Runaway princess and Emirati sheik face off in messy custody case in London

A "runaway" Jordanian princess and a powerful Emirati sheik are at the centre of a salacious custody case unfolding in London's family court, Susan Ormiston writes. 

Princess Haya left Dubai in May and refuses to return

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum and Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein of Jordan attend the Royal Ascot horserace in Ascot, England, in June 2014. (Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

A "runaway" Jordanian princess and a powerful Emirati sheik are at the centre of a custody case unfolding in London's family court. 

While the billionaire leader of Dubai and his glamourous wife are fighting over the custody of their children, the case includes allegations of infidelity and alleged abuse in the family that could be diplomatically dicey for the UK and the U.A.E., and could potentially strain the former couple's relations with British Royals. 

When Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein, 45, entered the High Courts of Justice in London this week, it was the first time she'd been seen in public since she fled Dubai with her children in May. (She is believed to be staying in a $130-million home in London across the street from Kensington Palace.) 

Haya is the sixth wife of Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, 70, the billionaire ruler of Dubai and the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, who is asking the court to send his children back to him in Dubai.

On Tuesday, Haya asked for a non-molestation order for herself, and a second "forced marriage protection order" for her children. It's defined as a type of injunction that stops someone from making contact, taking you out of the country or making marriage arrangements.

Princess Haya, right, leaves the High Court in London with her lawyer, Fiona Shackleton, on July 31. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The powerful and well-connected couple had been married 15 years before their split this spring. Neither has spoken publicly, but the case threatens to pry open life inside the Emirates' most powerful family.

The sheik, who is known to write poetry, is believed to have penned a poem posted on the Instagram account Sultan41 in June that references disloyalty, leading some to conclude he was writing about his ex-wife. Translated, it says, "You betrayed the most precious trust, and your game has been revealed. Your time of lying is over and it doesn't matter what we were nor what you are."

"Leaked information is coming from both sides," said Rahda Stirling, head of a consulting group called Detained in Dubai.

"We have the U.A.E. saying that [Haya] was having an affair with her security officer and then we have her side saying that she actually learned disturbing facts ... that caused her to feel unsafe and flee the U.A.E. to establish herself in the United Kingdom."

Said Stirling, "In a marriage breakdown that has children involved, each side is going to be advised by their lawyers to use whatever they can to win them favour in the court."

Royal ties

Sheik Mohammed was not in court this week, but he has hired one of Britain's most high-profile family lawyers, Helen Ward, who represented Guy Ritchie in his divorce from Madonna. Not to be outdone, the princess retained Fiona Shackleton, nicknamed the "Steel Magnolia," who navigated Prince Charles' divorce proceedings with Diana, Princess of Wales.

Neither the lawyers nor the U.A.E. embassy in London would comment on anything relating to the sheik and Haya's split. It is possible much of the court proceedings will face reporting restrictions — the president of the family court, Sir Andrew MacFarlane, has refused all non-UK media from attending the court hearings this week.

The royal couple has ties with the British Royal Family, particularly through their shared love of horses. The sheik founded Godolphin, a global horse racing and breeding team, and he has picked up trophies at Royal Ascot. As the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, Haya has known the British Royal Family for much of her life. 

Queen Elizabeth greets Sheik Mohammed and Princess Haya on the second day of the Royal Ascot in June 2016. (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

This high-profile marriage breakdown puts strains on all those relationships. But there is more than wealth and royalty under scrutiny in these proceedings. 

Princess Haya is not the only woman to break with the family. Princess Latifa, a daughter of Sheik Mohammed by another wife, has accused her family of "torture and imprisonment." 

Latifa tried to escape Dubai last year, hiring a yacht to cross from Oman to India, with the intention of flying to the U.S. to claim asylum. The boat was seized en route, allegedly by Indian and Emirati commandos, before Latifa was returned against her will to Dubai. The UN High Commission for Human Rights opened an investigation into her treatment.

Human Rights Watch is concerned about Latifa's welfare, said Rothna Begum, a senior researcher in the organization's women's rights division.

Princess Latifa "left an incredibly dramatic video [last March] saying that if she's forced to go back to UAE, this may be her last video and she may be in a terrible situation," said Begum. "We cannot know what her real wishes are until she's free."

'So far from the truth'

In December, as the UN pressed the sheik's family for "proof of life," Princess Haya asked Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and a friend, to meet Latifa in U.A.E. Robinson did so, but pictures released of the brief visit were criticized by human rights organizations as a PR event, and questions emerged surrounding Latifa's mental condition.

In her only public remarks on Latifa, Haya told Irish radio last January that Latifa was vulnerable — not because of her family, but because of outsiders who were looking to take advantage of her. 

In this 2004 handout from the Royal Court of Jordan, Princess Haya, Sheik Mohamed and Jordan's King Abdullah sit at al-Baraka palace in Amman. (Royal Palace via Gettty Images)

"We've done our utmost to help and protect and support her through this period and we continue to do so," Haya said. "It's unimaginable that this thing has gone so far from the truth."

Pressed to explain, Haya would not. She called Latifa's situation a "deeply private family matter," but said that "if I thought for a second that any single shred of this was true ... I wouldn't be here and I wouldn't stand for it." 

Haya's own sudden departure from Dubai five months later has raised fresh questions about what she knows about Princess Latifa.

Whether Haya herself left U.A.E. because of Latifa or not, "it's certainly going to be referenced in the court proceedings," said Stirling from Detained in Dubai.

Another wayward princess

There is another princess in the sheik's family who ran away. Back in 2000, Princess Shamsa left her father's estate in Surrey, U.K. She was reportedly apprehended by the sheik's staff in Cambridge, returned to U.A.E. and has not been seen since.

Latifa alleged in her video that her sister Shamsa has been drugged, ill-treated and forcibly detained in Dubai.

Human Rights Watch's Begum stressed that her organization cannot verify any of these allegations, because the women involved "haven't been allowed to leave the country, to express what they really wish to do."

About the Author

Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.