By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) – Dubai’s ruler ordered the abduction of two daughters and orchestrated a campaign of intimidation against his former wife, a British judge has ruled, in what is likely to be a major blow to his reputation as a Middle East reformer.
Judge Andrew McFarlane said he accepted as proved a series of allegations made by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum’s former wife, Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, during a custody battle over their two children at London’s High Court.
Haya, the half-sister of Jordan’s King Abdullah, fled to London on April 15 last year with the children, Jalila, 12, and Zayed, 8, fearing for her safety amid suspicions that she had had an affair with one of her British bodyguards.
Her lawyers argued that Mohammed’s treatment of two older daughters by another marriage showed her children were at risk of being abducted too.
As part of the custody case, Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Court division in England and Wales, made a series of “findings of fact” about allegations raised by Haya, 45, during hearings over the last nine months.
McFarlane said he accepted her claim that Mohammed arranged for his daughter Shamsa, then aged 18, to be kidnapped off the streets of Cambridge in central England in 2000, and had her flown back to Dubai.
He also ruled it was proved that the sheikh had arranged for Shamsa’s younger sister Latifa to be snatched from a boat in international waters off India by Indian forces in 2018 and returned to the emirate in what was her second failed escape attempt.
Both remained there “deprived of their liberty”, McFarlane said.
After the ruling became public on Thursday, Mohammed said it only represented “one side of the story”.
“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,” he said in a statement issued by his lawyers.
He said a decision to allow the judgments to be made public did not protect his children “from media attention in the way that other children in family proceedings in the UK are protected”.
In the judgments, McFarlane accepted that the sheikh subjected Haya to a campaign of intimidation which made her fear for her life.
He said the sheikh, who married Haya in 2004, had divorced her on the 20th anniversary of the death of her father King Hussein of Jordan, timing she said was deliberate.
“I have … concluded that, save for some limited exceptions, the mother has proved her case with respect to the factual allegations she has made,” McFarlane said.
The sheikh, 70, vice-president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, did not appear himself during the court case and instructed his lawyers not to put forward a challenge to the claims, which his lawyers said he rejected.
The judgment does not amount to a determination of criminal guilt but it is likely to deal a reputational blow to the sheikh, regarded globally as the visionary force behind Dubai’s leap on to the international stage.
Asked how the findings might impact on the United Kingdom’s business relations with Dubai, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told Reuters in Riyadh: “We’ll look at it very carefully before jumping to any conclusions.”
Haya’s lawyers suggested that the British Foreign Office had intervened to stifle a police probe into Shamsa’s disappearance, and McFarlane said the detective in charge had been refused permission to interview potential witnesses in Dubai.
However, the judge added it was “not possible to find on the balance of probability” that there had been direct intervention by the Foreign Office triggered by Mohammed or Dubai.
The judge’s conclusions were made in December but could only be reported after restrictions were lifted after the UK Supreme Court earlier rejected Mohammed’s request for permission to appeal against their publication.
McFarlane said the allegations made by Haya about the abduction and torture of Shamsa and Latifa and the threats made against her were proved, with the exception of her claim that an arranged marriage was being sought between Jalila and Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Last July, the judge had issued a temporary forced marriage protection order in respect of Jalila over Haya’s fears but said these were only based on hearsay evidence.
“The allegations that the father ordered and orchestrated the kidnap and rendition to Dubai of his daughters Shamsa and Latifa are of a very high order of seriousness,” said McFarlane.
“They may well involve findings, albeit on the civil standard, of behavior which is contrary to the criminal law of England and Wales, international law, international maritime law, and internationally accepted human rights norms.”
McFarlane said the sheikh had denied all the allegations, but said of his account relating to Shamsa and Latifa that “he has not been open and honest with the court”.
“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,” he said.
The sheikh married Haya, believed to be his sixth wife, in 2004. McFarlane said in his judgment that at some stage in 2017 or 2018, she had an affair with one her bodyguards and her relationship with her husband had deteriorated by early 2019 when she left Dubai.
Mohammed’s lawyer told the court Haya had closed the children’s bank accounts and withdrawn about $32 million before arriving in Britain.
FRIENDS OF UK ROYALS
Haya and Mohammed are both on friendly terms with members of the British royal family and in the past the sheikh, one of the founders of the Godolphin horse racing stable, has been pictured with Queen Elizabeth at Britain’s Royal Ascot horse races.
Haya, who shares his love of horses and competed in equestrian jumping in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, was schooled in Britain and is now living with their children in the couple’s luxury mansion near Kensington Palace in west London.
McFarlane said the case had been unique.
Outside the austere wood-pannelled courtroom of the Royal Courts of Justice, four or five bodyguards wearing earpieces patrolled, with only lawyers and a small number of journalists, including Reuters, allowed to be present.
The lawyers’ benches were filled with some of Britain’s most senior legal operators including David Pannick, who successfully represented anti-Brexit campaigners in two high-profile court victories over the government and was drafted in by Mohammed to lead his team during the case.
Haya herself attended all the hearings, accompanied by her legal team which included Fiona Shackleton who represented British heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles in his divorce from his late first wife Princess Diana.
Giving evidence in person last November, she told McFarlane she feared the sheikh would abduct her two children, take them back to the Gulf Arab state and she would never see them again.
“I have seen what has happened to their sisters and I can’t face the fact that the same might happen to them,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill in London and Stephen Kalin in Riyadh; Editing by Mike Collett-White)