with roaches. Nervously, via a slow-moving internet connection, they tried to get in touch with Western journalists who might spread word that they needed protection. They thought the satellite connection they were using, which came from the U.S., wouldn’t be penetrated. But about 30 miles off the coast of Goa, India, with Jauhiainen and Latifa below deck in their bunk, they heard gunshots. They locked the door, but the Indian coast guard threw a stun grenade. Their cabin began filling with smoke. The friends made it up the stairs to the deck, staggering from coughing so hard. Upstairs, the sky was black except for the tiny red laser dots of the guns that Indian men were pointing at them.
Lying on the deck, Latifa kept repeating, “I am seeking political asylum,” but the men wouldn’t listen. Soon an Emirate warship pulled up, and those men began to board the boat. “One of the crew members said, ‘These men are here to save us from the Indians,’ but of course that’s not what was happening,” says Jauhiainen.
Dubai reportedly had gotten in touch with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, with the alarming news that one of Sheik Mohammed’s daughters had been kidnapped. “India is dependent on UAE remittances from their citizens making money in Dubai and sending it home—there’s seven-to-one Indians to Emiratis in Dubai,” explains Jim Krane, the City of Gold author. “That’s a lot of funds coming back home. They’re eager to help Dubai where they can.”
Latifa disappeared with some of the men. Jauhiainen and the rest of the crew remained on the boat while the Indians looted it, taking electronics and even Jauhiainen’s makeup. The boat was then piloted to Dubai, where they were blindfolded, cuffed, and imprisoned, Jauhiainen says. That evening, Jauhiainen’s interrogation began: “They wanted to know who was behind this and what the ultimate goal was. They couldn’t believe I was just helping my friend who wants to be free.” She says the guards talked about Latifa as if she were a minor who didn’t know what was best for her or know the meaning of freedom. To them, she had all the freedom a woman could possibly need while living in the UAE.
It’s unclear if Jauhiainen or any of the crew would have been let out of prison if it weren’t for a clever trick of Latifa’s: Before her departure, she posed in front of a white wall next to pink drapes, her black hair pulled back in a ponytail, and recorded a 40-minute video explaining her problems with Dubai and the sheik. “If you are watching this video, it’s not such a good thing. Either I’m dead or in a very, very bad situation.” She added, “Freedom of choice is not something that we have. So when you have it, you take it for granted, and when you don’t have it, it’s very, very, special.”
Latifa comes off as smart, frustrated, and extremely rational. And between this viral video, now with more than 4 million views, and, some months later, a BBC documentary—which spurred the United Nations to request that Sheik Mohammed furnish proof of life of his daughter at once—Dubai began to feel pressure to publicly respond. (Jauhiainen was soon sprung from prison, though she says guards tried to scare her upon release, saying, “What happened to Princess Diana was not an accident.”)
In the Arab world, behind closed doors, many questioned whether Latifa was indeed arrested in the Indian Ocean; unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE is not known to often track down citizens who have left the Emirates. But reporting indicated that the story was true. “People assume the richer you are, the more freedom you have [in the Gulf region], but it’s almost the inverse—the more powerful the family, the more they can force you to return to the country,” says Rothna Begum, women’s rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa region at Human Rights Watch.
Whether Latifa was a reliable narrator was a more persistent issue—many couldn’t believe the sheik would treat his own daughter with cruelty. “That’s not the M.O. of Arab princes, to torture their kids,” says the source with knowledge of the region. “We’re all familiar with claims of Saudi and UAE princes doing all kinds of crazy stuff in hotels in London, abusing Filipino maids, and weird things in L.A. But the families have good ways of covering that up: paying people off, dismissing people.” Sheik Mohammed had allegedly experienced the bad behavior of princes with his eldest son, who had a reputation for partying. A Wikileaks cable revealed that the son allegedly shot and killed one of the sheik’s assistants, after which Mohammed passed him over as his likely heir in favor of his younger brother. The elder son died after a heart attack at 33.
With Latifa back in Dubai yet remaining out of sight, Sheik Mohammed came under pressure—and his court thought it prudent to release a statement saying they were “aware and deeply saddened by the continued media speculation regarding Her Highness.” They were simply trying to create a “stable and happy future” for Latifa, in privacy and peace. The court also claimed the captain of the ship and others had asked for a ransom of $100 million to return Latifa; Jaubert has reportedly maintained he was only paid about $390,000 from Latifa for expenses related to her escape.
