“You’re Essentially a Prisoner”: Why Do Dubai’s Princesses Keep Trying to Escape?

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.

Vanessa Grigoriadis
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.

Shiekh Mohamed and Princess Haya married in 2004. (FROM ROYAL PALACE/GETTY IMAGES.)

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.