The Runaway Princesses of Dubai – Ruler of Dubai ordered to pay £550m divorce settlement

Believed to be the highest post-divorce financial settlement awarded by an English court, Mr Justice Moor in the High Court ordered Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and vice president and prime minister of the UAE, to pay an estimated £554m to his estranged wife Princess Haya, in HRH Haya Bint Al Hussein v His Highness Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum [2021] EWFC 94.

The Runaway Princesses of Dubai

The Royal Courts of Justice, a massive Victorian Gothic structure on the Strand in the heart of London built in the 1870s, is not typically the scene of media frenzy. However, on the grey, chilly morning of November 12, 2019, a cluster of photographers and reporters stood behind barricades, waiting for a glimpse of a reclusive celebrity. At 10:50am a black Range Rover pulled up to the entrance. Flanked by two bodyguards and wearing a conservative dark green dress, Princess Haya Bint Hussein, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan and estranged wife of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, strode toward the entrance.

Right behind her came her barrister, Fiona Shackleton, who represented Prince Charles in his 1996 divorce from Princess Diana. The current divorce proceedings, between two of the world’s richest royals, were about to enter a particularly acrimonious phase: a weeklong hearing over custody of the couple’s children, an 11 year-old daughter and a 7 year son. Sheikh Mohammed had also armed himself with a top barrister, Helen Ward, who represented film director Guy Ritchie in his divorce from Madonna.

However, curiously, the sheikh, who had skipped preliminary hearings in July and October, had again decided not to appear (although according to media reports, Mohammed was in England at the time of the October hearing but chose to attend the Tattersalls auction in Newmarket, Suffolk, where he laid down £4 million for a young horse). To observers, it was a startling decision by a man with so much to lose, and it was not likely to go over well with Judge Andrew McFarlane, who had imposed a gag order on the proceedings.

The scene was a far cry from that of April 10, 2004, when Haya, 29, married Sheik Mohammed, 25 years her senior. She was elegantly clad in a white and gold embroidered dress and a sheer white veil, a simple emerald pendant around her neck; he wore a traditional Arab headdress known as a gutra and a long yellow shirt. The Oxford educated Haya had shrugged off the fact that she had become the sixth and most “junior wife” of the sheikh, comparing the situation, somewhat misleadingly, to her father’s having married Queen Alia, her mother, when he was not yet divorced from his previous wife. “Falling in love can eclipse a lot of things,” she said. “I went in to this marriage with my eyes open, and certainly I’m very happy.”

The happiness of the royal couple over the next decade is on display in photographs taken of them, often hand in hand and with their children, at a variety of glamorous events, from the Royal Ascot Races in England to the 75-mile Endurance Race at Wadi Rum, Jordan. Haya lived with her children in her own lavish Dubai compound. All the royal wives have their own households but among the sheikh’s consorts she alone reportedly had visitation rights to Zabeel Palace, his massive, walled-off mansion in the heart of Dubai, rather than having to wait on her husband to pay her a call, as is the custom.

She alone among his wives rode horses with him, attended public ceremonies beside him, always without a hijab and travelled to international diplomatic events, meeting fellow royals around the world.. On June 23, 2019, the media reported that Haya, 45, with the help of a German diplomat, had fled with her children to Germany and requested asylum. It was further reported that Dubai had demanded that the German government return the princess and her children immediately, but that Germany had refused. The German government has neither confirmed nor denied the report.

By the end of July, Haya and the children had turned up in London. There she quickly hired Shackleton, filed for divorce, and petitioned the British High Court to grant her both a forced marriage protection order (which allows her to keep her daughter from having to return to Dubai, where arranged unions are common) and, even more humiliating for the sheikh, a non-molestation order aimed at preventing “harassment” by her estranged spouse.

Meanwhile, the British tabloids had also begun speculating about the cause of the couple’s split, from rumours about the princess’s closeness to a particular bodyguard to charges of intolerable conditions imposed by the prince at his palaces. The sheikh, a poet in classical Arabic, lashed out at her “treachery and betrayal” in a verse published in June on his official Instagram account. “You no longer have a place with me,” he declared. “I don’t care if you live or die.” Holed up in her £80 million townhouse in Kensington, Haya has emerged only for periodic court dates.

Haya’s departure is not the only family scandal to shake up Sheikh Mohammed and the royal court. One of his daughters, Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, tried to flee; twice. Both times she was captured and returned to her father. Before Latifa’s escape attempts, her older sister Sheikha Shamsa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum fled the family’s equestrian estate in England in 2000, when she was 19, and remained at large for several weeks before being seized on a street in Cambridge and flown back to Dubai.

The scandal surrounding Sheikh Mohammed and his family has reverberated across the Middle East and beyond. At stake is the reputation of one of the region’s most dynamic, seemingly progressive leaders, as well as the safety of his wife and children. It has also exposed the abuses that often go along with unrestrained male power and, one could argue, helped energise a mini–#MeToo movement, with growing numbers of unhappy Arab women of all ages following Haya’s and Latifa’s example and rebelling against the restrictions imposed by the men in their lives.

High Court judgments last month revealed that Princess Haya’s phone had been hacked by Sheikh Mohammed using the spyware tool Pegasus, developed by Israeli company NSO. The tool is supposed to be used to combat terrorism and serious crime, and according to NSO, is only permitted to be used for these specific purposes. Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the High Court’s family division ruled that Sheikh Mohammed, allowed his “servants or agents” to use the spyware to target the phones of Princess Haya and her lawyers Baroness Shackleton and Nick Manners, amongst others.

McFarlane referred to the hacking as an “abuse of power” by a head of government resulting in “serial breaches of (UK) domestic criminal law … in violation of fundamental common law and ECHR rights, interference with the process of this court and the mother’s access to justice”.

“The father [Sheikh Mohammed] who is the head of government of the UAE, is prepared to use the arm of the state to achieve what he regards as right. He has harassed and intimidated the mother [Princess Haya] both before her departure to England and since. He is prepared to countenance those acting on his behalf doing so unlawfully in the UK.”

Sheikh Mohammed has of course denied all allegations of hacking.

Judgement

In view of these earlier rulings, as well as concerns about Sheikh Mohammad's attempts to mislead the court, the Family Court decided that Princess Haya and her children were particularly vulnerable and required a high level of security to ensure their safety, the main threat to them being from Sheikh Mohammad himself and the "full weight of the State that he has available to him." Accordingly, the court awarded Princess Haya sums in excess of £500 million as part of the divorce settlement. The presiding judge explained that he had regard to the "very clear … exceptional circumstances of this case, such as the truly opulent and unprecedented standard of living enjoyed by these parties in Dubai." The sum awarded to Princess Haya comprised of a capital sum payment of over £251 million, which included sums to cover her security needs for life and for the children during their dependency, the costs of their university education, and compensation for loss of her personal property and the costs of litigation. She was also awarded periodical payments of £5.6 million per annum per child until they complete university education (secured by an HSBC Bank Guarantee of £290 million), to cover their general maintenance and to continue thereafter to cover their security needs as adults, and was granted an education fund for the children of over £3 million. This constitutes the highest ever award in a divorce action in an English court to date.

We do not come to a marriage hard-wired to know how to get ourselves (or our children) through separation well. Finding and acting on the advice can reassure you that you have done the best you can and this may be the most important thing you can do. At GoodLaw Solicitors, we offer unrivalled expertise across all aspects of financial settlements and the arrangements for children upon the breakdown of a relationship. And we will work with you to select the best way forward for your particular case, providing first rate legal guidance and clarity around your options. If you require further information about anything covered in this blog, please contact our Family Department on 01273 956270.