Opinion

Sheikh Mohammed: disturbing glimpses beneath a refined public image

Dubai ruler cultivates an image as a business visionary and poet, but haunting videos and court rulings offer a shadow biography

Three or four times each night, the child would rise from bed in sharp pain. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the future ruler of Dubai, seemed to be the only one in the desert encampment so frequently awakened by scorpion bites.

He soon learned it was no coincidence. A tribal elder had been scattering the arachnids in the eight-year-old boy’s bed. It was both a lesson in desert survival – check your sleeping quarters for insects every night – and an inoculation. To this day, Sheikh Mohammed claims he is immune to scorpion venom.

“Not all that hurts you is evil,” he wrote of the episode. “Sometimes pain teaches us and protects us.”

It is one of the origin myths of a man who would go on to transform the modest port town his family ruled into the glimmering, ultramodern metropolis of Dubai, a city whose grand spectacles – an indoor ski resort, the world’s tallest building – have never quite obscured its controversies. Over the past three years, Sheikh Mohammed himself has become one of them.

Secret footage recorded by his daughter, Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, and published this week by multiple news outlets, has reignited concern over the fate of the princess, 35, who said she was living as a prisoner in a guarded villa. The messages abruptly ceased last year.

The distressing videos jar with the image Sheikh Mohammed has cultivated as a business visionary, poet, horseman and progressive Arab leader. Though he is one the wealthiest royals in the world, with a fortune estimated at $4bn (£2.86bn), and oversees a city at the heart of global capitalism, surprisingly little is known of a figure described by a British judge last year as “an intensely private individual”.

Most of the public information about Sheikh Mohammed has been fashioned by his own hand: three memoirs, extensive collections of poetry and a 2017 guidebook to cultivating happiness and positivity.

Then there are the darker glimpses of the man. They first emerged two decades ago in desperate phone call to a British solicitor by a young woman, Shamsa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, claiming to be estranged from her father, the sheikh. A few weeks later she was snatched from a street in Cambridge and has disappeared from public view. In early 2018, footage was published of a second daughter, Latifa, telling the camera she was planning her own escape attempt. “If you are watching this video, it’s not such a good thing. Either I’m dead or I’m in a very, very, very bad situation,” she said.

In the three years since, with the emergence of more haunting videos and damning court judgments, this shadow biography of Sheikh Mohammed has become clearer.

Sheikh Mohammed and his then wife, Princess Haya, during the 2016 Dubai World Cup.
Sheikh Mohammed and Princess Haya during the 2016 Dubai World Cup horse race. Photograph: Ali Haider/EPA

Dubai was not always a watchword for wealth. Sheikh Mohammed, 71, was born before the emirate had established its first hospital, public school or airport, and had yet to free itself from Britain’s colonial chains. “No electricity at that time, when I was born … and no water,” he told the BBC in a 2014 interview.

He recounts a childhood spent learning to survive in the harsh desert landscape, tracking deer, houbara bustard, curlews and camels, whose hoof marks he learned could be as unique as a fingerprint. “A strategy is required to have access to food in the desert,” he said his father had taught him.

The emirate Sheikh Mohammed would inherit had yet to discover oil, but Dubai’s own strategy for surviving in the desert was already taking shape. When nearby port cities raised tariffs on trade, Dubai’s early 20th-century rulers abolished theirs, attracting merchants from Iran and India who made the city synonymous with pearls and gold.

Watching on, Sheikh Mohammed said he absorbed an important lesson: “Today’s leaders are the silent giants who possess the money, not the politicians who make the noise.”

Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, (2R) greet Emir of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum (L) and his wife Jordan’s Princess Haya bint al-Hussein on the second day of the Royal Ascot horse racing meet in Ascot, 2016
The Queen and Prince Edward greet Sheikh Mohammed and Princess Haya at Royal Ascot in 2016. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Courting those giants required learning their ways, and in 1966 his father sent him to university in Cambridge. He recalled the “strange but interesting smells” of his first dinner – lamb, peas and mashed potatoes – and novelties such as the leftover meat being put in a fridge. It was heated and served again for dinner the next evening. “I ate … with misgivings,” he said. “In Dubai we always ate food fresh, there were mouths enough to feed at every meal and finish what was there.”

When Dubai entered into a union with the surrounding sheikhdoms to form the United Arab Emirates, the young prince was entrusted to establish the country’s first military and ministry of defence. But he was drawn irresistibly to aviation, unable to shake an idea that had been percolating in his mind since he was a boy, standing in a bustling Heathrow terminal. “Our future lay in making Dubai a global destination,” he wrote.

Against the objections of consultants and machinations of the airline industry, over the next four decades, Sheikh Mohammed did so, leading Dubai’s transformation into the world’s busiest aviation hub and establishing a multibillion-dollar tourism and professional services industry.

Alongside this sanitised story of success against the odds, the UAE vice-president devotes three chapters of his most recent book to another Latifa: his mother. She is idealised as his “first love”, “my heart and soul”, “the most wonderful, supportive, softest, kindest and most extraordinary person in my life”. Her death in 1983 devastated him.

His wives receive comparatively less coverage in the official narrative, and the story of just one, his sixth and youngest wife, Princess Haya, has been extensively documented. After their marriage faltered, Haya, 46, said she became concerned about the fate of Shamsa and Latifa. Soon, she said, she started finding guns left in her home and a note that warned: “We will take your son – your daughter is ours – your life is over.”

UK court found last year that these and other claims of threats and harassment, along with the allegations Sheikh Mohammed had organised for the forcible returns of Latifa and Shamsa, were on the balance of probabilities, factual. The judgment and publicity appear to have had little impact so far on the UAE’s defence and trade ties with London, nor Sheikh Mohammed’s extensive personal relationships in the UK.

“He’s closely integrated into the top echelon of society through horse racing,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, an associate fellow specialising in the Gulf at Chatham House. “He moves in the highest circles with members of the UK royal family, and to some extent that might give him respectability.”

In Sheikh Mohammed’s latest memoir, published in 2019, in between tributes to his parents and ancestors, and a recounting of the history of Dubai, there is an unusual flash of a harder side. The sheikh might be immune to desert scorpions, he said, but they were not the only kind.

“It is said that human scorpions dwell on the earth in the form of gossipers and conspirators, who trouble souls, destroy relationships and subvert the spirit of communities and teams,” he wrote. “Sleeping with desert scorpions is sometimes easier than living with the human ones.”

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