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Dubai ruler authorised hacking of ex-wife’s phone during legal battle over their two children, High Court finds

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Dubai’s ruler authorised the hacking of the phones of his ex-wife, Princess Haya, and her lawyers during a legal battle over their two children, the UK’s High Court has found.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, 72, gave his “express or implied authority” for the phone of his sixth wife to be infiltrated with multimillion-pound spyware, Pegasus, during the ongoing legal case, the court ruled.

The vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also authorised the use of Pegasus on her solicitors, her personal assistant and two members of her security team, it was found.

FILE PHOTO: Princess Haya bint Al Hussein, the wife of Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, arrives at the High Court in London, Britain February 26, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo
Image: Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein. File pic

The use of the spyware, which is manufactured by the NSO Group and sold exclusively to nation-states, came to light in August 2020 when the wife of former prime minister Tony Blair, Cherie Blair, told Princess Haya’s solicitor, Baroness Shackleton, that she may have been hacked, the court heard.

Mrs Blair, who was an NSO adviser at the time, contacted the Conservative peer after she was told that the software may have been “misused”.

NSO told the court it could not disclose who its customers were, but confirmed that an unnamed customer’s contract had been terminated within weeks of the discovery.

On Wednesday, the High Court published a number of rulings in the ongoing case between Sheikh Mohammed and Princess Haya, the half-sister of King Abdullah II of Jordan, over their two children, Al Jalila, 13, and Zayed, nine.

More on Sheikh Mohammed

Sheikh Mohammed has denied all allegations of hacking.

He said in a statement: “I have always denied the allegations made against me and I continue to do so. These matters concern supposed operations of State security.

“As a Head of Government involved in private family proceedings, it was not appropriate for me to provide evidence on such sensitive matters either personally or via my advisers in a foreign court. Neither the Emirate of Dubai nor the UAE are party to these proceedings and they did not participate in the hearing.

“The findings are therefore inevitably based on an incomplete picture.

“In addition, the findings were based on evidence that was not disclosed to me or my advisers. I, therefore, maintain that they were made in a manner which was unfair.

“I ask that the media respect the privacy of our children and do not intrude into their lives in the UK.”

Sheikh Mohammed is attributed with turning Dubai into a global city
Image: Sheikh Mohammed is attributed with turning Dubai into a global city

Once on a phone, Pegasus can track a person’s location, read texts and emails, listen to phone calls, record live activity, as well as access apps, photos and operate the camera and microphone, the court heard.

Sir Andrew McFarlane – the most senior family judge in England and Wales – found that at least a “very substantial” 265 megabytes of data had been taken from Princess Haya’s phone, equivalent to around 24 hours of voice recordings or 500 photographs, but it was not known what data had been lifted.

In the latest judgments, Sir Andrew ruled that it was more likely than not that the at least attempted surveillance of six phones “was carried out by servants or agents of the father, the Emirate of Dubai or the UAE and that the surveillance occurred with the express or implied authority of the father”.

Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Stables is one of the most famous flat racing operations in the world
Image: Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin Stables is one of the most famous flat racing operations in the world

Princess Haya originally fled the UAE for England in early 2019 with her two children, claiming she was “terrified” of her husband.

She applied for the children to be made wards of court, as well as applying for a forced marriage protection order in relation to Jalila and a non-molestation order for her own protection.

Sir Andrew concluded: “The father, who is the head of government of the UAE, is prepared to use the arm of the state to achieve what he regards as right.

“He has harassed and intimidated the mother both before her departure to England and since.

“He is prepared to countenance those acting on his behalf doing so unlawfully in the UK.”

However, Sir Andrew did not find that the hacking in either July or August 2020 was related to what was happening at that time in the ongoing legal battle over the two children.

Sir Andrew added in a separate judgment that the proceedings had been “characterised by coercive and controlling behaviour of a high order” by the Sheikh.

Sheikh Mohammed is one of the most powerful people in the Middle East
Image: Sheikh Mohammed is one of the most powerful people in the Middle East

Sheikh Mohammed’s lawyers argued that Princess Haya had not proved her case and that he could not confirm or deny whether the UAE had a contract with the NSO Group.

They also suggested that another country could be responsible, with the billionaire ruler’s barrister arguing that Jordan may have carried out the hacking in order to embarrass Sheikh Mohammed.

Last year, Sir Andrew found that Sheikh Mohammed “ordered and orchestrated” the abduction and forced return to Dubai of two of his adult daughters: Sheikha Shamsa, 40, in August 2000 and her sister Sheikha Latifa, 35, in 2002 and again in 2018.

Latifa’s second attempted escape from the UAE made headlines around the world after the publication in March 2018 of a video which she said would only be released if “I’m dead, or I’m in a very, very, very bad situation”.