When the Godolphin doping scandal broke in British racing back in 2013, we were asked to accept that Sheikh Mohammed had not known, was appalled, and that the industrial scale steroids offences at his racing stables in Newmarket, UK, were the isolated work of a rogue trainer.
I don’t intend to appear flippant by implying that sporting shenanigans are on the same scale as issues of human rights. But while rich and powerful people distance themselves from scandal through the employment of layer upon layer of stooges, there really is nowhere for Sheikh Mohammed to hide from the Findings of Fact handed down by one of the most revered courts in the world, our High Court here in the UK today (March 5.)
This was primarily a custody hearing for Jalila and Zayed, the two children of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed and his former “junior” wife Princess Haya – Olympic show jumper and former president of the FEI.
Haya fled Dubai last spring, attracting huge media interest. She claimed her life was in danger for asking too many questions about two stepdaughters, Sheikhas Shamsa and Latifa, who unsuccessfully tried to escape the royal household in Dubai at different times.
In setting out her case, inevitably Princess Haya went into considerable detail about why Sheikh Mohammed, whom she married in 2004, should not be granted the return of their children. Her account of the treatment meted of Shamsa and Latifa, and then the personal intimidation which prompted Princess Haya herself to flee, are far worse than my wildest imaginings; a narrow escape from detention in a desert prison is just one of several terrifying experiences summarised below.
Whether you were a fan or not of Haya’s time at the FEI, who cannot feel alarm on her behalf? It is almost impossible to conceive that this unrelenting nightmare happened in real life to someone that many of us have met and/or seen happily mixing with riders and other fans at shows.
The Findings of Fact were handed down by the Rt Hon Sir Andrew McFarlane in January. Since then, Sheikh Mohammed’s lawyers fought to prevent publication. That bid failed today (March 5), following a joint legal action by major news organisations including the BBC, Sky and Reuters. They successfully argued that publication was in the public interest.
Sheikh Mohammed says only “one side of the story” has been heard because, as a head of state, he could not give evidence in person. This claim has been effectively rubbished by Sir Andrew, who says the court had actively encouraged Sheikh Mohammed to participate (Princess Haya attended every day of the hearing.)
In a separate decision, Sheikh Mohammed gave assurances he would not use immunities as head of state to breach the court orders over the Princess Haya’s future custody of the children.
Can Sheikh Mohammed’s reputational damage be contained by these unprecedented revelations: politically, who knows?
Alas, his insidious influence over the horse world will most likely continue unless he chooses to withdraw it himself. Many people have been happy enough to ignore the long-time rumours (and more recently, clear evidence) of horse doping and welfare issues in Maktoum stables because Dubai has chucked billions at our sports.
Too many riders and organisers don’t have the moral compass to decline that largesse. I noticed that while the major news media today gave the High Court ruling equal prominence to coronavirus, our UK racing media tended to bury the stomach-churning allegations surrounding racing’s major patron well below prospects for the Cheltenham Festival.
Much as I would like to think the horse world will finally decide association with Dubai is not acceptable, to me the sort of equestrian that condones cheating on the field of play and horse abuse is equally unlikely to empathise with a few princesses wanting to leave a so-called gilded life in pursuit of normal freedoms.
Some very serious questions need to be asked – though probably won’t be – about Sheikh Mohammed’s possible influence over Princess Haya during her spell as President of the FEI (and IOC member) from 2006-2014. The demise of endurance certainly escalated during this time.
Will Sheikh Mohammed be so angry with our High Court that he decides to pull his support from racing and endurance in the UK? I can only hope so…
Points of fact
I have read about 80 pages of High Court decisions. Here is a summary of the main points.
● Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum arranged for his daughter Shamsa, then 18, to be kidnapped in 2000 off the streets of Cambridge, UK [Editor’s note: near his racing base at Newmarket] and had her flown back to Dubai.
● Sheikh Mohammed ordered the abduction of Sheikha Latifa after she fled Dubai in 2018. She was snatched from a boat in international waters by Indian commandos, and returned to Dubai in what was her second failed escape attempt. Both Shamsa and Latifa remained in Dubai “deprived of their liberty.”
● Sheikh Mohammed orchestrated a campaign of intimidation against his former wife, Princess Haya, who fled to London on April 15 last year with the children, Jalila, then 11, and Zayed, seven. Haya feared for their safety, amid growing questions about her stepdaughters and Sheikh Mohammed’s (undisputed) suspicions that Haya had an affair with a bodyguard.
● Sheikh Mohammed divorced Haya on the 20th anniversary of the death of her beloved father, King Hussein of Jordan, timing Haya said was deliberate.
