The Sheikh and the Princess
Part One – The Fact-Finding Hearing
Summary and commentary by Rob Webster, Solicitor
In April 2019, Her Royal Highness Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein (the mother), daughter of His Majesty the late King Hussein of Jordan and the half-sister of the present ruler of Jordan, King Abdullah II, fled from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the UK with her two young children to escape her husband and their father. The children’s father is His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (the father), the ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, Vice President and Prime Minister.
What followed was a series of high-profile court proceedings, which until recently have remained unpublished. The mother alleged the father had engaged in kidnapping and abduction of two of his previous children and that he had engaged in a campaign of terror against her, and therefore she and the children were at risk.
The father, unsuccessfully, had attempted to have the judgments of various hearings withheld from the public, and upon their release it is clear to see why. The judgments are damning, at best, and there are now calls for the Dubai ruler to face justice over potential breaches of international law as well as the kidnapping of his own daughters. Further, there are now questions as to whether there will be an impact on diplomatic UK-UAE relations.
This is no ordinary family law case. The father is a head of state, billionaire and described to be a friend of the Queen. Rarely, if ever, has such a high profile, high powered individual been subject to family court proceedings with public judgments being released.
The parties were married on 10 April 2004 and had two children together. The children are Sheikha Al Jalila bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (Jalila) aged 12, and Sheikh Zayed bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (Zayed), aged seven.
The mother was the second official wife of the father (who also had additional ‘unofficial wives’), and the children are the two youngest of his 25 children.
On 15 April 2019, the mother left Dubai for England with the children and on her arrival she made it clear that she would not be returning. The father issued proceedings with the court for the children to be returned and whilst the mother initially claimed diplomatic immunity, she abandoned this on the basis that she required the court’s protection. She subsequently issued applications for the children to be made Wards of the Court, a forced marriage protection order with respect to Jalila and for a non-molestation order for her own protection. Such interim orders were made as well as orders preventing the children’s removal from England and Wales and preventing their removal from their mother’s care.
The father initially argued that as the Head of Government of the UAE he was entitled to certain immunities meaning he could not be required to attend court to give evidence, and that he was immune from ordinary processes by which an order might be enforced against him if he was in breach. He later changed his position in October 2019, confirming he no longer wished to pursue his application for the children to be returned, but that he simply wished to re-establish contact with the children.
Unfortunately for the father, things were not to be so simple. Proceedings had been commenced, social workers had been appointed on behalf of the children and serious allegations had been made against him by the mother. The court’s hands were essentially tied, and it was impossible for any decisions to be made in relation to the children without a finding of fact assessment, and so such a hearing was listed to deal with the mother’s allegations and whether or not the court should rely on them
The case was heard by Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division.
The Mother’s Allegations
The mother’s allegations against the father can be summarised as follows:
- That in August 2000 the father ordered and arranged the unlawful abduction of his daughter, Shamsa (from a different wife/marriage) from the UK to Dubai and subsequently deprived her of her liberty;
- That in June 2002 the father arranged and ordered the forcible removal of his daughter Latifa from the Oman/UAE border, and again in 2018 arranged an armed commando assault team to forcibly return her to Dubai after she had attempted to flee by boat off the cost of India, and following both occasions deprived her of her liberty; and
- That the father had engaged in a campaign of harassing and intimidating behaviour, putting the mother at fear for her safety whilst in Dubai and since her move to England.
The judge described how based on the allegations raised by the mother, the hearing “may well involve findings, albeit on the civil standard, of behaviour which is contrary to the criminal law of England and Wales, international law, international maritime law, and internationally accepted human rights norms.”
The mother stated that her extreme concerns for the children’s safety in having a relationship with their father would have been alleviated somewhat if Shamsa and Latifa could have attended Court or provided evidence that they were not being deprived of their liberty in Dubai. No evidence was provided on their behalf, and the father simply said they were unavailable.
The Father’s Position
The father refused to attend any hearing or engage with the process. He suggested the judge treat the mother’s allegations as the truth so that evidence need not be given, which the court declined. The father’s legal team did not cross examine the witnesses that the mother called, and instead provided short answers to each allegation.
Note: What is a Fact Finding Hearing?
A Fact-Finding Hearing is a type of court hearing in which a judge assesses the evidence in relation to allegations made by parties to proceedings. The court is required to make a decision as to whether an allegation should be treated as having happened or not for the purposes of making future decisions and assessments on evidence. Once an allegation is ‘proven’ or ‘not proven’, in future hearings the court is required to treat those allegations in that way.
