It has all the makings of a racy blockbuster – the furious and humiliated royal sheikh duped by the smart, strong-willed princess who has fled with their two children to a London safe-mansion. It's a blue-blooded tale of intrigue, secrets, abduction, money (heaps of it) and horses (lots of them) that will play out, juicy detail by juicy detail, in a British court with a global audience watching on.
Back in February, the normally busy Facebook and Instagram accounts of Princess Haya of Jordan, the wife of the ruler of Dubai, fell strangely silent and she disappeared from view.
Expats in Dubai and elsewhere in the UAE, and the upper echelons of Emirati society who followed the glamorous life of the royal couple thought it odd but, as is the way in the emirate, little explanation was forthcoming.
Strange, too, that Her Royal Highness Princess Haya bint Al Hussein was not by her husband's side at Royal Ascot on June 22 when the Queen presented Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum with the Diamond Jubilee Trophy after his thoroughbred Blue Point had a double win.
Where was Princess Haya, those in the horsey set wondered, as the billionaire ruler shook hands with a smiling Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and later, top hat held aloft, twirled round in a traditional Emirati dance while his entourage cheered him on.
It was not until a few days later, when British tabloids broke the story, that onlookers understood the princess' absence and how difficult it would have been for the sheikh to conceal his rage.
By then his wife - his sixth - was long gone, fleeing first to Germany and on to London, with their daughter and son, and a reported $58 million in spending money. Independently wealthy, she is living in a $160 million mansion in a leafy street near Kensington Palace she bought from an Indian billionaire in 2017.
In early July Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum petitioned the High Court for custody of their children and their return to Dubai. The princess responded with a barrage of applications including a non-molestation order, custody of the children, non-repatriation to Dubai, a forced marriage protection order and a request that the children be made wards of the British court, meaning no major decisions can be made about their future without a family judge's permission.
Charles and Diana move over, this stoush is set to be the royal battle of the century, a so-called love match gone horribly wrong. On one side is Sheikh Mohammed, the 70-year-old Vice-President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, born into Arab royalty.
On the other side is the equally royal Princess Haya, the beautiful, 45-year-old daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan and his third wife Queen Alia, and half-sister of the King of Jordan, Abdullah II.
The couple are fighting over the custody of their 11-year-old daughter Jalila (Sheikha Al Jalila bint Mohammed Al Maktoum) and seven-year-old son Zayed (Sheikh Zayed bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum), not to mention a multibillion-dollar fortune.
But those in the expat community who have followed the story doubt Princess Haya's dramatic move is about money, nor is it a standard case of an unhappy wife who wants to move on.
Something, they say, has spooked her enough to make her take this huge risk, a move that will potentially embarrass King Abdullah, cause diplomatic strain between the two countries, and even embarrassment between close royal connections in Britain and Dubai.
While Kiwi, Australian and British expats approached by the Weekend Herald were happy to talk, they did not want to be named. Most still travel to, or live in, Dubai and some have children born there.
Although UAE expats enjoy a good life, and many have lived and worked in Dubai and the neighbouring emirates for more than 20 years, there is an underlying unease about speaking about the royal family – good or bad. People have ended up in jail for lesser misdemeanours.
Two expat friends, one English, the other Australian, use code names for the royal couple when chatting about the princess and the sheikh with each other on email after reading updates in the British media.
"Just in case... you never know," one told the Weekend Herald.
Like everyone outside the walls of the notoriously secretive Zabeel Palace , no-one really knows what caused the princess to bolt with her children. "There will be absolutely no press coverage of this in the UAE," says one expat, now living back in New Zealand.
She surmises that the princess must have either feared for her life and the safety of her children, or discovered something that upset her greatly.
"Whatever caused her to go it must have been pretty big because the repercussions will be quite far-reaching. Haya would have had to consult with King Abdullah before she did this. There would have been a lot of thought and planning that went into it. It would not be a spur of the moment decision."
Many suspect her decision to flee is connected to allegations that have plagued Sheikh Maktoum.
Another daughter, Shamsa, is said to be confined in a palace after she made a dash for freedom from Longcross, her father's $140 million, 3000-acre Surrey estate in 2000 as an 18-year-old. She was later snatched from a street in Cambridge and taken back to Dubai. She has not been seen since.
It is at Longcross that the Maktoum family stay for up to six months a year, training horses at the Godolphin racing stable to escape Dubai's searing summer heat.