● Sheikh Mohammed instructed his lawyers NOT to put forward a challenge to Haya’s claims, which his lawyers said he rejected.
● Haya’s allegations about the abduction and torture of Shamsa and Latifa and the threats made against her were accepted by the court, with the exception of her claim that an arranged marriage was being sought between Jalila and Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
● Sheikh Mohammed’s denial of all allegations is acknowledged by the High Court, but in his account relating to Shamsa and Latifa he “has not been open and honest with the court”. His behaviour “is contrary to the criminal law of England and Wales, international law, international maritime law, and internationally accepted human rights norms.”
How Princess Haya tried to help Latifa
Sheikha Latifa’s escape from Dubai and forced return made global headlines around the world in 2018. Coverage included a one-hour documentary programme by the BBC’s flagship current affairs department in which Latifa’s close friend Tiina Jauhiainen, a Finnish national, gave a detailed account about how she helped plan the escape for months and their terrifying ordeal when Latifa was seized at gunpoint on the boat.
In his submissions to the High Court, Sheikh Mohammed said Latifa’s return was a ”rescue mission” and that “with respect, I do not consider that this honourable court is in a position to investigate the security and intelligence issues that arose.” He alleged that Latifa had been “manipulated” by Herve Jaubert – the Frenchman who supplied the yacht for her escape – to extort money. “We feared that our daughter was in the hands of a criminal who might hold her to ransom and harm her.” An email had been sent from the boat to a Florida attorney indicating Latifa intended to make a claim against her father for damages totalling $300 million.
However, Sir Andrew preferred Tiina’s “significantly consistent” evidence. She had no news of Latifa since their forced separation on the boat.
Princess Haya initially felt Sheikh Mohmmed could not have been responsible for the forcible return of Latifa, and she accepted there had been a ransom demand. Latifa was “not stable” and was “bi-polar.”
However, Haya became “increasingly concerned” by media coverage. A meeting took place between a trusted journalist and Latifa in June/July 2018 – the court saw a photograph of Latifa apparently at that meeting.
In early December 2018, Haya arranged for a doctor to visit Latifa with a psychiatrist. The doctor reported “in unequivocal terms” there was nothing wrong with Latifa.
But Haya became more troubled and asked to see Latifa herself, plus her medical records. She visited on 6 December 2018 and found Latifa in a locked and guarded house “akin to a prison.”.
Haya stated: “I went upstairs and knocked on Latifa’s bedroom door. She opened the door, looked at me, embraced me, and burst into tears. She cried for a long time. She looked vulnerable. She had no makeup on and she had pale skin. She had a track suit and a hoodie on, her body language was closed and her sleeves were pulled down over her hands. She looked like she was deliberately making no effort with herself. She did not look unwell but she certainly did not look happy or content.
“She was grateful to me for visiting her and seemed to regret the focus on her, saying she had not wanted to cause a scandal, she just wanted her freedom. She offered to ‘take it all back’ publicly and seemed very much to regret what had happened.”
By coincidence, the BBC documentary was broadcast the same day.
On 10 December 2018 Haya decided to contact Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Irish President, asking her to visit Dubai to establish “proof of life” with Latifa. This visit took place [Editor’s note, images from which attracted widespread consternation in the media].
Thereafter Princess Haya visited Latifa regularly but Sheikh Mohammed continued to say she was a danger to herself and must remain in that accommodation.
On 18 December 2018 the Ruler’s Court in Dubai sent a letter to the UN working group on enforced disappearances saying: “…Her Highness Sheikha Latifa is alive, safe and in the loving care of her family at their Dubai residences. We strongly refute the allegations you reference in your 6 December letter. She was and has never been arrested or detained. The circumstances surrounding the incident involving Her Highness in February of this year remain under investigation with various authorities.”
Haya saw Latifa again on 1 January 2019 and realised she had not spoken to anyone in the 15 days since Haya’s previous visit.
Princess Haya said her relationship with Sheikh Mohammed “was rapidly cooling. ” He did not welcome her interest in Latifa and Shamsa. Princess Haya continued to visit Latifa until 18 January, when Latifa’s own mother was present and said Latifa did not wish to see Haya again. Sheikh Mohammed told Haya to “stop interfering in events which were not her business.”
The intimidation of Haya
Haya testified that Sheikh Mohammed mounted a sustained campaign from the beginning of 2019, “designed to instill fear and to intimidate her.” Save for a short statement of denial saying “I do not accept that Princess Haya is in any danger”, Sheikh Mohammed has not disputed her account.
