Skip to main content

Dubai ruler abducted daughters and has harassed Princess Haya: UK judge

Sheikh Mohammed organised the abduction of Latifa and Shamsa and has waged a campaign of intimidation against his now ex-wife, court told
Jordanian Princess Haya bint al-Hussein and her husband, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum (C), walk to the parade ring on Ladies Day, the third day of horse racing at Royal Ascot in southern England, 17 June 2010 (Reuters)
By Daniel Hilton in London

The emir of Dubai is keeping his daughters Latifa and Shamsa captive and has conducted a campaign of harassment against his now former wife, Jordan’s Princess Haya, a British judge has ruled.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum organised the kidnapping of Latifa, who attempted to flee Dubai in 2018, and her older sister Shamsa, who in 2000 temporarily escaped her family in the UK, an English court has heard.

Alleged by the princess but deemed unproven by the judge, however, was that the emir was attempting to marry off their 11-year-old daughter to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The judgments of Sir Andrew MacFarlane, president of the UK High Court's family division, come as part of an acrimonious custody battle over Sheikh Mohammed and Princess Haya's children, which threatens to destabilise the UK’s diplomatic relationship with one of its closest partners in the Gulf.

Missing Dubai princess Latifa 'brought back' after attempted escape
Read More »

Sheikh Mohammed is also the prime minister and vice-president of the United Arab Emirates, while Princess Haya bint Hussein is the half-sister of King Abdullah II of Jordan.

After attending months of closed-door hearings, Middle East Eye and other British media organisations can reveal dramatic details of Princess Haya's allegations and the judge's conclusions.

MacFarlane has concluded that virtually all of Princess Haya's allegations of harassment are true on the balance of judgement.

They include: that the emir sent a helicopter to rendition her to a notorious Emirati prison, or at least intimidate her with the prospect; twice had a gun left in her rooms; threatened to take her children away; and mocked her over an adulterous relationship with her bodyguard.

As part of this harassment, the court heard, Sheikh Mohammed unilaterally divorced the princess, backdating it to the 20th anniversary of the death of her father, King Hussein of Jordan, who died in 1999.

Investigations blocked

The split between the ruler of Dubai and his wife burst into public view in April, when Princess Haya left the UAE for London with their two children and settled into her Kensington home.

Sheikh Mohammed then asked the High Court to force the children's return to Dubai, prompting Princess Haya to respond with applications for a forced marriage protection order and non-molestation orders.

Central to the princess's claims were the fates of two of the emir's daughters with another wife: shiekhas Latifa and Shamsa.

Shamsa, it was claimed and believed by the judge, fled her family in 2000 in the United Kingdom, only to be recaptured by Emirati agents in Cambridge, sedated and then rendered by helicopter from the family's Newmarket home.

Now 38, Shamsa is believed held captive in Dubai. Attempts by Cambridgeshire police to travel to the UAE and follow up investigations into her disappearance were blocked by prosecutors. 

Manchester City, Abu Dhabi and the rise of English football's new order
Read More »

The court heard the UK Foreign Office received freedom of information requests about this matter, which were refused on the grounds such information could harm relations with friendly foreign countries.

Thirty-five-year-old Latifa, meanwhile, is said to have made two unsuccessful attempts to flee the wealthy emirate. After the first, in which she tried to drive to Oman, Latifa was detained for three years. During a second attempt in 2018, Latifa made it as far as India's Malabar coast, where her vessel was violently stormed by Indian, and later Emirati, forces.

Both daughters are now in Sheikh Mohammed's custody. They were called as witnesses by Princess Haya, though not released, nor were their testimonies allowed to be taken.

In court, Princess Haya alleged that her marriage began to dissolve when she took an interest in Latifa's wellbeing. She had also at that time been conducting an extra-marital affair with her British bodyguard.

According to Princess Haya, a doctor trusted by the paternal family saw Latifa and declared her entirely well. It was then, the princess said, she began to become more sceptical of the account of Latifa's wellbeing and condition given by Sheikh Mohammed.

The Jordanian princess described to the court a visit to Latifa's locked and guarded house in December 2018: "She opened the door, looked at me, embraced me, and burst into tears. She cried for a long time. She looked vulnerable."

The conditions, the princess said, were "akin to a prison".

Latifa has recounted "constant torture" at one stage of her first period of detention. Though MacFarlane made no particular reference to torture, he said he found her overall account credible.