In this case, the court was required to consider whether the allegations made by the mother against the father were to be treated as proven or not before making any further orders in relation to the two children.
Allegation One: That in August 2000 the father ordered and arranged the unlawful abduction of his daughter, Shamsa from the UK to Dubai and subsequently deprived her of her liberty
Shamsa was born in 1981 and is now aged 38. Her mother is one of the father’s unofficial wives. The mother alleged that in August 2000 Shamsa was forcibly abducted from the UK to Dubai after she had made attempts to remain in England.
Police disclosure revealed more than the mother had known about this herself.
An immigration solicitor who later provided a statement to the police recorded meeting with Shamsa on 21 June 2000. She stated that she was a UAE national and needed help to remain in the UK. She was 19 years old at the time. They met twice more until the police informed the solicitor in August 2000 that she may have been abducted from the country.
In February 2001 the solicitor received an email from one of Shamsa’s sisters with purportedly contained a message from Shamsa stating:
I don’t have the time to write in detail, I am being watched all the time so I’ll get straight to the point. I was caught by my father, he managed to track me down through someone I kept in touch with. I was caught on the 19th August, in Cambridge. He sent four Arab men to catch me, they were carrying guns and threatening me, they drove me to my father’s place in Newmarket, there they gave me two injections and a handful of tablets, the very next morning a helicopter came and flew me to the plane, which took me back to Dubai. I am locked up until today, ‘ ’, I haven’t seen anyone, not even the man you call my father. I told you this would happen, ‘ ’, I know these people, they have all the money, they have all the power, they think they can do anything. You said that if he kidnapped me, you would contact the Home Office and involve them. Now, I am not only asking you to report this immediately, I am asking your help and to involve the authorities (involve everyone).
Another statement had been provided to the police by a driver, naming three individuals due to travel from the father’s Newmarket estate on 19 August 2000. He reports seeing a young Arab lady dressed in western clothes, and that she left by helicopter with the three men the next day.
The police disclosure also recorded a phone call from an individual stating to be Shamsa, asking for assistance and naming the same three individuals as being her captors.
As part of the police investigation, permission was sought from the CPS for them to visit Dubai to interview potential witnesses. This was refused. The mother alleged the father had orchestrated this and sought to obtain disclosure from the Foreign Office. The Foreign Office confirmed it held relevant evidence but could not disclose such to protect relations between the UK and UAE.
Allegation One: The Court’s Finding
The court found the allegation that Shamsa had been removed from the UK by her father to have been proved. On whether or not her liberty was being deprived of in Dubai, the only evidence available was based on a video from her sister, Latifa in a YouTube video (see further below). In any event, the judge found that “the allegation that Shamsa has been deprived of her liberty for much if not all of the past two decades, living in circumstances as described by Latifa, is, I find, proved.”
Allegation Two: That in June 2002 the father arranged and ordered the forcible removal of his daughter Latifa from the Oman/UAE border, and again in 2018 arranged an armed commando assault team to forcibly return her to Dubai after she had attempted to flee by boat off the cost of India, and following both occasions deprived her of her liberty
Latifa was born in 1984 and is now aged 35. Two separate allegations relating to Latifa were made by the mother, one which occurred in 2002 and the other in 2018.
2002 abduction and deprivation of liberty
In 2002, the mother alleged that Latifa attempted to run away from the family in Dubai by crossing the Oman border. She stated that she was forcibly returned by her father and subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment which included:
- Being held against her will for more than three years
- Physical punishments, including assaults
- Solitary confinement with no access to light, insufficient clothing and no hygiene products
- Forced sedation and control over her movements
- Withholding of her passport on her release and not being allowed to drive.
The mother’s evidence to support her allegation against the father was based on a one hour video posted on YouTube by Latifa in February 2018, as well as witness evidence from a friend of Latifa’s who had attempted to assist her to escape in 2018.
The YouTube video recorded Latifa speaking directly to the camera, where she states:
And I’m making this video because it could be the last video I make, yeah. Pretty soon I’m going to be leaving somehow and I am not so sure of the outcome, but I’m 99% positive it will work. And if doesn’t then this video can help me because all my father cares about is his reputation. He will kill people to protect his own reputation. He – he only cares about himself and his ego. So this video could save my life. And if you are watching this video, it’s not such a good thing either I’m dead, or I’m in a very very very bad situation.”