At some stage in 2017/18 Haya began a relationship with a bodyguard. Sheikh Mohammed was “probably aware” for some time, but matters did not come to a head until January 2019, by which time Haya was asking questions about her step-daughters.
Haya’s trusted staff were dismissed and replaced by others she had previously found troubling. On 4 February 2019, there was an announcement that her representative at the Ruler’s Court should leave and, on 11 March 2019 Sheikh Mohammed removed Haya’s desk there – “a huge public slap in the face.”
There was interference with her personal finances, too.
Between 23-27 February 2019, Sheikh Mohammed called to say he knew about the bodyguard. Haya was “terrified.” Unbeknownst at the time, Sheikh Mohammed divorced Haya under Sharia Law on 7 February 2019, the 20th anniversary of her father’s death “to maximise insult and upset”.
On 11 March 2019, “one of the longest and most frightening days I ever remember” Haya said helicopters landed, unannounced, outside her house, to take one passenger “to Awir” – a prison in the desert. A security guard said to Zayed: “Bubba is angry with Momma. He is going to send her to the jail in Awir; that’s all there is there.” Zayed clung to her leg in terror. Haya tried to defuse the situation by saying it was a joke. If Zayed had not been there, she would have been taken.
Flight documents show that one of the helicopter crew had been named by Shamsa as involved in her removal from England in 2000.
Sheikh Mohammed said a helicopter did land, but it was “simply a mistake.”
Haya received anonymous notes in her bedroom, saying for example: “We will take your son – your daughter is ours – your life is over.”. Twice in March 2019 she found a gun on her bed with the muzzle pointing towards the door and the safety catch off.
She fled with the children to England on 15 April. The day after, one of Sheikh Mohammed’s senior racing employees in the UK sent Haya a strange video with a text message about a husband being “pranked” by his wife and “slaughtering her in anger.”
In May 2019, there was a rare clip on Instagram filmed inside Sheikh Mohammed’s private tent in Marmoum, showing him “dancing and waving swords in a traditional Bedouin dance of victory over enemies.”
He made other veiled threats in published poems. One 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.”
At this stage a witness identified as XX, a distinguished UK police officer with “significant responsibility” for Haya met “SP,” a retired police officer acting for Sheikh Mohammed.
XX told the court: “It soon became very clear to me during the course of the conversation that the intent was to disrupt [services provided to Haya] by threatening myself [and another], implying that we should cease work for our client immediately. The implication was that absent this, those acting for His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum would seek to discredit both our individual reputation and [business] reputation, by a range of allegations including financial impropriety and corruption.”
SP explained “detailed allegations that might be made which, although XX is plain that each was totally false, would undoubtedly generate negative media coverage for them.”
XX, used to demanding situations, was left “seriously troubled and concerned about the threats that had, in his view, plainly been made.” Services were not withdrawn from Haya.
On 26 June XX received an email from SP indicating that “the media war has started”. Haya’s legal team identified 1,100 articles between 24 June 2019 and 14 July 2019. Many are “wholly inaccurate” for example, suggesting in some that the mother is an agent of Hamas and intending to overthrow the State of Jordan.
On several occasions even the children were told by their father that they did not need their mother any more.
Court’s tribute to Latifa’s “impressive” friend Tiina
Tiina Jauhiainen’s evidence about Latifa’s kidnap was of “singular importance” to Sir Andrew McFarlane. Tiina was interrogated and mistreated for days in Dubai, asked to sign a false statement and threatened with death.
Sir Andrew said: “[Tiina’s} account has been given on a number of occasions with a significant degree of consistency. Despite the fact that she was, on her account, plainly terrified by her experiences on the yacht Nostromo and by her days in captivity thereafter, she has spoken out publicly about these events in the BBC documentary.
“It was obvious by her demeanour on entering the courtroom and when taking the oath that she found the experience daunting but she nonetheless went through with it in order to give this court her detailed account on oath. She was prepared to face cross examination although, in the event, there was none.
“ I regard [Tiina] as a wholly impressive individual. There is no indication that her motives throughout the period of years that she describes have been anything other than that of a loyal employee of Sheikha Latifa and, latterly, a close friend, supporter and confidante.
“ The final words that [Tiina] heard Latifa shouting say a great deal. She was pleading for the soldiers to kill her rather than face the prospect of going back to her family in Dubai.
“She was plainly desperate to extricate herself from her family and prepared to undertake a dangerous mission in order to do so.”
A video made by Latifa before her 2018 escape attempt can be seen here.
What Sheikh Mohammed says
In a statement issued to the media following the publication of the High Court findings, Sheikh Mohammed 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.”