The money at stake is surreal, the testimony reads like a James Bond script, and some of the most powerful people on earth don't know which side to take. Behind the Gothic facade of London's High Court, a ferocious divorce battle between fabulously wealthy ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum and his glamorous Jordanian wife, Princess Haya, has sent shockwaves through high society, politics, diplomacy and the British royal family – and might not be over yet.
In December, after months of hair-raising evidence, 47-year-old Haya was awarded a record-breaking sum of £550 million ($1 billion), with the judge castigating the 72-year-old sheikh as "a clear and ever-present danger" to his wife's safety.
There were tales of stately homes being purchased simply to spy on other stately homes; of stalkings, kidnappings, affairs, blackmail and high-tech phone hacking. Even the lawyers – some of the most expensive and celebrated in the business – are claiming to have been bugged.
Sheikh Maktoum painted himself as a man of integrity, fighting against his wife's unreasonable demands, and for custody of his children. British-educated Haya portrayed him instead as a ruthless tyrant who kidnapped two of his own daughters, and who spares no efforts to impose his will on his family. Haya told the court that even after she left the sheikh in 2019 and fled to London, she "felt hunted all the time", that her activities were constantly monitored, and there was "nowhere safe for me to hide".
When Haya married the sheikh in 2004, the occasion wasn't only spectacular, but to many observers, rich with promise. The stylish Haya seemed to capture a new image of modern Arab womanhood. Fluent in five languages, she had studied at Oxford University, become the first woman in Jordan to earn a licence to drive heavy trucks, and as a talented equestrian, represented her country at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The bride wore a floating, white and gold-laced dress, with a simple emerald pendant around her neck, and declared herself unbothered by becoming only the most 'junior' of the sheikh's six wives: "Falling in love can eclipse a lot of things," she said. "I went into this marriage with my eyes open, and certainly I'm very happy."
Although her husband came from a more austere, traditional Islamic background, his refashioning of dusty Dubai into a glittering global hub of business and pleasure convinced many that the multi-billionaire sheikh was a committed reformer – not least in the field of women's rights.
He serves as patron of dozens of charities and human rights organisations, writes poetry, and his name adorns arts and cultural centres in Dubai and around the world. The most powerful man in international horseracing, he is on close enough terms with the Queen for the pair to have been regularly photographed together and to have exchanged horses as gifts. He moves effortlessly among the world's movers and shakers, who see him as an important bridge between Islam and the West.
In the first years of their marriage, the sheikh and Haya became a living reflection of the glossy, vibrant desert kingdom they were keen to promote. Jetting around the world in the sheikh's private Boeing 747, they kept company with business tycoons, politicians and fellow royals.
Two children were born, Princess Jalila, now 14, and Prince Zayed, 10, and as Dubai boomed and the dollars rolled in, the Maktoums' lifestyle became ever more lavish, with grand estates in Britain added to their property portfolio, along with new horseracing investments in the US and Australia, and a $500 million superyacht.
Viewed from abroad, Haya, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, seemed like a fresh breeze blowing through the desert dunes. In an interview with Tatler magazine, she revealed that she was a fan of the raunchy novels of Jilly Cooper and liked Guns N'Roses.
An English public school education, she said, had "given me a stiff upper lip", which helped her deal with some of the problems women face in places like the Middle East, and while hesitating to call herself a feminist, added: "I had rose-tinted glasses growing up. I was sheltered from the realities of what women in the region and in general face. And now I think I'd absolutely support the idea that women deserve equal rights, if not a little more."
Everything suggests Haya was the most favoured of the sheikh's wives, and given her own household and grand compound. Alone among the consorts, she enjoyed free access to the vast Zabeel Palace, the sheikh's Arabian Nights-style central Dubai home.
But by 2019, things were falling apart. A turning point, according to Haya's legal team, was the armed seizure of her stepdaughter, Princess Latifa, who was intercepted on a yacht in the Indian Ocean during a daring bid to escape from Dubai.
Shortly before setting sail, Latifa, 36, had written to her best friend, Tiina Jauhiainen: "All my life I have been mistreated and oppressed. Women are treated as sub-humans here. My father can't continue to do what he has been doing to us all."
Their planned destination was Goa in western India but a week into the voyage, with the Indian coastline almost in sight, the yacht was seized by marine commandos acting at the sheikh's behest, and Latifa was returned to Dubai. She has barely been seen since.
WATCH: Princess Latifa Al Maktoum's escape from Dubai. Story continues after video.
In a harrowing video shared around the time of her escape, Latifa describes women in Dubai – even royal women like herself – as "completely disposable". Effectively imprisoned in what she calls "a house of depressed women", she tells of being forbidden not only to travel outside Dubai, but even to the homes of friends without supervision.
A similar fate had befallen Latifa's older sister, Princess Shamsa, who in 2000 ran away from the Maktoums' Surrey estate, only to be tracked down by the sheikh's security team, dragged into a car and flown out of the country by private jet.
Three years after her flight from Dubai, little is seen of Haya beyond her regular appearances in court, often accompanied by celebrated lawyer Fiona Shackleton, who represented Prince Charles in his divorce against Princess Diana, and ex-Beatle Sir Paul McCartney after the breakdown of his marriage to Heather Mills. The sheikh, who has declined to appear in person, has hired matching legal firepower in the shape of top barrister Helen Ward, who represented film director Guy Ritchie in his divorce from Madonna.