Last year Shamsa's younger sister Princess Latifa, 33, planned a daring escape, her second attempt, with the help of a friend. The pair drove over the border to Oman and, using a jet ski and an inflatable, boarded a luxury yacht which headed for the coast of India.
But Indian and Emirati armed forces allegedly boarded the boat and seized Latifa.
Latifa told her friend that Shamsa was beaten on the feet with wooden canes as punishment, was kept confined in a zombie-like state and had made several suicide attempts.
Stories of the women's imprisonment, torture and being kept in a drugged state persist, not helped by a 40-minute video online secretly recorded by Latifa before her escape attempt.
In it she says: "If you are watching this video, it's not such a good thing. Either I'm dead, or I'm in a very, very, very bad situation."
At first Princess Haya supported the official line that Shamsa and Latifa were safe and well with their family. But some believe that she received first-hand proof that Latifa's version of events was true, and that her husband had lied. Fearing for the welfare of her own children, she fled.
The sheikh's dysfunctional private life aside, expats spoke glowingly about what the Maktoum family had done for Dubai and the Emirati population, particularly Sheikh Mohammed and his father Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who died in 1990.
Without the backing of large oil reserves, Sheikh Rashid borrowed money to build the huge Jebel Ali Port and the city's first high rise, the Dubai World Trade Centre, in 1979. His vision was to transform what was then a small, dusty desert town into a major trading centre.
His son Sheikh Mohammed went on to establish Dubai as a glittering metropolis of business, technology, tourism and shopping with the launch of the Emirates airline and the building of the iconic Burj Al Arab, the Jumeirah group of hotels, the Palm Islands, a technology park, and the Burj Khalifa, the tallest man-made structure on earth.
A New Zealand expat engineer who worked for Sheikh Rashid for more than 10 years described him as "the most wonderful, generous and smart leader". He had rarely witnessed someone work so hard, he said, and his son Sheikh Mohammed had inherited many of the same traits.
"He (Sheikh Mohammed) has done wonderful things for Dubai. There are very few leaders, or kings, or presidents who in the space of their lifetime have actually transformed a dream into a reality."
A talented equestrian, the sheikh owns Darley, a thoroughbred breeding operation. It was this deep love of horses that he shared with Princess Haya. They met in 2002 while competing in the World Equestrian Games.
The princess' love of horses stems from an orphaned foal King Hussein gave her on her 6th birthday, three years after her mother, Queen Alia, died in a helicopter crash. New Zealand pony fiction writer Stacy Gregg was fascinated by the story and, in typical Kiwi style, wrote to Princess Haya asking for her blessing to write a book.
The result was an invitation to visit the princess in Dubai and the Jordan palaces where she grew up to do research and interviews with staff. Gregg says Princess Haya needed to be persuaded about the book.
"I explained to her that she was this icon and role model for young women. By sharing her story it would be an empowering experience, not just for Middle Eastern women but for girls all around the world who wanted to pursue their dreams."
Gregg describes the princess as smart and strong-willed but very gracious to deal with.
She was seen as a feminist figure in the Middle East, working for change, promoting education for women, and helping with humanitarian causes including poor children in Jordan.
As a past-president of the International Federation for Equestrian Sports, Princess Haya had close ties with the New Zealand equestrian community, including Sir Mark Todd, Gregg says.
After talking to household staff in Jordan, Gregg paints a picture of a determined and talented young rider who was used to mucking out stables and got her heavy truck licence so she could drive her own horse floats.
She was much loved in Jordan and had a very close relationship with her father, the late King of Hussein and her brothers, including King Abdullah.
After receiving the go-ahead for the book, Gregg returned to Dubai to present the princess with a one-off leather bound copy of The Princess and The Foal, which was printed in 2013.
"I really liked her. She has such inner strength. She is an amazing person."
Fairytale royal match is over
Now the fairytale royal match is over, some of the most brilliant and expensive legal minds will go head-to-head in what is tipped to be one of Britain's most expensive divorce cases.
Fighting in Sheikh Mohammed's corner are three QCs and British solicitor Lady Helen Ward, a top matrimonial lawyer with a star clientele including Guy Ritchie in his divorce from Madonna, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula 1 billionaire.
Fighting in Princess Haya's corner is Baroness Fiona Shackleton, another brilliant matrimonial lawyer who represented Prince Charles in his divorce from Diana, Princess of Wales (Princess Haya is friends with Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall), Prince Andrew in his divorce from Sarah, Duchess of York, and Sir Paul McCartney in his divorce from Heather Mills. So furious was Mills at Shackleton's handling of the case that she reportedly poured a jug of water over the lawyer's head in court.
