In a hotel drawing room in west London last year, a stately Beiruti matriarch — dressed in fur and dripping in diamonds — took a sip of her tea and looked me warily up and down. It had been 47 years since Randa al-Banna was married off to Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum of Dubai as a 16-year-old ingénue, but she was still afraid of him.
“Darling,” she said, drawing on an e-cigarette. “Let me tell you. This is a very dangerous man. He is very, very powerful. No one can stop him getting what he wants.”
No one could. In 14 years as ruler of the wealthy desert principality, Sheikh Mohammed has gained notoriety as a friend of the Queen, a vital British ally, and as an autocrat who crushed internal dissent and imprisoned two of his daughters when they tried to escape his clutches.
Now a decision at the Supreme Court in London to lift a secrecy order over details of a custody battle for two of his children has laid open the machinations of the secretive royal family. The astonishing ruling lays out how he threatened the youngest of his wives — Princess Haya, 45, the Oxford-educated half-sister of the king of Jordan — and locked up his daughters Latifa and Shamsa after they tried to run away. They are thought to be imprisoned in Dubai.
In court, where he was represented by Lord Pannick QC — fresh from his victory on parliamentary prorogation in the Supreme Court last year, and reportedly paid $1.3 million for his services — Sheikh Mohammed was accused of having used “the state and its apparatus to threaten, intimidate, mistreat and oppress with a total disregard for the rule of law.”
He threatened the youngest of his wives—Princess Haya, 45, the Oxford-educated half-sister of the king of Jordan—and locked up his daughters Latifa and Shamsa.
Even more worryingly, the case revealed evidence that the British government under then prime minister Tony Blair had tried to downplay Shamsa’s kidnapping to save relations with the sheikh.
Dubai has never been a democracy. It is an autocratic state with a liberal veneer that fooled outsiders, who tended to equate the availability of alcohol to non-Muslims with freedom.
Most guilty of this were the British government officials who ignored Sheikh Mohammed’s actions in favour of securing trade relations with the oil-rich ruler. In diplomatic and business circles today, there will be a lot of pearl-clutching about how the court ruling will affect relations with Dubai, a close British ally. It is about time they did. For years, UK officials have been much more interested in maintaining strong ties than questioning the sheikh’s behaviour. When last year I asked one of them about the kidnapping of the princesses, he went bright red and stammered that he thought I had come to talk about trade.
The women’s troubles began in 2000, when Shamsa, a horse-mad 18-year-old, ran away from Longcross, the sheikh’s $98 million Surrey estate. Staff later claimed that a Range Rover had been found abandoned near a boundary wall, which they assumed Shamsa had scaled before fleeing. She had been desperate to escape. Last year her cousin told me how Shamsa had written to her in 1999 about her plan to leave the family and start a new life.
“I’ve made up my mind and there’s nothing left for me to do here. I don’t know where I get this confidence from!!,” she wrote. “Just two weeks ago I wanted to kill myself!”
But her freedom didn’t last long. Within weeks she appears to have been kidnapped in the UK on her father’s orders and brought back to Dubai — where she was allegedly drugged and locked up.
In the palace in Dubai, news of Shamsa’s detention reached her younger sister, Latifa. She worshipped Shamsa and wanted to tell the world what had happened to her. Aged just 16, without a plan, a vehicle or any money, she tried to escape Dubai. She was caught at the border and brought back home — where she, too, was imprisoned. In Sheikh Mohammed’s account, he was trying to protect his daughters, and was worried about Shamsa being a kidnap risk.
In a video released after a later escape attempt, Latifa described how she had been thrown onto a dirty mattress in a prison cell, tortured and beaten. She would remain there for three years.
Aged just 16, without a plan, a vehicle or any money, she tried to escape Dubai.