The princess says nothing in public, but in a statement to the court, she declared: "It feels as though the walls are closing in on me. It feels as though I'm being stalked and there is literally nowhere for me to go to be safe from [the sheikh] or those acting in his interests. It is hugely oppressive."
The court heard astonishing evidence of how the sheikh had sought to buy the huge $50 million Parkwood Estate in Berkshire, next door to his wife's country bolthole, Castlewood House. The intention, according to Haya's lawyers, was to intimidate and keep her under close surveillance.
It was further alleged he'd used ultra-sophisticated, Israeli-made spyware to hack not only Haya's phone, but that of Baroness Shackleton and her legal team, and other key figures in the case.
After listening to the evidence, Sir Andrew McFarlane, head of the High Court's Family Division, accused the sheikh of "being prepared to use the arm of the UAE state to achieve his aims in relation to the women of his family," and "to use his immense wealth, political power and international influence" in his actions against Haya.
WATCH: Dubai ruler had Princess Haya's phone hacked. Story continues after video.
No one doubts Dubai's ruler is a formidable operator. In 30 years he has transformed his desert kingdom from a trading station into one of the most dynamic, glamorous destinations on earth. Today the city-state sells itself as a futuristic fantasy land filled with glitzy shopping malls, luxury hotels and soaring skyscrapers, with the added attraction of an easygoing approach to life that isn't readily found in the Islamic world.
Yet this alluring image, critics say, is an illusion. "In reality, Dubai is a police state run by a paranoid clique with the sheikh at the head of it," says Radha Stirling, an Australian human rights campaigner and founder of the London-based organisation, Detained in Dubai. "The ruling family's primary purpose is to retain absolute power, and everything else you see is just expensive public relations. There are few civil or judicial rights, and women have virtually no rights at all."
In Britain, says Radha, criticism of Dubai has been blunted by the sheikh's close connections to politicians, business figures and the aristocracy. The desert kingdom has become an important trading partner, with the sheikh investing billions in the British bloodstock industry and building a dazzling collection of private properties.
The Maktoums' main English base is Dalham Hall, the 18th century former residence of the Bishop of Ely, situated close to Britain's horseracing capital, Newmarket. Haya and the sheikh would stay there each summer to escape the heat of the Gulf, and in her Tatler interview, the Princess speaks fondly of driving herself around rural Suffolk, dressed in jeans and sneakers, and whizzing up spaghetti bolognese for the children's tea.
There were plenty of other properties, too, including a five-storey townhouse in London's ultra-costly Belgravia area, a sprawling estate in Surrey and a 30,000 hectare "shooting and fishing" estate in the Scottish Highlands.
How much of all this Haya will actually receive remains open to question. The court awarded her a lump sum payment of £251 million, much of it to cover security costs for herself and her children. In addition, the sheikh was ordered to provide a £290 million bank guarantee for the children, plus further sums for their education and future support.
Legal experts warn that laying hands on the money may be tougher than the divorce. "This is only stage one for Haya," says prominent London divorce lawyer Sarah Ingram. "She will now face the unenviable task of enforcing the order so she actually receives the award. As in other high-profile divorces, this can be a long and arduous task. While the courts have power to make these large awards, they don't have effective tools to ensure they are implemented."
The sheikh's British assets are believed to be wrapped up in offshore holding companies, putting them beyond the court's jurisdiction.
The story that emerged in court was that the marriage began to deteriorate after Latifa's kidnapping. Things became worse when an affair began between Haya and her 37-year-old British bodyguard, Russell Flowers, which led to the princess being blackmailed for several million dollars.
The sheikh, alleged Haya, then began a campaign of intimidation against her. A loaded gun was allegedly left on her pillow with the safety catch off. On one occasion a helicopter allegedly landed outside her quarters, and she was threatened with being taken to a remote desert prison.
In April 2019, Haya and her children fled Dubai by private jet, heading first to Germany, then to Britain, where she moved into a large Kensington townhouse, and later launched the divorce and custody proceedings that are still rumbling on.
The revelations have proved embarrassing for the royal family and the British government. Haya is close to Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, and Prince Charles, while the sheikh has been a regular guest of the Queen at Windsor Castle and is described as "a friend" by her bloodstock manager, John Warren. One of the reasons the sheikh allegedly gave for wanting to buy the estate overlooking Castlewood was that it would be "convenient" for visiting Windsor.
Buckingham Palace has refused to comment on the Queen's relationship with the sheikh, but sources say it's unlikely they will be seen together again. "The Queen obviously shares a great love of racing with Sheikh Maktoum," says Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty magazine, "but I think they will have to be a bit more circumspect now, certainly in public."
The UK government faces a similarly awkward dilemma. Dubai is considered an important economic partner, and around 15,000 Britons are employed in the kingdom. Several MPs have called for a "full review" of relations with the UAE and an investigation of the court revelations.
In a statement issued after the court's damning assessment of his activities, the sheikh said: "I've always denied the allegations against me, and continue to do so. As a Head of Government involved in private family proceedings, it was not appropriate for me to provide evidence on such sensitive matters, either personally or via my advisors in a foreign court. In addition, the findings were based on evidence that was not disclosed to me or my advisors. I therefore maintain they were made in a manner that was unfair."
If both sides agree on anything, it's that the case has further to go, and bigger bills to run up. Damaged, but far from down, the sheikh is demanding access to his children, and may appeal the award. And the princess appears equally determined: "Every time I think a resolution may be in sight, the ground shifts and the finish line recedes," she said. "At times I'm exhausted by trying to keep my balance and a level head in the magnitude of what I face."
You can read this story and many more in the March issue of The Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now.
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