The twists and turns of the Royal Families of the Middle East, by Marilyn Stowe

Photo by ZQ Lee on Unsplash

The Maktoum family who rule the fabulous desert kingdom of the UAE have used their vast wealth to put Dubai and ‘Emirates’, their superb world class airline, firmly on the world stage. Saudi Arabia, ruled by the House of Saud, has its own enormous global interests and power base.

Members of both its male dominated families, their women usually firmly in the background, have litigated family law cases in England, when any of their women have dared to surface, forcing them to reveal inconvenient truths behind the married lives of the great Princes of the Middle East.

All or nothing

In all such cases, no matter the subject, the time or costs involved, ‘all or nothing’ is the dominant approach.

Thus a case involving the late Saudi King Fahd, occupied the English courts from 2004 to 2018.

King Fahd secretly married a woman called Mrs Janan Harb in 1967 before he became King. It ended three years later when kicked out of Saudi Arabia, she remarried, albeit she claimed never to have been divorced by the King. After that marriage failed, Mrs Harb proved herself adept at never leaving His Majesty alone for money after he broke the promise she claimed he had made, to look after her.

She received a £5 million settlement in 2001, in what looks to me as intended to be a full and final deal, a great deal of money to all but a billionaire Saudi King, to whom it is perhaps mere change: - she soon went through that and came back for more, despite the King having a stroke and subsequently dying before the Court of Appeal could rule on the issue of his sovereign immunity as a result of her imaginative failure to maintain application was issued in the family courts. Butler Sloss J (as she then was) in the High Court had found in his favour.

But the most interesting issue for me, was when the Court of Appeal firmly rejected the argument that the King being a King, should have privacy in his litigation as Butler Sloss J had decided. Even a King has no Royal benefits in English courts.

After his death, the indefatigable Mrs Harb continued her litigation, her maintenance application had died with the King, but she alleged she had made a further agreement with Prince Abdul Aziz the late King’s ‘go between’,  for £12m and two flats, against her agreeing to retract her lurid allegations against the late King in her matrimonial case.

Was there such an agreement?  This litigation, fascinating for jurists with its many twists and turns, took the next fourteen years to decide until 2018, when Mrs Harb by now age 70, lost her case, the court having found (after a re-trial which included the Court of Appeal bizarrely criticising the personal conduct of the original High Court Judge who had heard it) although there was an oral agreement, it was too vague in its terms to enforce. 

Mrs Harb even went bankrupt at one point. She carried on, determined there was an agreement, having bought back the right to continue her claim from her Trustee in Bankruptcy for £1000. To the Royal House of Saud, the years of litigation and substantial cost appears nothing compared to their determination she was going to get nothing. And nothing is what she got. That she could have easily been paid off years earlier, perhaps cheaper and the entire affair kept from public scrutiny was not their preferred option.

At about the same time, the all-powerful uncle of the present ruler of Dubai, HRH Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chair of Emirates Airlines, also became involved in family law litigation in London. He was alleged to have married Nivin Al Gamal at an Islamic ceremony in London in 2007. A year later a child was born. The relationship was short lived. A case ensued as to the validity of their ‘marriage’ ceremony in London. If it was nullified, she had a financial claim against the Prince. This included a number of experts considering her mental health.

The English court in 2011 held that a ceremony had taken place but not remotely resembling a marriage that could be nullified, and accordingly the only claim Ms Gamal could make against one of the wealthiest men in the world, was for limited housing provision for her and her child, and for child support. Additionally, the father refused to recognise his child. A paternity test proved it. It solved nothing. The case did not settle and over several more years was painfully and publicly finally adjudicated by a Judge. Ms Gamal received far less than she claimed. The sum ultimately involved, to a man of immense wealth, who gave no details of his financial position except to assure the court ‘he could meet any order the court might make’, was pitiful in comparison, to maintain his child whose existence he ignored.

In both cases, both women were apparently dispensable, neither men attended court, neither gave evidence. Both had top rank lawyers to represent them. Both were uncompromising and both were successful.

The third case, in the news this week, involves the Emir of Dubai, in his own marital split from one of his legitimate wives. It appears she may have been having an affair with her English body guard. He immediately divorced her in Dubai when she had upped and flown by private jet to England taking their two children with her. Then he made an application to the English court seeking the immediate return of the children to Dubai.

At this stage, it’s hard not to sympathise with him. He seemed to have an unarguable case for their return.

But advise him to proceed? On the one hand there was the hard fought but successful experience of his uncle and the Saudi prince. He had a strong case in law, on the facts. And a case involving children, might be kept private. He too did not intend to give evidence.

A lesson to all

On the other hand and this is a lesson to all: - there is always another side to any relationship, and he had sovereign immunity to protect him from proceedings which might, just might, get out of hand. And be published for all the world to read. The case of the late King Fahd had virtually guaranteed it.

He went in at the deep end, waived away a priceless guarantee of sovereign immunity,  issued proceedings and committed himself to the jurisdiction of the English court - whose first concern is always for the welfare of the children, not the parents, no matter how Royal.

His ex-wife was not desperate for money. Oxford educated, the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan she had her own vast resources and she fought back, hard. Grotesque allegations of his being behind the torture, kidnap and continued imprisonment of two of his other daughters surfaced with witnesses to back them up. The Royal wife’s terror of her husband and fear for her children was made plain. Which English family court could turn their back on them?

The Emir applied to withdraw his application and was refused by the court. His vast legal team of the most eminent in the country, were instructed to play no further part in the children proceedings. Their applications to keep the judgments private were refused, two appeals got nowhere. Ultimately the published judgments were as damning of the Emir as any litigants that have ever come before the courts.

Fair or not - as those representing him might argue, only one side of the story was before the court, it was enough to convince the President of the Family Division.

But with the twists and turns of the Royal Families of the Middle East, who knows what the future will hold?

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You can find the published judgments in the Emir's case, in chronological order, here, here, here and here.