Parts of the ruling released by London’s High Court read like a thriller: a daring escape via dinghy, jet ski and yacht by a royal daughter attempting to escape the clutches of her domineering father. A princess caught in an affair with her bodyguard flees in fear of her life.
But for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, it must have felt like a horror story as this week the lid was lifted on some of the darkest details of his private life and presented to the world.
The ruling, released on Thursday, confirmed years of rumours about Sheikh Mohammed’s treatment of rebellious daughters desperate to break out from their restrictive lifestyles. It also laid bare a campaign of intimidation against his sixth wife, Princess Haya, with extraordinary detail about the complicated family life of a man revered by many in the United Arab Emirates as one of the Middle East’s most modernising and visionary leaders.
The information was released as part of a months-long custody battle between Sheikh Mohammed and Princess Haya, who fled to the UK in April last year with their two young children.
In the UAE, a conservative and patriarchal society where public discussion of the ruling families’ private lives is frowned upon, the media has not covered the court case. Emiratis credit Sheikh Mohammed, 70, for overseeing the dramatic transformation of Dubai from a small Gulf backwater, lacking the oil riches of its larger neighbours, into a global trade and tourism hub. The revelations are unlikely to affect his domestic standing.
But the details are still damaging for a man used to mixing with high society overseas, notably in the UK where his Godolphin stable is a dominant force in horseracing and where Sheikh Mohammed, a graduate of Sandhurst military academy, is a regular fixture alongside Queen Elizabeth in the royal box at Ascot, one of Britain’s most prestigious sporting events.
“Clearly it’s dirty laundry that has been aired and that’s going to take a shine off things. It’s embarrassing, but will pass,” said Michael Stephens, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “I would be very surprised if UK-UAE relations were hurt in any meaningful way because of this.”
Sheikh Mohammed, who is also the UAE’s vice-president and deputy prime minister, chose not to take part in the court proceedings and said the fact-finding judgment told only one side of the story. He hired some of the UK’s top lawyers in an attempt to prevent the ruling from becoming public, but the Court of Appeal ruled that it should be published.
The result was the release of details including how in 2000 one of his daughters from a previous marriage, Sheikha Shamsa, was abducted by Arab men after she had sought immigration advice while visiting Cambridge, the English university city. Then 19, she was taken to Sheikh Mohammed’s Newmarket property before being whisked to Paris in a helicopter, from where she was flown back to Dubai.
A British police detective who said he spoke by telephone to a woman who claimed to be Sheikha Shamsa then investigated her abduction claims. But when he sought permission from the UK’s prosecution services to visit Dubai, it was refused, the ruling said.
In the course of the court proceedings, a request was made to the UK’s Foreign Office for information regarding the British police investigation. According to the court documents, the Foreign Office confirmed it had details relevant to the request but refused to disclose the information, citing reasons including the need to protect relations between the UK and other states. There are now calls for the UK to reopen the investigation.
Sheikha Shamsa’s younger sister, Sheikha Latifa, made her own escape attempts in 2002 and 2018, the court heard. In the latter, she left Dubai for Oman with the help of her Finnish fitness trainer and set out to sea in a dingy. She eventually ended up on yacht operated by a French man who helped organise the escape for a fee of about €350,000, according to witness statements.
The escape was foiled when Indian commandos boarded the yacht off the coast of Goa and Sheikha Latifa was handed over to Emirati security forces who took her back to Dubai.
In the case of Sheikha Shamsa, Sheikh Mohammed said in a witness statement that he had organised a search for her when she was in the UK. He responded to the allegations about the 2018 abduction of Sheikha Latifa by saying he had feared she was being held for ransom, but did not contest the details.
Andrew McFarlane, president of the English High Court’s family division, concluded that both daughters, neither of whom attended the court proceedings, were still being “deprived of their liberty, albeit within family accommodation in Dubai”.
Their experiences are integral to Princess Haya’s case to obtain custody of her own two children who were fathered by Sheikh Mohammed. The 45-year-old married the Dubai ruler in 2004 in what many saw as the perfect royal match. The half-sister of Jordan’s King Abdullah, she shares Sheikh Mohammed’s love of horses and was already well-established in the equestrian world in her own right — she competed in showjumping at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
But by early last year their marriage was on the rocks. The ruling revealed she was having an affair with her bodyguard. Relations with Sheikh Mohammed became more strained when she took a greater interest in the cases of Sheikhas Shamsa and Latifa.
Sheikh Mohammed divorced her without her knowledge under sharia law in February last year. Princess Haya has described to the court a litany of intimidation against her — from guns left on her bed to anonymous threatening letters.
Sir Andrew said he found “that the cumulative effect of each of these episodes was to place the mother in a position of great fear leading her to conclude that she had no option but to leave Dubai with the children”.
The hearing will continue this month.