Within the video, Latifa went on to describe how in 2002 she arranged to be driven to the UAE/Oman border, but on arrival she was identified and prevented from leaving. She stated that on her return to Dubai her father’s right-hand-man put her in prison where she was repeatedly beaten and told it was on her father’s orders. She states:
“So in total, I was in prison for three years and four months. I went in June 2002 and I came out in October 2005…It was constant torture, constant torture, even when they weren’t physically beating me up, they were torturing me. They would switch off all the lights. I was in solitary confinement by myself totally, and there’s no windows, there’s no light, so when they switched off the light, it was pitch black. They would switch it off for days, so I didn’t know when one day ended then the next began and then they would – they would make sounds to harass me and then they would come in the middle of the night to, pull me out of bed to beat me and it wasn’t – it wasn’t a normal prison experience by any means.
2018 abduction and deprivation of liberty
The mother next alleged that Latifa had further attempted to escape her father in early 2018, when she had managed to reach international waters off the coast of India with the help of her friend, who gave evidence that armed Indian coastguard forces boarded the boat, made threats to kill and forcibly returned Latifa and her friend back to the UAE. Latifa’s friend stated she was taken to jail, denied legal representation and threatened with the death penalty for attempting to kidnap Latifa. The mother alleged Latifa was thereafter held against her will and had her movements controlled.
Latifa’s friend, a Finnish national who had started out as her personal trainer, attended court to provide evidence of her friendship with Latifa and the events that took place on the boat off the coast of India. She stated that she was only later allowed to leave Dubai after signing a statement to confirm she would not discuss what had taken place, nor try to contact Latifa again.
The father did not cross examine or provide any more evidence than a short statement through his legal team as follows:
In relation to Latifa’s return to Dubai in 2018 I feel compelled to say that, with respect, I do not consider that this honourable court is in a position to investigate the security and intelligence issues that arose. I can confirm that we had reason to believe that Latifa had been manipulated over a long period of time … and possibly by others too. … We feared that our daughter was in the hands of a criminal who might hold her to ransom and harm her. To this day I consider that Latifa’s return to Dubai was a rescue mission.
Following Latifa’s return to Dubai, the mother stated that she did not initially believe Latifa’s version of events, and stated that the father had informed her that she was bipolar. The mother took an interest in Latifa’s welfare and arranged for her to be seen by a psychiatrist who reported that there was nothing wrong with Latifa’s mental health.
The mother’s evidence to the court was that Latifa’s living arrangements were ‘akin to prison’ and on raising this with the father he simply told her that Latifa was a danger to herself and that she was to remain in her current accommodation. It was around this time when the mother was raising questions with the father in regards to Latifa that she states issues began to arise in their marriage.
Allegation Two: The Court’s Finding
The court’s findings in relation to Latifa were unambiguous and severely damaging for the father’s reputation. In relation to Latifa’s friend’s evidence the judge stated she was:
a wholly impressive individual. There is no indication that her motives throughout the period of years that she describes have been anything other than that of a loyal employee of Sheikha Latifa and, latterly, a close friend, supporter and confidante. Any suggestion that [she] was cynically involved in the escape from Dubai as part of a pre-planned kidnap plot is untenable. Such an assertion would be wholly out of place given the relationship between these two women in the years leading up to February 2018 and it is wholly incompatible with [her] actions in speaking out, as she has bravely done, about these matters since. In any event, no suggestion is made in these proceedings to the contrary.
The judge went on to state that “there is no ground for doubting that it was indeed Latifa’s settled ambition to escape from Dubai” and that “she was plainly desperate to extricate herself from her family and prepared to undertake a dangerous mission in order to do so.”
Finally, the judge made clear that he was of the opinion that Shamsa and Latifa had not been given free choice about engaging in proceedings whatsoever:
I also do not accept that Shamsa and Latifa have been given a free choice about engaging in this court process and communicating directly in some way either with the mother in these proceedings or the court. Were they living ordinary lives in a culturally appropriate way in Dubai, there is no reason why they would not wish to communicate with the court which, I assume, they know is acutely interested in whether or not they are fit and well and living a free life.
The judge later went so far as to say the father had not been open and honest, and had deprived both girls of their liberty:
I have found that the father acted as he did with respect to Shamsa and Latifa, and I have found that he continues to maintain a regime whereby both of these two young women are deprived of their liberty, albeit within family accommodation in Dubai. It also follows that insofar as he has denied the mother’s allegations in that regard, or failed to give a full account of them, he has not been open and honest with the court.
Allegation Three: That the father had engaged in a campaign of harassing and intimidating behaviour, putting the mother fear for her safety whilst in Dubai and since her move to England.
The final allegations raised by the mother against the father related to his specific behaviour towards her, in that he had waged a campaign of harassing and intimidating behaviour against her which caused her to fear for her safety. The father’s only response was: “I do not accept that Princess Haya is in any danger”.
