The ruler of Dubai orchestrated the abductions of two of his children – one from the streets of Cambridge – and subjected his youngest wife to a campaign of “intimidation”, a damning UK family court judgment has found.
In findings that risk destabilising diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, a close Gulf ally of Britain, the actions of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum were described by the judge as behaviour which, on the balance of probabilities, amounted to potentially breaking UK and international law.
The Guardian and other news organisations can reveal the ruling following months of private hearings and a legal dispute that reached the supreme court. It details an extraordinary family saga spanning 20 years during which the sheikh, 70, organised international kidnappings, imprisoned two of his daughters and “deprived [them] of their liberty”.
Much of the 34-page fact-finding ruling by Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the family division of the high court in England and Wales, records the events surrounding the notorious disappearances of Princess Shamsa from Cambridge in 2000, when she was 19, and of Princess Latifa, who was seized by Indian army commandos from the Indian Ocean in 2018, when she was 32, before being forcibly returned to Dubai.
Allegations of torture surfaced during the case. Latifa said she was exposed at one stage to “constant torture”, and the judge, while he did not make any finding on that specific point, said he felt confident in relying upon her account. She was kept in solitary in the dark and beaten repeatedly, according to Latifa.
The sheikh’s actions only emerged after his sixth and youngest wife, Princess Haya, 45, fled to London last April with their two young children. His attempt to return the children to Dubai triggered a legal action in the family courts.
Haya resisted it with a counter-claim seeking a forced marriage protection order in respect of their daughter, alleging that the sheikh was trying to marry her off to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. ‘MBS’, as he is better known, has been accused of involvement in the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The court did not prove this allegation to be true.
McFarlane’s judgment explains that his ruling “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 civil standard is a conclusion made on the balance of probabilities; that is, the allegation is more likely than not to be true. It is not a finding to the criminal standard, which is beyond a reasonable doubt.
The judgment also raises questions about whether the Foreign Office blocked a police investigation into the disappearance of Shamsa from Cambridge in 2000. McFarlane said he was unable to make a determination because the Foreign Office refused to cooperate on freedom of information grounds.
Sheikh Mohammed’s behaviour was first highlighted by a Guardian article in 2001, the judgment noted, adding that Haya read the story about Shamsa’s disappearance in 2016 but initially did not believe her husband was implicated.
Sheikh Mohammed is also the vice-president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. He has fathered 25 children; his two with Haya are the youngest.
He refused to attend any of the multiple hearings at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London. His wife, Haya, was a constant presence in court, sitting alongside her solicitor, the prominent divorce lawyer Lady Shackleton.
The sheikh, who was represented by Lord Pannick QC, changed his legal team intermittently.
The judgment goes into detail about the campaign of harassment endured by Haya. The judge accepted virtually all her allegations as true on the balance of probabilities, including that the sheikh:
Attempted to have her abducted by helicopter.
Arranged for guns to be left in her bedroom.
Taunted her over her adulterous relationship with a bodyguard.
Divorced her without telling her.
Threatened to seize their children.
Published threatening poems about her online.
McFarlane finds that their relationship had deteriorated and that sometime in 2017 or 2018 she “embarked upon an adulterous relationship with one of her male bodyguards”.
In early 2019, Haya began to show interest in the fate of her step-daughters, Shamsa and Latifa. According to the judgment, her husband began to make threats against her and in February divorced her under sharia law without informing her.
On 11 March that year, the judgment records, a helicopter landed near her compound in Dubai and the pilot told her he was going to take her to Awir, “a prison in the desert”.
Haya said that if her son had not been there and clung on to her leg, she would have been taken away. The judgment added: “Flight documents with respect to the helicopter have been disclosed and show that one of the crew was one of the three people named by Shamsa and [an employee of the sheikh] as being involved in Shamsa’s removal from England in 2000.”
It continues: “Throughout this period the mother received a series of anonymous notes, left in her bedroom or elsewhere, making threats, for example ‘We will take your son – your daughter is ours – your life is over’ or warning her to be careful.
“On two occasions in March 2019, the mother states that she found a gun left on her bed with the muzzle pointing towards the door and the safety catch off.”
In June, the sheikh published a poem entitled You Lived and Died. Haya saw it as a direct threat to her and a public announcement of her “betrayal”.
The poem 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.”
McFarlane ends his judgment saying: “I have … concluded that, save for some limited exceptions, the mother has proved her case with respect to the factual allegations that she has made.
“These findings, taken together, demonstrate a consistent course of conduct over two decades where, if he deems it necessary to do so, the father [Sheikh Mohammed] will use the very substantial powers at his disposal to achieve his particular aims.”
The sheikh has denied all the allegations against him. In a statement issued to the media, he said: “This case concerns highly personal and private matters relating to our children. The appeal was made to protect the best interests and welfare of the children. The outcome does not protect my children from media attention in the way that other children in family proceedings in the UK are protected.
“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. I ask that the media respect the privacy of our children and do not intrude into their lives in the UK.”