The recent judgement by the London  High Court against the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, has been well reported. The sheikh had used his position to “… threaten, intimidate and mistreat…” said the judge on the custody case brought by Princess Haya, the sheikh’s  sixth wife, who fled Dubai with her children, fearful for their safety.

Malgré their shared interest in blood stock, Sheikh Mohammed is clearly an unsuitable person to accompany HM Queen Elizabeth at Royal Ascot.  Or at any other horserace.

Visiting  Dubai in 1979, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had occasion to meet Sheikh Rashid, Mohammed’s father,  a likeable old Arab known as “The Fox of the Gulf” for his  business acumen.

Sheikh Rashid, the founding father of Dubai.

The transformation of Dubai began during his thirty-two year rule — Sheikh Mohammed may have added the icing, but Sheikh Rashid made the cake.

Dubai had always been an important  Gulf entrepot possessing relatively little oil  compared with its neighbour Abu Dhabi. When the Trucial States merged to become the United Arab Emirates in 1971, aided by eager foreign investors, Sheikh Rashid embarked on multiple projects to drag his desert state into the 20th century.

A man of simple tastes, he would join his merchant advisers at 6am in an office on Dubai creek. His policy: “ any trade that was good was good for Dubai.” There were to be no customs duties, no taxes and no foreign exchange controls.

The re-export or ‘smuggling’ of gold to India was a profitable early business. Flown in legally on BOAC, it was shipped on big, fast running boums for transfer off the Indian coast.  If cornered by Indian coastguard patrols, to avoid arrest, the crew often threw the ingots overboard.

Boums on Dubai creek were used to run gold to India, 1974.

One of Sheikh Rashid’s mega projects was the Shindagha Tunnel under the creek  intended to speed traffic flow without disturbing Dubai’s traditional dhow trade. The Queen was invited to open the Dubai Exhibition Centre on her initial visit, but the jewel in the crown was the giant Jebel Ali container terminal and industrial zone, whose construction was overseen by Rashid until his death in 1990.

Capitalising on his father’s achievements, Sheikh Mohammed’s dreamt of turning Dubai into a glamorous global destination where tourists could enjoy winter sunshine. He built  the Dubai Mall featuring 1200 shops, entertainment and leisure centres, Burj al-Khalifa the world’s tallest tower and Palm Jumeirah, a luxurious island resort literally  dredged from the Gulf floor.

Dubai Exhibition Centre pictured in 1980, The Emirate’s first high rise building.

Counting some 500 hotels and 25,000 apartments, Dubai morphed into a celebrity playground as well as a convenient sanctuary for exiles — generals and politicians — notably from Pakistan.

In 2019 the emirate welcomed  over 16 million visitors, mostly  unaware that despite its glitz, Dubai is ruled with an iron fist.

Expatriate businessmen considered to have stepped out of line face deportation. Huge fines are imposed on any blogger critical of the regime and tourists sharing an innocent public kiss  may face arrest, a contrast to the dark private life, until recently hidden, of the autocratic 70 year old ruler.

Now that the dirty washing is in the public domain, we await further revelations of the abduction of his daughter Princess  Latifa, one of the sheikh’s 30 children, whose Algerian  mother is wife number four.

According to testimony, the 32 year old princess is held against her will in the heavily guarded Zabeel Palace she sought to escape in 2018. Her older sister  Princess Shamsa who attempted to flee while visiting the sheikh’s equestrian estate in England has not been seen in public for 19 years.

Princess Haya herself  has found  sanctuary in what is dubbed “Millionaire’s Row” – Kensington Palace Gardens in the heart of London.

Sheikh Rashid had the foresight to preserve Dubai’s historic Al-Bastakiya Quarter.


Photograph of Palm Jumeirah resort by Hilary Stout. Others images by Christine Osborne Pictures. COPYRIGHT.