“YOU’RE ESSENTIALLY A PRISONER…. YOU DON’T HAVE A NORMAL LIFE.“
The statement from the sheik’s court fanned the flames of speculation. Now everyone wanted to see Latifa, to know she was copacetic with her return or at least alive. And while Latifa and Haya reportedly barely knew each other and had met only at formal events, according to Jauhiainen, Haya, whose global reputation was utterly spotless until this point, stepped into the breach. As a U.N. Messenger of Peace, she had become friendly with Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland in the 1990s. Both Haya and Mohammed had relationships in Ireland: The sheik had invested in the Emerald Isle since the mid-’80s, and Haya trained there as a young woman. Now, Haya apparently asked Robinson, who left politics to become a respected humanitarian, to fly to Dubai and sort out the situation with Latifa, which Haya called a “family dilemma.”
It’s unclear if, before her trip to Dubai, Robinson knew she would be asked to take pictures and make a public statement. But after a day of walking through the family’s gardens and talking to them, Robinson sat down at lunch while photographers snapped shots of her with Latifa. Robinson smiled courteously, but Latifa, for her part, looked confused. Her hair was barely brushed. Her skin was pale, likely indicating she’d been indoors rather than out, and her normally lithe, athletic frame had rounded out. She wore jeans and a dark purple sweatshirt, a somewhat inappropriate costume for a formal photographed lunch. In perhaps a reflexively self-protective move, she’d zipped her sweatshirt all the way to the top.
Though Robinson had little exposure to Latifa, she explained to the press that Latifa was “troubled.” Robinson continued, “She made a video that she now regrets and she planned an escape, or what was part of a plan of escape.” Robinson said Latifa needed psychiatric care, and she was comforted that Dubai’s top family was administering this.
Now, this was quite the bit of royal theater and, in the West, considered overwhelmingly strange. “They have argued that Latifa has a mental health issue, but regardless of whether it is true, it does not excuse why she should be prevented from traveling—she should still be able to say, ‘This is the way I want to live my life,’ ” says Human Rights Watch’s Begum. “The question of mental health is beside the point, and it should not be used to deny her freedom.” In Ireland, Robinson was immediately called a stooge for the Dubai royal family—and Haya raced to her defense. On a top Irish radio program, Haya did her best to defend her friend. She said she’d called Robinson because when “faced with a situation in life that’s so profound and it’s deeply attached to your values, your family, and situations that are complex and difficult, I’ve always learned in my life to ask for counsel.” Haya added, “It is a private family matter and I don’t want to go any more deeply into it for the protection of Latifa herself, and to ensure she’s not used by anyone else.”
Even as the interviewer pressed her for more information about Latifa, Haya refused. She simply kept stressing that she was “really, really, very, very sorry that my actions have led to the criticism of a person that I so deeply respect and admire,” meaning Robinson. Haya also added, “If I thought for a second any shred of this was true,” meaning Latifa’s story about feeling oppressed, misused, and imprisoned, “I wouldn’t put up with it or stand for it.”
Several months later, Haya left Dubai.
She didn’t flee to Jordan, her home country and where her half brother Abdullah II is king, but perhaps, given Jordan’s reliance on the UAE for financial support, she felt she couldn’t put her brother in the awkward position of choosing alliances. Instead, she went to Germany, a country without strong ties to Jordan or the UAE. But for reasons that are unknown, possibly related to Germany not accepting her or her choosing to move on, Haya then left for Britain—a riskier location, given that Sheik Mohammed is a major property owner there who could make his influence felt. The Guardian reported that private Dubai channels requested that the U.K. return Haya to the UAE, though a spokesperson for the UAE embassy denied this.
Given Haya’s sudden departure, it’s possible she indeed found out something about Latifa that she couldn’t “put up with or stand for.” And some, like the friend of Haya, do not believe she would have even invited Robinson to Dubai to meet Latifa unless she were forced to do so. “The whole thing with Mary Robinson was completely bizarre and out of character for Haya,” she says. “It just struck me as a very bad PR move that someone else—not Haya—came up with, and backfired.”
And yet, Haya reportedly left Dubai with so much money—almost $40 million—that others wonder if Haya and Sheik Mohammed hadn’t actually worked out their separation before she departed. In Dubai, there was some friction over the marriage: Haya wanted to open institutes and travel the world, and two sources say that Sheik Mohammed’s sons were not enthusiastic about these pursuits. As the sheik grows older, those sons gain in influence. Haya could just be an opportunist looking to leave her husband who saw an opening to gain moral high ground—by making everyone think she fled in solidarity with Latifa.
But if Haya surreptitiously worked out her separation from Sheik Mohammed, what is one to make of his next move: suing her in London for custody of their two children? Over the summer, he demanded they be returned to him in Dubai. “The question for me, and everyone else, is why did he make this application?” says David Haigh, a British lawyer who was once imprisoned for accusations of fraud in Dubai and is now working on a campaign to free Latifa. “It just seems odd that he’s putting himself up to international scrutiny. I mean, he must be so arrogant.”