The mother’s position was that the father’s behaviour towards her changed around the time she began questioning him about Latifa’s living situation. The mother alleged the following:
- That the father removed her desk at the Ruler’s Court, a move which symbolically the mother described as “a huge public slap in the face” as it indicated she no longer had any official status within the Ruler’s Court.
- On 7 February 2019, unknown to the mother, the father also divorced her under Sharia Law.
- On 11 March 2019, in the middle of the day one of the father’s helicopters landed outside the mother’s house and pilot said he was to take one passenger to “Awir” which is a prison in the desert. The mother was with the two children at the time and the security staff told the children that “ Bubba is angry with Momma. He is going to send her to the jail in Awir; that’s all there is”. The mother reported that the children were clinging her leg in terror, and that if it had not been for them, she would have been taken away. Interestingly, one of the crew members who arrived by helicopter was also one of the men involved in Shamsa’s removal from the UK in 2000.
- That the father was investigating her personal finances.
- That the mother began receiving anonymous notes in her bedroom with threats to take away her children and that her life was over.
- That the mother once found a gun on her bed with the muzzle pointing at the door with the safety off.
The mother also referred the court to several poems which the father wrote and published which she said were directed at her and were threatening in nature such as:
My spirit is cured of you, girl. When your face appears, no pleasure I feel. Don’t say troublemakers are the ones to blame. It’s your fault, though you’re fairer than the moon…They say luck strikes once in a lifetime and if you lose luck you have no excuse.
As a result of the father’s behaviour towards her, the mother found her situation in Dubai unsafe and untenable, and on 15 April 2019 fled the UAE for England with the children with the intention of never returning.
On her arrival the mother stated the father told her that she and the children would never be safe in England. In June 2019 he published a poem called “You lived and died”, which the mother regarded as a threat to her and public announcement of her betrayal. It stated:
And you have transgressed and betrayed. You traitor, you betrayed the most precious trust. I exposed you and your games…I have the evidence that convicts you of what you have done…You know your actions are an insult…Let’s see if mischief brings you benefits I care not whether you live or die.
One witness, described as a police officer at a high level with a distinguished career who “occupied a position of significant responsibility in relation to the mother” gave evidence that a former colleague and ex-police officer, had met with him and threatened him to withdraw assistance for the mother. The officer reported that:
It soon became very clear to me during the course of the conversation that the intent was to disrupt [services provided to] [the mother] by threatening myself [and another], implying that we should cease work for our client immediately. The implication was that absent this, those acting for [the father] would seek to discredit both our individual reputation and [business] reputation, by a range of allegations including financial impropriety and corruption.
The officer gave evidence that services to the mother were not withdrawn and that he subsequently received an email from his former colleague stating that “the media war has started”. Between 24 June and 14 July 2019 the mother referred the court to 1100 media articles published worldwide which included false allegations against her as well as the high ranking police officer, as had been threatened.
Allegation Three: The Court’s Finding
The court found the majority of the mother’s allegations proved, and the judge stated as follows:
I see no reason to doubt that some unknown individuals, loyal to the father, left notes, and on two occasions a gun, in the circumstances that she describes.
I find 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 as she did.
Once she had moved to England and made it plain that she was not going to return, the father’s antagonism towards her will have undoubtedly increased. Whilst this couple plainly attract media attention whether or not they feed information into the press or simply do nothing, the level of media coverage in the three week period in the Summer of 2019 is very striking, even allowing for the newsworthiness of material about this couple generally.
In regards to the barrage of media articles aimed at the mother and the high ranking police officer, the judge stated that:
the overall conclusion sought by the mother is made out, namely that the father deliberately used connections with the press to generate hostile stories aimed at destabilising and harming her.
In conclusion, the court found that:
the third group of the mother’s allegations, save for number 18 relating to forced marriage, are largely proved on the balance of probabilities and that the father has therefore acted in a manner from the end of 2018 which has been aimed at intimidating and frightening the mother, and that he has encouraged others to do so on his behalf.
With such damning allegations against the father having been proved against him, including what essentially amounts to kidnapping, deprivation of liberty, assault, intimidation, threats to kill and possibly a breach of international law, the next step for the court was to assess what impact these findings would have on the children at the centre of the application, and to assess what risk there was to either or both of them from being removed from the mother’s care and taken to Dubai against her will.
In Part Two of our commentary of this high-profile case we will summarise the judgment relating to various ‘assurances’ and ‘waivers of immunity’ provided by the father to the court and mother to alleviate the mother’s concerns raised against him.