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

Vanessa Grigoriadis
November 11, 2019, Vanity Fair

Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein of Jordan leaves the Royal Courts of Justice, accompanied by lawyer Fiona Shackleton in London, July 31, 2019; with Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum at the third day of the Royal Ascot in 2016.

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.

This accessory is a rarity for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who 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. “Sheikh Mo,” as he’s called, has been the leader of Dubai for 13 years. He’s thought of as 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. A major landowner in Britain and one of the largest racehorse owners in the world, Sheikh Mohammed is even friends with the Queen of England, who adores horses so much that she has made more than $8 million in betting rounds over the past 30 years. In a typically passionate piece of writing, Sheikh Mohammed has described horses as “symbolizing pride, self-esteem, tenderness, and strength all at once.”

Sheikh Mohammed normally attends the race with his “public wife,” Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, whose father, King Hussein, was the truly progressive leader of Jordan for decades. Haya, the first Arab woman equestrian to compete in the Olympics, representing Jordan in show jumping during the 2000 Sydney summer games, seemed like the perfect wife for the sheikh: a paragon of the new Arabia, independent but also devoted to her man. Educated at the University of Oxford and with highlights in her hair, she’s also the first woman in Jordan to own a driver’s license for heavy machinery—she wanted to be able to transport her own horses to the track. “Haya is very intelligent,” says Sven Holmberg, who served with her on the International Federation for Equestrian Sports. He claims that she would arrive to meetings via the sheikh’s jet and donated millions towards 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.

Given the general swoon that Haya and Sheikh Mohammed seemed to be in, the surprise today is not that Sheikh Mohammed arrived out of his usual garb. The surprise is that he’s alone—without not only Haya, but also any of his other wives, which have numbered at least six; he’s also reportedly fathered 30 children. In fact, shortly after the Ascot this past June, news began pinging around the world that Haya had fled Dubai months earlier—and two of Sheikh Mohammed’s daughters had also experienced duress. One of them, Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, 33, attempted to escape Dubai in 2018 on a boat registered in the U.S. and piloted by a French-American captain.

The picture starting to come together of this emir was less progressive, where women are concerned, than anyone imagined. And this week, beginning November 12, London’s family court will preside over the custody dispute between Sheikh Mohammed and Haya. He is reportedly suing her for the return of their two children, seven and 11 years of age, to Dubai. (Neither Sheikh Mohammed nor Haya responded to requests from Vanity Fair for interviews.) British papers are calling the divorce one of the highest-profile royal breakups since Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and, with Sheikh Mohammed’s fortune most recently estimated at $4 billion, the most expensive separation in the history of their country.

Sheikh Mohamed and Princess Haya married in 2004.

The story of Sheikh 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 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 reporter, 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. Facts are scant—and certainly not found in the public square. It is simply understood that the emir’s wives and daughters are off-limits as a subject of chatter. “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,” is the way that Sheikh Mohammed has described loose talk.

But in private among Arabian experts, royal watchers, and journalists in the West, each move in Haya’s departure from Dubai has been scrutinized. Many question why Sheikh Mohammed, who is known to keep close tabs on his citizens, would have allowed his wife to leave when Dubai has more surveillance than anywhere on Earth, with 35,000 cameras trained on street corners (Washington, D.C., only has about 4,000). If the sheikh had an inkling that things were awry in his marriage, 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?

Many are also questioning what exactly Haya’s escape may have to do with Sheikh Mohammed’s daughter Latifa fleeing on a yacht and if the two departures are linked. The downside of monarchical prerogative may be felt through the heirs, as it is so often. The sheikh needs to run his state and keep his offspring from embarrassing him, and he may do that in a strict and potentially brutal way.

And, in yet another theory, British papers made much of Haya’s alleged closeness to a bodyguard. In a poem about an unnamed woman Sheikh Mohammed put online around the same time that she disappeared, he wrote, “O you who betrayed the most precious of trust/ My sorrow revealed your game,” he writes. “You loosened the reins of your horse.”

