When I saw the headlines last week that Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein had left her husband – the Emirate of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – and fled to London via Germany, my heart went out to the glamorous and confident woman I’d met two years earlier.
I interviewed Princess Haya in 2017 when she was in Australia as a UN Messenger of Peace speaking about her work to end poverty and hunger around the world. I’d never met a princess before, but she was exactly what I imagined; impeccably polished and graceful in a navy lace dress with matching jewels, well spoken and warm in her mannerisms.
Her handshake was firm from practice. I’d worn my most expensive Chloe heels for the occasion, but I remember still feeling underdressed sitting down next to Princess Haya in her perfectly coordinated sapphire and diamond-encrusted jewellery. From what I saw as we sipped tea overlooking Sydney Harbour in a penthouse suite at the luxe Park Hyatt hotel, there was security on the door, down the hallway and on the ground floor of the hotel.
Princess Haya had just made international headlines as a beacon of hope for equality in an oppressive region. As the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, the half-sister of King Abdullah II and the sixth wife of Sheikh Mohammed, Princess Haya was hailed by Tatler magazine in the UK for “changing the way women are perceived in the Middle East.”
In the Tatler interview, she spoke about feminism and admitted that while she had rose-tinted glasses growing up and was sheltered from the realities of what women in the Middle East region face, “Now I think I would absolutely support the face that women deserve equal rights, if not a little more.”
Women in the United Arab Emirates, where Princess Haya resided at the time with her husband and two kids Zayed and Jailila, have been required to “obey” their husband by law. Men could divorce their wives unilaterally, but women had to apply for a court order to get a divorce. Women could also lose their right to maintenance if they refuse to have sexual relations with their husbands without a lawful excuse.
When I tentatively asked Princess Haya about the oppression of women in her region, she didn’t talk about not being able to divorce her husband without a court order; she instead focused on the positives – like a true on-brand royal. “In the world that we live in today, it’s very important for people to see that one size doesn’t fit all. In the Middle East, I think there’s countries like the UAE where you have a fantastic record as far as women in all walks of life are concerned; women in business, women in government, women in the private sector, women being educated and empowered to do so many things, like I am. There are so many of us and it’s really inspiring,” she said, in her softly-spoken voice with a slight British accent from her time studying at Oxford University.
Princess Haya, now 45, had indeed been educated from her time abroad where she studied in England, learnt five languages and became an accomplished equestrian who represented Jordan at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. She went on to become the first Arab and first woman to be a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations World Food Programme and chaired Dubai’s International Humanitarian City for aid.
Despite describing herself as educated and empowered, Princess Haya still had to flee to London via Germany to escape her billionaire husband, 69, who has faced criticism over his family’s treatment of women, most notably of the disappearance of his daughter Princess Latifa.
International reports claim that Princess Haya left Dubai with her children and $55 million in fear for her life after learning the full details of what happened to Princess Latifa. She fled to Germany and is now understood to be living in London seeking a divorce, in fear of kidnapping.
David Haigh, the human rights lawyer behind the Free Latifa Campaign, said in a statement: “Our thoughts and prayers are with Princess Haya and her young children at this time and we hope they have found safe sanctuary away from Dubai.”
On July 5, Sheikh Mohammed sued his wife in the UK’s High Court petitioning for custody of their children. Before that, he posted a poem on Instagram in Arabic and English accusing his wife of treachery and betrayal.
At our interview two years ago, Princess Haya spoke highly of her husband, who she only ever referred to by his full title. “I’ve been brought up in a very privileged situation and equally I’ve been given all the chances by His Highness Sheik Mohammad and by Dubai and the UAE to take the responsibility [to help others] and it’s an honour to be able to do it.”
She also spoke candidly about raising their son and daughter. “His Highness feels very, very strongly about making sure that the children have a normal childhood. That they can enjoy themselves and have their privacy,” she said. “Of course, they’ve got to learn about what they’ve got to do later in life [as royals], but having that childhood and that normality is key to who they are; playing football, getting bruises and eat ten pounds of dirt.”
Those carefree football-playing kids are now in the middle of what could be the world’s most bitter custody battle. Over the weekend, the headlines read: “Princess Haya’s flight to UK threatens diplomatic crisis.”
When I asked Princess Haya about her dreams for the future in 2017, she said she hoped people in power would take action to address the world’s issues of crisis, poverty and hunger. “If we leave things as they are, then it’s a horrific world that we are leaving to our children,” she said.
I hope that Princess Haya and her children have the support they need to get through this difficult time. And I have a spare room in Mosman if she needs to flee to Australia and the Park Hyatt is booked out.