A London court will be the stage in July for an unusual legal battle between Dubai’s powerful ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and his estranged wife Princess Haya.
Media reports suggest Haya is now living in the English capital after escaping the Gulf Emirate and her billionaire husband.
Haya allegedly took her two children with her when she left Dubai and the court case is expected to focus on their custody, the Associated Press reported.
Reached by Euronews, the London Family Division of the High Court confirmed the case would be heard on July 30 but refused to comment on what the hearing was about.
Who is Princess Haya?
Princess Haya, 45, is the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan and was educated at the University of Oxford.
Haya’s half-brother is Jordan’s current monarch, King Abdullah. He was pictured at her side when she married Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed — reportedly becoming his sixth wife.
She has long stood out from other wives of Gulf Arab rulers. A former Olympic athlete, she competed in equestrian show jumping in the 2000 Sydney Games, breaking a taboo for women from traditional, Muslim countries.
Another feature that set Haya apart from her fellow female royals was her visibility in the public eye. The princess was often seen and photographed, not just at humanitarian events by her husband’s side, but also in glossy magazines and at prestigious equestrian events in the UK, like Royal Ascot.
She is thought to be on friendly terms with Queen Elizabeth II, another equine aficionado.
What could be the reasons behind her escape?
The reasons behind Princess Haya’s escape are not known, but various hypotheses have been suggested.
Detained in Dubai, a campaign group which supports victims of miscarriages of justice in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), claims Princess Haya’s decision to leave could be connected to the treatment of Princess Latifa, a daughter of Sheikh Mohammed.
Last year, Latifa tried to escape from Dubai after appearing in a 40-minute video saying she had been imprisoned on and off for several years and had been abused.
Her friends say she was forcibly returned after commandos stormed a boat carrying her off the coast of India when she tried to flee the Emirates.
“After Latifa’s escape and capture last year, Princess Haya participated in a staged meeting for the media between herself, Latifa, and former Irish President Mary Robinson, in an attempt to counter the tidal wave of negative publicity Sheikh Mohammed faced over Latifa’s story,” Detained in Dubai said.
The meeting, during which Sheikha Latifa appeared dazed and sedated, drew criticism.
“Apparently, Princess Haya was troubled by the backlash, and began asking questions about Latifa; eventually learning enough to conclude that the young woman had indeed been tortured since childhood, imprisoned, and drugged by her father, Haya’s husband, Sheikh Mohammed. Alarmed by what she discovered, Princess Haya immediately began planning her escape to protect herself and her children,” Detained in Dubai said in a statement.
The Times, echoed by British tabloids, had a different theory. According to the British newspaper, “the Middle Eastern princess fled to London after her billionaire husband became concerned at her apparent closeness to her British bodyguard".
Has Sheikh Mohammed reacted so far?
The sheikh, who is not only the ruler of Dubai but also the prime minister of the UAE, is a highly influential leader in the Middle East.
He also writes poems, which he regularly posts on his poetry website. It was his own words that sparked the initial rumours that Haya had fled Dubai.
The talk started after a verified Emirati Instagram account followed by the Dubai ruler’s son posted a poem a couple of weeks ago attributed to Sheikh Mohammed.
The text, titled “You Lived and You Died", is about betrayal.
“You betrayed the most precious trust, and your game has been revealed,” the poem says. “Your time of lying is over and it doesn’t matter what we were nor what you are.”
The harsh words fuelled speculation that Princess Haya might possibly be under threat.
Euronews reached out to Sheikh’s Mohammed legal council, who declined to comment on the ongoing court case, and to Dubai’s representatives in London, who didn’t respond.
What can we expect from the court hearing?
Princess Haya will be represented by Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia, a partner at Payne Hicks Beach. The lawyer has long worked with the British Royal family and was notably hired by Prince Charles during his divorce with Princess Diana.
Sheikh Mohammed’s attorney will be Helen Ward from the well-known British law firm Stewarts.
Beyond the issue of the children’s custody, new details might emerge about Princess Latifa’s case and more broadly, the human rights situation in the Gulf emirate, Detained in Dubai said.
“I have testified as an expert witness in several high profile cases defending against extradition to the UAE, and the United Kingdom has categorically refused to hand individuals over to the Emirates due to human rights concerns,“ said Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai.
"The UK courts should bear this in mind when determining Sheikh Mohammed’s suit for custody in this case," she added.
“It is inevitable that in her defence, Princess Haya will testify in court about all she knows regarding Sheikh Mohammed’s treatment of Latifa (...) It is even conceivable that the court could call for testimony from Latifa herself," Stirling said.
What are the diplomatic implications?
Princess Haya’s alleged escape could spark tensions between the Emirates and London on the one hand, and Jordan on the other.
The UK maintains close relations with the UAE, which is engaged in the war in Yemen alongside Saudi Arabia.
But in recent months, Western support for the coalition has come under growing scrutiny for killing civilians in breach of humanitarian law. A British court even suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia last month.
If the UK grants asylum to Haya — various media outlets have reported that the Princess was indeed seeking Britain’s protection — this could be interpreted as a sign of defiance towards Dubai’s ruler, its human rights record and the treatment of his female relatives.
Stirling said it was significant that Princess Haya chose to flee in Europe rather than her own country, Jordan, “possibly to spare her brother from the pressure that would inevitably be brought to bear by the UAE to send her back”.
“Relations between the UAE and Jordan are strong, and Jordan has backed the Emirates in their blockade of Qatar. The UAE has pledged considerable investment funds to Jordan, and new trade agreements have been made to strengthen ties between the two countries.” Sterling noted.