Haya and Sheikh Mohammed first had a romantic spark at a horse race in Spain and later married in 2004. Their nuptials were not arranged, but, before they became a couple, oil-poor Jordan was in financial distress; these days, the UAE is reportedly one of the country’s largest investors.

Haya may have been raised in the royal family in Jordan, but Dubai is a very different kind of monarchy. Jordan’s royal family runs more on the British model: the princes and princesses have patronage, run organizations, and are highly visible (the American-born Queen Noor, who became Haya’s stepmother after Haya’s mother died in a helicopter crash when she was two, comes to mind). But Dubai’s monarchy is mostly closed and private. Sheikh Mohammed’s first wife, Sheikha Hind bint Maktoum bin Juma al-Maktoum, with whom he has 12 children, has rarely, if ever, been in a photograph seen by the public in 40 years of marriage.

Though women in Dubai are increasingly becoming business and governmental leaders, the Emirates also enforces the law of male guardianship, which means that husbands and fathers control the destiny of their daughters and wives. Women can only work with permission of their husbands; must have a lawful excuse for any refusal to submit to sex with their husbands; 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 her first spouse.

In Dubai’s royal family, for women, life may be stricter. “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 she became involved with Sheikh Mohammed, if not before, one would think Haya would have known all of this. “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. She must certainly have been aware that by the time they were married, something odd had already happened to one of the sheikh’s daughters.

In 2001, according to The Guardian, Sheikh Mohammed’s daughter Shamsa bint Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, a tall, dark-eyed college student and equestrian who once came in behind Princess Anne in a long-distance horse race, abandoned her black Range Rover near the stables at the family’s Surrey estate. When the vehicle was discovered the following morning, Sheikh Mohammed took 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.

Sheikh Mohammed and Princess Haya with their daughter, Al Jalila.

This was curious on its own, but not as curious 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, according to Jim Krane, author of City of Gold, a 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.

But behind the scenes, Latifa claimed to have a terrible relationship with her mother and barely any relationship with Sheikh Mohammed at all, according to Tiina Jauhiainen, a Finnish woman who was Latifa’s personal capoeira instructor—and who, bizarrely, became part of Latifa’s escape plan. The sheikh’s own mother was also named Latifa, which he has said means “friendly, kind, and supportive” in Arabic. “Latifa in life was my mother—my heart and soul…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.” But his 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 Sheikh 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, every care was satisfied by Filipino maids, says Jauhiainen. She even had her own leisure center with a pool, yoga room, and rooms for hairdressers and manicurists. But she 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.

Latifa was also plotting something dramatic. In a YouTube video claiming Shamsa had been kept under house arrest and drugged after her escape, and that she herself had also been imprisoned in solitary confinement and beaten when she tried to escape to Oman and stick up for Shamsa, Latifa apparently bought a book written by an apparent French former spy Hervé Jaubert; the title of the book was Escape From Dubai. And that’s exactly what she planned to do.

According to Jauhiainen, on February 24, 2018, 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 sunglasses. She also dropped her cell phone into a garbage can. Then, Jauhiainen says, the two of them drove to the border of Oman, where they met Jaubert, who would pilot the yacht, and one of his crew, who had brought along Jet Skis. They rode the skis about 15 miles out to their boat. “It was very rough sea, in the middle of the ocean—just the craziest day ever,” says Jauhiainen. They planned to make it 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 because there were too many roaches in the kitchen to cook. Nervously, via a slow-moving internet connection, they tried to get in touch with Western journalists who might spread the word that they needed protection. They thought the satellite connection they were using, which came from the U.S., would not 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 grenade. Their cabin began filling with smoke. They 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, handcuffed, Latifa kept repeating, “I am seeking political asylum,” but the men wouldn’t listen. Soon a warship from the Emirates 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 had gotten in touch with India and told them one of Sheikh 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 were left on the boat, which was sent back 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 knew the meaning of freedom. To them, she had all the freedom a woman could possibly need while living in the UAE.