Campaign of intimidation

Though Princess Haya's affair is said to have begun at some stage in 2017/18, things appear to have come to a head in January 2019, soon after she began visiting Latifa and taking an interest in Shamsa.

In February, the princesses' trusted staff were removed and replaced with persons she "had previously found troubling", the judge found. The next month, her representative in the royal court was told to leave - "a huge slap in the face", according to the princess.

On 11 March 2019 - "one of the longest and most frightening days I ever remembered living" - a helicopter landed unannounced outside Princess Haya's home. The pilot, she alleged, said he had come to take someone to Awir, a notorious desert prison.

The princess says were it not for her young son clinging onto her leg, she would have been taken away. “Flight documents with respect to the helicopter have been disclosed and show that one of the crew was one of the three people named by Shamsa and [an employee of the emir] as being involved in Shamsa’s removal from England in 2000,” the judgement said.

'These findings, taken together, demonstrate a consistent course of conduct over two decades where, if he deems it necessary to do so, the father will use the very substantial powers at his disposal to achieve his particular aims'

- Andrew Macfarlane, judge

Sheikh Mohammed contends that the helicopter's visit was "simply a mistake".

Throughout this period, Princess Haya received anonymous notes left around her home. "We will take your son - your daughter is ours - your life is over," one is alleged to have said.

Twice in March 2019, the princess found a gun lying out in her rooms, with the muzzle pointed at the door and the safety catch off. Two months later Sheikh Mohammed is said to have told her, "You and the children will never be safe in England".

In June, a threatening poem by the emir titled "You lived and died" was published, which the princess says was a public threat to her and announcement of her "betrayal".

McFarlane said in his judgement that "save for some limited exceptions, the mother has proved her case with respect to the factual allegations that she has made".

"These findings, taken together, demonstrate a consistent course of conduct over two decades where, if he deems it necessary to do so, the father will use the very substantial powers at his disposal to achieve his particular aims."

Media restrictions

Multiple hearings have been held since July, always attended by Princess Haya. Sheikh Mohammed refused to make an appearance at the High Court in London, however, despite being called as a witness.

The emir has changed his legal team several times and tried to keep MacFarlane's judgement from becoming public, with appeals made to the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court waved away.

Sheikh Mohammed was found to have "not been open and honest with the court".

In a statement, the emir said: “This case concerns highly personal and private matters relating to our children. The appeal was made to protect the best interests and welfare of the children. The outcome does not protect my children from media attention in the way that other children in family proceedings in the UK are protected.

'As a head of government, I was not able to participate in the court’s fact-finding process, this has resulted in the release of a ‘fact-finding’ judgment which inevitably tells only one side of the story'

- Sheikh Mohammed

“As a head of government, I was not able to participate in the court’s fact-finding process, this has resulted in the release of a ‘fact-finding’ judgment which inevitably tells only one side of the story. I ask that the media respect the privacy of our children and do not intrude into their lives in the UK.”

The judgements and details surrounding them are hugely embarrassing for him, and contradict his assertion that Shamsa and Latifa were troubled young women who were rescued and are now safe with their family.

The emir and princess have both been mainstays on the British social scene for some time, and are known to be friendly with Queen Elizabeth II.

Relations with Jordan, too, may be strained by the case. The judgement reveals Princess Haya received diplomatic immunity from the Hashemite kingdom, which is cash-strapped and has close ties to the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.

Strict reporting restrictions have been in place until now, however, MacFarlane lifted some following an appeal by several UK news outlets.

Princess Haya bint Al Hussein, the wife of Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and her lawyer Baroness Fiona Shackleton arrive at the High Court (Reuters)
Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, the wife of Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, and her lawyer Baroness Fiona Shackleton arrive at the High Court (Reuters)

In an earlier judgment, McFarlane ruled in favour of Princess Haya and media organisations who had argued that details of the proceedings should be made public.

McFarlane said that publishing the fact-finding judgement would "provide some measure of additional security for the children" and allow for the "orderly operation of the security services", as well as correcting the "largely false account" of Princess Haya’s actions presented by her husband.

Sarah Palin, the barrister representing a group of media organisations including the BBC and the Guardian, had also argued that publication was also in the public interest as part of a wider debate about "the deterioration of the human rights situation in the UAE, the extent to which its rulers are breaching international human rights law... and whether the 'tolerant' oasis, the UAE promotes itself as, is a sham".

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.