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The sheikh who spied on his family

The sheikh who spied on his family


A British court ruled last week that Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, had used one of the most powerful surveillance tools available to security services to spy on his ex-wife in the middle of a custody case.

claudia williams, narrating:

Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker – from tortoisemedia.com

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, the tale of the princess and the phone hack. 


Last week, the High Court in London published documents revealing that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – the billionaire ruler of Dubai…and a friend of the Queen – had ordered a series of illegal phone hacks.

“He’s the ruler of Dubai but stands accused of breaking British law.”

Sky News

Sky News

“Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum has been found by the high court to have illegally hacked the mobile phones of those opposing him in the British courts.”

BBC News

The targets were his ex-wife – Princess Haya bint Hussein – and the team supporting her during a fight for custody over their children, including her security detail, her PA, and her lawyer – a member of the House of Lords. 

The series of 11 judgements, released publicly last week, were all part of this sprawling custody case. 

The judge was determining the facts about the welfare of the children, and whether their father should be allowed access to them. 

Sheikh Mohammed denies any involvement in the spying operation, but the judge who decided this case called the hacking part of a “sustained campaign of intimidation and threat” orchestrated by him. 

A campaign designed to pressure his ex-wife into submission. 

Because Sheikh Mohammed wants to take the children back to Dubai… a place where they’d be living under his strict regime. 

And he’s one of the most powerful men in the world, someone with vast riches, huge influence… and friends in very high places.

“Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is a powerful and influential man and is regularly seen alongside heads of state, including the Queen.”

Sky News

So the question is: what do the details revealed in those High Court judgements tell us about the lengths Sheikh Mohammed has gone to, to exert control over his wife and children? 


The court judgments revealed that Sheikh Mohammed was doing everything he could to keep Princess Haya and her children under surveillance.

He even tried to buy a house next door to the country home where she’s living with them. 

Princess Haya, the judge said, saw this as “a very significant threat to her security”. 

Having her ex-husband’s operatives so close by would allow them to watch her home day and night – and might even give them opportunities to kidnap her children. 

That house purchase fell through, but Sheikh Mohammed was watching her in other ways too. 

He got his aides to use Pegasus – a piece of software created by an Isreali cyber-intelligence company – to steal data from her phone and the phones of people close to her… 

It’s an incredibly powerful spyware tool:

“It can access every message you’ve ever sent. It can access every message you’ve ever received. It can access every photo, every video, every email, it can turn on your microphone. It can turn on the microphone, even when you’re not using a phone, call it just record what you’re doing in the room could turn on your camera. It can record what’s on your screen. It can access your GPS.”

The Guardian

The NSO group, the company that created Pegasus, says that the software was being misused by the Sheikh and that they’re not going to work with the UAE any more. 

They say Pegasus is meant to be used by nation-states to catch “criminals and terrorists”. 

But in authoritarian countries where human rights are routinely abused… states like the UAE… Pegasus has been used to target activists, journalists and opposition leaders. 

And now, it turns out, the UAE has been using it to target Royal family members – and their lawyers – here in London. 

The Pegasus spyware is almost completely undetectable, so it only emerged that Princess Haya and her team had been targeted because of a tip off in August 2020. 

Fiona Shackleton, Princess Haya’s divorce lawyer and a Conservative peer, was alerted about the spyware by a senior executive at the NSO group… and by Cherie Blair, wife of former prime minister Tony Blair – who also happens to be an advisor to the Israeli firm. 

Sheikh Mohammed’s aides used the Pegasus software to hack Fiona Shackleton’s phone too. 


The cast of characters – and the details in this case – make for an astonishing story. 

But fundamentally, this case is about the safety of a woman and her children from the reaches of a powerful man…

In a witness statement given in December last year, Princess Haya, told the court how all of this was affecting her: “It feels like the walls are closing in on me, that I cannot protect the children and that we are not safe anywhere. I feel like I am defending myself against a whole state. Even in our own home they will be towering over us,” she said. 

The court is doing everything it can to protect Princess Haya and her family from Sheikh Mohammed.

The judge ruled that he and his agents can’t come within 100 metres of her property, and he created a 1,000ft “no-fly” zone above her house to stop the sheikh from whisking her children away in a helicopter. 

The lengths they are having to go to protect themselves – and win this battle – are what is truly astounding here.

The world has a choice now. Will it continue to treat Sheikh Mohammed as a respectable business partner – even a friend? Or has a man who’s been prepared to use all the power of a modern security state against his ex-wife and children finally put himself beyond the pale?