When she was released, at age 19, according to her own account, Latifa lived a half-life shut inside a gilded cage in Dubai. She could shop all she wanted, visit the other princesses’ palaces, but she couldn’t leave. To break the monotony, she started skydiving. In 2010, she met the first person in a long while to whom she felt she could talk. Tiina Jauhiainen was a Finnish expat in Dubai who taught capoeira, the Brazilian martial art, and worked as a personal trainer. The two women became close. Together, they hatched a daring plan to help Latifa escape to America via India.
“She didn’t know what she was going to do once she arrived,” Jauhiainen told me. “She would seek asylum and then try to find work. She told me, ‘I’m a qualified skydiving instructor. But I’m happy to flip burgers as long as I’m not here.’ ”
At first the plan worked well. Along with a Frenchman who claimed to be a former spy, they stole away from Dubai and made their way to Oman, where they embarked on a 100ft yacht that — they hoped — would take them across the Indian Ocean to safety.
Yet after eight days, the sheikh caught up with them. Just 30 miles from the Indian coast, the yacht was boarded by Emirati and Indian special forces, and a crying, screaming Latifa was dragged away — never to be seen again. Jauhiainen was imprisoned and interrogated in Dubai, before being released.
A few months after the story came out in 2018, I flew to northern Finland to talk to Jauhiainen. Over fish soup in a lakeside restaurant, she told me, in minute detail, exactly what had happened to them.
“If it was a member of British royalty, something would have happened,” she told me. “But because it was in the Gulf, no one cares. I’m back now, and I’m asking people to listen.”
Around the same time, presumably in a palace in Dubai, Princess Haya would have seen the reports of Latifa’s abduction. Haya is highly educated and cosmopolitan. One Oxford contemporary described her to me as “bloody clever”.
In early interviews with breathless women’s magazines, she comes across as a relaxed modern woman devoted to her husband, avoiding mention of the unsettling fact that he had at least five other wives. A royal insider said there was fierce anger and competition between some of the wives, even though they live in separate palaces with their children.
“If it was a member of British royalty, something would have happened. But because it was in the Gulf, no one cares.”
By spring last year, Haya’s relationship with her husband was deteriorating. She suspected him of lying about what had happened to Shamsa and Latifa — while he grew furious after discovering she was having an affair with her British bodyguard. At one stage, she claimed, he divorced her without her knowledge, and told her that neither she nor the children would ever be safe in England. Not long after, he posted a poem on his Instagram feed — usually filled with cheerful family photos — entitled “You lived, you died”. In court, Haya testified that — like Randa al-Banna — she had been left “terrified” by her husband.
Banna had demanded a divorce after just a few years of marriage. She left her baby daughter, Manal, behind in Dubai while she arranged her affairs at home in Lebanon. She was never allowed to see her again.
Haya would have had the same fears for her children. Indeed, she claimed to have overheard rumours of how her daughter Jalila, now aged 12, was being primed to be married off to Saudi Arabia’s 34-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman — who British intelligence services believe ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Last April, Haya had had enough. Taking her children with her, she boarded a private Boeing 737 and fled to Britain. Since then, the family have been holed up in their $111 million mansion near Kensington Palace. But they still hadn’t escaped from Sheikh Mohammed’s reaches.
As Haya prepared her court case, the well-oiled Dubai PR machine kicked into action. The court in London heard how Sheikh Mo — as he is known at home — manipulated coverage of the story by feeding false tips to journalists in order to smear Haya’s character.
Those covering the story from Latifa and Shamsa’s side could expect to be attacked by online trolls or — in my case — telephoned by UAE officials, who told me of their disappointment that a “serious journalist” had written about a “family matter”.
That was the same line used by Sheikh Mohammed to try to stymie publication of the details of the case by the London courts, which he says delivered only one side of the story. The judge considered the children to be at risk and made them wards of the court, and Sheikh Mohammed has agreed they can continue living in Britain with their mother. The Dubai and Emirati governments assured the court they would respect its judgment.
As the case wore on, it was clear Sheikh Mohammed believed he should have absolute control over everything that happened to his wives and daughters. Allegations of torture, kidnapping and extrajudicial rendition were family matters that the UK government should stay out of. In fact, they did — for a long time.