Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Emir of Dubai

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. Photo Mohammad Al Mehrezi

Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has been ruler of Dubai, vice-president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since 2006.

The UAE is a federation of seven monarchies : the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain. According to convention, the ruler of the capital Abu Dhabi is the de facto president of the UAE and head of state, and the ruler of Dubai, the UAE’s commercial and tourist hub, is the prime minister and head of government. This allocation of power is a reflection of the prestige and financial influence of each emirate. 

Personal life

Sheikh Mohammed was born on 15 July 1949. He acceded to power in January 2006, following the death of his brother Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The Al Maktoum family are descendants of the al-Falasi section of Bani Yas (the sons of Yas), a tribal federation that has been the dominant power throughout most of what is now the UAE. In 1833, a large, influential group of the Bani Yas led by Maktoum bin Buti bin Maktoum moved to Dubai and rule the emirate to this day. Sheikh Mohammed’s mother, Sheikha Latifa bint Hamdan Al Nahyan, is the daughter of Abu Dhabi’s current emir, Sheikh Khalifa.

Sheikh Mohammed has several wives. His senior wife is his first cousin Hind bint Maktoum bin Juma Al Maktoum, herself a member of Dubai’s ruling family. They married in 1979 and had 12 children, one of whom is Sheikh Mohammed’s heir-apparent, Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, the crown prince of Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed’s eldest son, Sheikh Rashid bin Mohammed, died of a heart attack in September 2015.

Haya bint al-Hussein was Sheikh Mohammed’s best-known junior wife, the daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan and the half-sister of the current King Abdullah II of Jordan. Sheikha Haya had a high public profile. She was the first Jordanian woman to represent her country in international equestrian sports and competed in the show jumping event at the 2000 Summer Olympics. She also served two terms as president of the International Federation for Equestrian Sports. The couple separated in 2019, when Haya fled with her children from Dubai to the United Kingdom (UK) out of fear for her life. A long court case followed, during which Haya received threats, reportedly from her husband.

Court cases

In December 2021, in a record-breaking divorce settlement, the UK High Court awarded Haya £251.5 million, part of which to cover substantial security costs. The Court had stated that Haya and her children would face severe threats to their lives and therefore awarded her the budget to cover costs of armoured vehicles for transporting the family, among others. 

Sheikh Mohammed then, has come under scrutiny for his treatment of his former wife Haya as well as of his daughters, whose lives in Dubai have been severely restricted. 

His daughter Sheikha Shamsa fled from her family in 2000 while in the UK but was abducted and sent back to the UAE by her father. Sheikha Latifa, his other daughter, fled from Dubai in 2018, but was rounded up by Emirati and Indian commandos while on her way on a yacht to India. Both acts were proven by the UK High Court in a case Sheikha Haya had filed against Sheikh Mohammed. Sheikha Shamsa as well as Sheikha Latifa have not been seen in public since, while Sheikh Mohammed and the UAE government deny all allegations and insist the women are cared for by their family.

Political career

Like many of the Gulf’s royalties, Sheikh Mohammed studied abroad. In 1966, he went to the United Kingdom where he attended the Bell School of Languages at Cambridge University. Subsequently, he received his military training at the Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot. Upon his return to Dubai, his father appointed him chairman of the Dubai Police Force and the Dubai Defence Force.

In January 1968, and following the British notification of intent to withdraw from what was then known as the Trucial states, he joined the late Sheikhs Rashid and Zayed in their first meeting at Argoub al-Sedira, in the desert between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The result of the meeting was an agreement to form a union of emirates. Upon the founding of the UAE on 2 December 1971, Sheikh Mohammed became its first minister of defence. During his tenure as defence minister and head of the police force, he was faced with several critical events including skirmishes among different Emirati tribes over property straddling new borders; Saqr bin Sultan al-Qasimi’ s insurrectionist coup in 1972 against Sharjah’s ruler; the 1973 protracted negotiations with the hijackers of Japanese Airlines flight 404, which landed in Dubai’s airport; and negotiations with the hijackers of KLM flight 861.

In 1995, Sheikh Mohammed was appointed crown prince of Dubai by his elder brother Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al-Maktoum, then emir of Dubai and the UAE’s vice-president and prime minister. Sheikh Mohammed was keen to initiate reforms and transform Dubai into an international trade and tourist hub while also making it less reliant on dwindling oil reserves. He thus launched several initiatives to further the emirate’s modernization and development process. Among these were the Dubai Shopping Festival in 1995, Dubai Internet City in 2000, Media City and Dubai e-Government in 2001, Dubai International Financial Center and Medical City in 2002, the Knowledge Village in 2003 and the Dubailand entertainment complex in 2004. 

Sheikh Mohammed  also launched a number of major enterprises including Emirates airline, Dubai Ports World, Jumeirah Group (hotels and resorts), Palm Island and the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, which opened in 2010.

On the international stage, Sheikh Mohammed is also a key figure in thoroughbred racing and breeding. He owns Darley Stud in Suffolk, England, the largest horse-breeding operation in the world. He is also an avid endurance rider and at the age of 63 took home gold at the 2011 and 2012 World Endurance Championships, a 160km race held at Ancona in Italy.

Known as a man generally not satisfied with the status quo, Sheikh Mohammed’s first shake-up as prime minister came in April 2007, when he announced a strategic review of the UAE’s governance at both the federal and local government levels. The Federal Government Strategy was a process of reform addressing the lack of coordination (among the different emirates) and strategic planning in government, in addition to policy making and deficiencies in the legislative framework. The strategy also aimed to improve social, economic and public sector development, justice and security, infrastructure and rural development.

However, in 2009, Dubai went through its biggest crisis since it came into existence. The worst hit was the rapidly developing real estate sector. As the banks’ lending bonanza fizzled, the government was forced to step in to rescue both the banks and the developers. Apparently, the bail-out plans for the state-owned (or more precisely al-Maktoum owned) holding company Dubai World is what triggered the crisis, with liabilities of over $60 billion. Dubai World’s real estate subsidiary, Nakheel, also owned by Sheikh Mohammad’s family, had huge bonds due but little cash flow to meet payments with all its off-plan developments sold and the new ones put on hold.

The image of the emirate as much as that of its leader was damaged as it sought help from oil-rich neighbour Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi offered Dubai a $10 billion, five-year loan and $10 billion of five-year bonds which Dubai issued to UAE’s Central Bank. As a show of gratitude, Dubai offered to rename its tallest building after Abu Dhabi’s ruler, Sheikh Khalifa. In 2014, when repayment was due, the two emirates agreed to refinance the debt and roll it over for five years at a 1 percent annual interest rate, allowing Dubai to continue spending heavily to develop itself as a regional centre for finance, trade and tourism.

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