Sheik Mohammed might have wanted to make it clear to the world he will not allow his wives to leave the country with his offspring without consequences. The Arab dissident characterizes his personality this way: “Mohammed has two sides to him: He wants to say, ‘I’m a hip, cool, progressive guy’ and also ‘I’m the state leader and tribal chief.’ But trying to be both a modern guy and a traditional guy at the same time just doesn’t work.”
Though Dubai still has a reputation in the U.S. as an important Gulf ally, its power has waned in recent years. Dubai does not have much oil. It is dependent on a tourist economy. In fact, neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi almost completely dominates the country today—and its leader, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, is essentially the leader of the UAE.
Controlling sovereign wealth funds of $1.3 trillion, bin Zayed’s ideology is at odds with the frank capitalism of Sheik Mohammed. Bin Zayed’s agenda includes aggression against Iran, the blockade against Qatar, and stirring up the crisis in Yemen. An important voice in D.C., which his country frequently lobbies, he has been successful in securing President Trump’s endorsement of many of his positions. After Haya left Dubai, her half brother King Abdullah II needed to shore up support in the UAE—but he didn’t travel to Dubai to kiss Sheik Mohammed’s ring. Instead, he flew to Abu Dhabi, writing on Twitter, “I pray to God for a lasting friendship and love between our two brotherly countries and peoples, as it has been between our two families over the years.”
With tension between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, one might think that bin Zayed helped Haya advance her plan to leave the country. But a Dubai expert says this is unlikely: “Abu Dhabi and Dubai have a rocky relationship right now as Abu Dhabi tries to usurp Dubai’s key sectors by building up their own tourism, airlines, media, aluminum—basically anything but diamonds—and compete with Dubai directly,” he says. “But poking a hard stick into Sheik Mohammed’s love life sounds a little implausible.”
And as usual, there is little information to be had. “This is a major scandal in both Jordan and the UAE, to the point where people are not even speaking about it,” says the Arab dissident. “If you speak about it publicly, you are in trouble—in both countries.”
Today, Haya is living in a Kensington Palace Gardens mansion purchased from Indian steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal and worth about 85 million pounds. Jordan has made Haya an envoy at its embassy, which allows her to claim diplomatic immunity and protection under the Geneva Convention, and remain in the U.K. Little more is known about what she suffered, even though a series of posts on a fake news website have included crass talk about her sex life—and even the rumor that Latifa has been killed and buried on the grounds of Sheik Mohammed’s Zabeel Palace. Jauhiainen does not think this is true. “For sure, she is imprisoned in a secret location,” she says.
Mary Robinson has refused to comment further on the matter of Latifa’s mental state and escape but made her allegiance to Haya, not Sheik Mohammed, clear in Dublin over the summer: “I really have nothing more to say about that,” she told an interviewer. “I have never been friends, except with Princess Haya, one friend, who is still my friend.”
Haya has responded to Sheik Mohammed’s suit by asking for a type of protection usually used for domestic violence victims and by requesting a forced marriage protection order for her children, even though the sheik isn’t known to force children into marriage—that’s not the way he operates. What he allegedly did to Latifa, however, is likely to be very important to Haya’s case, and, if true, could establish in court that any children of Haya returned to him in Dubai are in danger.
Haya’s friend says that she thinks Haya left Dubai to protect her own children, even though her daughter, Sheikha Jalila bint Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, is “obviously Mo’s favorite.” “Here was Haya raising this very intelligent daughter who was getting to see the world through a more regular set of eyes than his other kids, and especially his other daughters,” she says. “The last thing Haya would want is for her daughter to be stuck in Dubai after leaving university, and then shunted off to marry a cousin. Haya would walk barefoot over coals for those kids.”
The friend explains that Haya’s mother’s death, when Haya was only two years old, left a large emotional scar. “When Haya had her daughter, she said, ‘I finally understood how much my mother loved me.’ ” The friend continues, “But Haya’s own daughter could never have the life that she had—live in Ireland and in France, learn to do show jumping, drive her own horse trailer around, then go and get married. It was never going to happen.”
Haigh, the attorney working on the campaign to free Latifa, says what’s important for people to understand about Dubai is “just because they have big towers and do concerts on the beach with Champagne, it is not a democracy. It is a police state run by a couple of men who are accountable to no one. And that means that, ultimately, the only one who can open the door to Latifa’s cage is her father.” Haigh talks for a bit about the experience Latifa and others had on the boat when it was seized off the coast of India. “There were six people on that boat,” he says. “We got five people off, but for Latifa, nothing works, because there’s no person in charge of Sheik Mohammed.”
This article is an expanded and updated version of an article that was originally published on November 11, 2019.