The billionaire ruler of Dubai and his sixth wife are locked in a matrimonial dispute in a London courtroom that could tear apart one of the Middle East’s most powerful families and cause political fallout across the region.
Princess Haya bint al-Hussein left the royal palace in Dubai for Germany last month and then headed to London with the couple’s two young children. The princess, who is the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, has been living in a $136-million mansion overlooking Kensington Palace and there are reports that she fears for her life given the harsh treatment two other princesses faced after they tried to run away.
Her husband, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, has said nothing publicly about his wife’s departure, but he is believed to have lashed out at her in a poem posted on Instagram which said: “I do not care whether you live or die.”
Lawyers for the couple faced off in a close-door hearing on Tuesday to begin deciding custody of the children. Court filings also showed that Ms. Haya applied for a “non-molestation order,” which protects someone from harassment, as well as a “forced marriage protection order,” which is typically used in cases where someone is in a forced marriage and fears violence or being taken out of Britain. Sheik Mohammed also filed a motion seeking to return the children to Dubai.
The marital breakdown has attracted global attention mainly because of Sheik Mohammed’s enormous wealth and power – he is also the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – and the couple’s ties to the British Royal Family. The dispute could also strain relations between Britain, Jordan and the UAE, which includes Dubai among its seven emirates. Sheik Mohammed’s position as a regional power broker could also be threatened.
He and his family have been instrumental in helping to transform Dubai into a commercial hub that did business with most nations in the region. But falling oil prices and the UAE’s growing hostility toward Iran and Qatar have curtailed Dubai’s economy and weakened Sheik Mohammed’s standing. His position could be eroded further if divorce proceedings reveal discord and salacious details about the royal household.
For years Princess Haya, 45, and Sheik Mohammed, 70, looked like a happy couple. They married in 2004 in a lavish ceremony in Amman, and Princess Haya became the sheik’s sixth and “junior” wife. She’s the half-sister of Jordan’s current monarch, King Abdullah II, and the marriage was seen as cementing relations between Jordan and the UAE. It was also considered something of a surprise given Ms. Haya’s Western upbringing, which included attending a British boarding school, studying at Oxford University and competing at the 2000 Olympic Games in equestrian events.
The two hit it off and Ms. Haya became the public face of the Royal Family. She gave speeches and attended international functions with her husband. They also shared a passion for horses, which put them in contact with the Queen and other British royals. Ms. Haya had been an accomplished show jumper and Sheik Mohammed owns Godolphin; a global horse racing empire run largely out of Britain which is considered one of the most successful thoroughbred stables in the world. Last month a Godolphin horse won a high-profile event at the famous Royal Ascot races and Sheik Mohammed received a trophy from the Queen.
Their marriage is believed to have broken down over Ms. Haya’s increasing concern about the treatment of one of the Sheik’s other daughters, Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum. She ran away from the palace last year but was captured by Indian Coast Guard officers and UAE naval ships while sailing on a yacht off the coast of Goa, India.
Ms. Latifa, 33, recorded a video before she fled in which she denounced her father and alleged that she had been jailed and tortured after an earlier attempt to leave. “If you are watching this video, it’s not such a good thing,” she said in the recording. “Either I’m dead or I’m in a very, very, very bad situation.”
She said that she had also been deeply affected by the mistreatment of her 37-year old sister, Shamsa bint Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who tried to run away from the family’s estate in Britain in 2000 but was apprehended on a street in Cambridge and returned to Dubai. She has not been seen in public since. The UAE government has insisted that both women are “adored and cherished by their family” and that Ms. Latifa had been exploited by a man who wanted a US$100-million ransom.
Ms. Haya appeared with Ms. Latifa in a photograph in Dubai last December along with former Irish president Mary Robinson, who is a friend of the princess. The photograph was supposed to show that Ms. Latifa was fine, but human-rights advocates said she appeared dazed and sedated. Media reports have alleged that Ms. Haya left Dubai with her children after discovering more about the circumstances surrounding Ms. Latifa’s forced return.
”Just as Latifa allegedly suffered indescribable abuse at the hands of Sheik Mohammed and had no option but to escape; Haya apparently found herself in a similar situation,” said Radha Stirling, chief executive of Detained in Dubai, a human-rights organization. “Princess Haya, in all likelihood, is both a victim and a witness; and thus we hope she will remain safe, and that she will also co-operate with international authorities to expose the alleged abuses going on behind the doors of the Dubai royal palace.”
There have also been allegations in the media that the marriage broke down because Ms. Haya had an affair.
Neither side has commented on the dispute and it’s unclear whether Ms. Haya will seek a financial settlement. But the case is almost certain to be acrimonious. Both have hired high-powered divorce lawyers including Fiona Shackleton, who is representing Ms. Haya and also represented Prince Charles during his divorce from the late princess Diana.