A full hearing is set down for November 11 but whatever the outcome, observers say Princess Haya will never be able to lead a normal life.
Last month she attended a preliminary court hearing in London with her lawyer, surrounded by heavy security. Said one New Zealand expat: "Will she able to send her children to school and will they be able to go to university without the risk of being abducted? That's what she'll need her money for, keeping herself and her family secure. Poor woman."
Earlier this month Princess Haya's younger brother Prince Ali bin Hussein of Jordan released a photo on social media of himself with his arm around his sister. Seen as a show of solidarity, the caption read "Today with my sister, the apple of my eye, Haya bint Al-Hussein."
Back in 2004 when the sheikh and the princess married in a lavish, but private, ceremony at Al Baraka Palace in Amman, the capital of Jordan, expats realised something had changed. For a start, the bride was visible, very visible.
Photos of the wedding couple were released showing Princess Haya wearing a traditional long white gown heavily embroidered with gold. It was the first time a Dubai royal family wedding had featured in Hello magazine.
"Normally when you see photographs of a wedding in the UAE, there's no sign of a woman. Just fleets of men in their dishdashas (long white robes), " says one expat.
"I remember thinking how unusual that was, that maybe he (Sheikh Mohammed) wanted a consort who could greet the husbands and wives of presidents and royalty on an equal footing.
"He was probably happy to have this attractive Western-educated intelligent wife on his arm at Ascot, doing things with the UN, a goodwill ambassador. He was probably extremely proud of her."
If anyone was fit for that role, it was the Jordanian princess. Well-educated with an honours degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford, she represented Jordan in showjumping at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and quickly found her place as the junior wife to the ruler of Dubai.
Although often photographed looking guarded and hawkish, Sheikh Mohammed transformed into a doting dad when with his children. Expats say he was often seen doing the school run with some of the younger Maktoum children and that he would talk with the other parents.
"He's very approachable when he wants to be," she says.
Photos on Princess Haya's Instagram account portray them as a devoted, united couple, proud of their children and of Dubai. Their children are photographed at Ascot, Zayed dressed in a suit and tie, Jalila looking like a Haya Mini-Me in designer dress and jaunty hat.
There are photographs of the sheikh kissing, hugging and holding hands with his children, and plenty of Jalila snowboarding, kayaking, horse riding and playing with a dolphin at Dubai Dolphinarium.
By comparison, Sheikh Mohammed's five other wives and many of his children are almost invisible, living secluded lives behind the walls of Dubai's many palaces. His first wife Sheikha Hind, also his first cousin, married the sheikh in 1979, aged 17.
Known as the First Lady of Dubai, and mother of 12 of his children, she has never been seen in public.
"Basically you don't know what goes on behind those walls. They don't want you to know," says a New Zealand expat.
Another says that Kiwi, Australian, British and American expats lived parallel lives while royalty lived as they had for many generations, "only more luxurious".
But having lived in Dubai for more than 20 years she has observed a rapid social change and a traditional way of life now influenced by Western media, movies and culture.
"So those traditional values are being challenged by a younger generation who want the apparent freedoms of the Western world."
Handsome, charming and fascinating
She has got to know many non-UAE women who married local Emirati. The Arab men were "handsome, charming and fascinating" but their idea of fidelity and monogamy was different. "Not one of those marriages survived."
Women were often replaced by younger women.
"Many of those women still live in Dubai so as to have access to their children."
And now another marriage is over, this time a royal one. But in this case, expats who have followed and admired Princess Haya fear for her safety, aware that she has upset an extremely powerful man.
The wounded sheikh has been posting poetry on social media that speaks of betrayal and "swords of pain".
"I gave you trust and space, the biggest mistake you made was to lie," one line says. And another more ominous line: "You no longer have a place with me. I don't care if you live or die."
As one Kiwi expat puts it: "We like to think of the Maktoums as benign dictators looking after the well-being of their people but this publicity damages the myth. He (Sheikh Mohammed) needs a good PR team."
Most just hope that the princess is left alone to live her life.
"I am sure the Sheikha (Princess Haya) will have good reason to leave," one expat says.
"Keeping her children will be her priority and he (Sheikh Mohammed) will consider that his right. I hope he sees sense and allows her safe freedom and her children."