Princess Haya of Jordan: A modern Arabian tale

Princess Haya of Jordan: A modern Arabian tale

The late King of Jordan’s daughter Princess Haya has grown up treading a delicate line between the West and Islamic tradition. The UK-educated champion showjumper has a new role as the second wife of the sheikh of Dubai

Some years ago, Princess Haya of Jordan approached her father about purchasing a horse. It was called Scandal. ‘Do you really need it?’ the king asked.

‘Daddy,’ she replied, ‘every princess has a scandal and if you want mine to come with four legs rather than two, you’d better buy it for me.’ She got the horse.

The close, good-humoured relationship between the late King Hussein and his third daughter is a recurring theme of our conversation.

When Princess Haya was only two, her mother, the popular Queen Alia, died in a helicopter accident at the age of 28. The king immediately grasped the power of the vacuum left behind.


‘She was so loved and died so young, she became almost faultless,’ says Princess Haya. ‘People wanted to force me to live in her image. But my father imprinted on me that he wanted me to be my own person.’

It is a tribute to the late king’s skill that, at 34, his spirited daughter seems so very comfortable in herself. Married to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, and the mother of a one-year-old daughter, Al Jalila, she has carved herself a role that manages to be both modern and Arabic, in keeping with her husband’s ethos in creating his fabulous gulf state, which has risen from the sand in just a few decades.

Princess Haya lives in Dubai, visiting Jordan often, but we meet, alas, in a hospitality suite at Dalham Hall Stud, the sheikh’s spread near Newmarket. Still, it is an impressive place.

When I arrive, a pot of coffee appears silently behind me while I am taking in the view: on the one side, of twin helipads; on the other, of a weedless lawn and a row of immaculate loose-boxes, each brass hinge gleaming. Such awesome efficiency depends upon platoons of invisible staff.

The princess arrives with a lovely smile. Everyone is always bowled over by her naturalness but it is the pitch of her manner that is so exquisite: she never strays into ingratiation (as Princess Diana sometimes did).

She says that the Middle East often confuses modernity with Westernisation, but that Dubai has avoided this: ‘There’s a very conscious effort to take the best globally yet maintain tradition. Consequently, the women there are modern but not in the West’s own image

She could be speaking of herself: these days, she might present a template for the new Islamic woman – strong-willed but making a clear distinction between freedom and excess.

In childhood, she cast a forlorn figure. ‘They used to say I was four going on 40,’ she says. She deliberately made waves at school so that she would be detained during break-times to finish her homework, leaving after-school hours free to trail her father.

Then a mare in the palace stables died in labour and King Hussein astutely gave her the orphaned foal to care for. She bottle-fed it, broke it in and dreamed horsy dreams.

At the age of 12, she rode to victory in Jordan’s premier showjumping event and was presented with the King’s Cup by her father.Ever since, riding has provided release from the constrictions of a royal life.

Was palace life in Amman, Jordan’s capital, formal? ‘When we opened the doors for public functions, we all knew how to behave. When the doors were closed, it was a home, there was laughter, water fights.’ She is alluding here to her 11 siblings and half-siblings.

King Hussein was married four times, briefly to Queen Dina; after the divorce, to Princess Muna (born Toni Gardiner, she was the daughter of an English colonel and is the mother of the present king, Abdullah II); to Queen Alia; and after bereavement, to Queen Noor (American-born Lisa Halaby). Haya describes Princess Muna as one of her role models: ‘She has been more like a mother to me than anyone else I know.’

‘People wanted to force me to live in my mother's image. But my father imprinted on me that he wanted me to be my own person’

Amman felt like a small town. ‘Half the telephone book were cousins,’ she jokes. But her father – a moderate, dedicated to raising the living standards of his people – was the target of 12 assassination attempts as he pursued stability by carving peace with Israel and curbing the power of extremists.

‘He – I’m jumping from subject to subject, but I’m so excited to talk about him – had this wonderful presence, shy and measured: he didn’t waffle on like I do! It made you want to ask questions. My father was a fatalist. He was fearless, but I was always frightened someone would get him.’

Like many upper-class Arabs, Haya was educated at secondary level in England, at Badminton and Bryanston, gaining five A-levels before going on to read politics, philosophy and economics at St Hilda’s, Oxford. Her gentleness masks a strong will.

After graduating, she approached the king with her implausible career goal: to be a professional showjumper. ‘My father’s Jordan was a progressive society but even so, for upper-class Arab families to go into sports was seen as not proper. Many people in Jordanian society said, “Your mother would never have done that.” There was this veiled threat. I so wanted to know her that it did stop me in my tracks.’

Her father, however, shrugged off any criticism, nicknaming his daughter ‘the trucker’, because she was – and remains – the only Jordanian woman to hold an HGV licence, acquired to drive horseboxes.

He also had a serious purpose in encouraging her: he saw sport as an indispensable outlet for the young of a troubled region.

Princess Haya spent ten years training in Ireland and Germany, free from the shadow cast by conflict in the Middle East. ‘The constant tension was like having a TV on in the background. When someone turns it off, you think, “Wow! It’s quiet.” I didn’t realise it was disturbing me so much


She deliberately postponed marriage – saying she would wait ‘to meet a man who doesn’t feel he has to mould me’ – and lived a life that was a far cry from luxury: on the European circuit, staying in anonymous apartments, she made lasting friends among the grooms and drivers and gained an invaluable perspective.

‘When I need somebody to kick me up the backside and tell me the honest truth – to say, “I don’t know what you’re worrying for!” – I call them. Or they call me. Real people.

'Those ten years were critical for me. I wouldn’t give them back for anything. It was a sweet taste of freedom – a psychological respite – and I’m still in profit.’

When was the first time she felt in control of her life? ‘The day I was born. Control is one thing I do like,’ the princess giggles. But she adds soberly, ‘You have to accept you’re in control of yourself but not your destiny.
I realised that when I heard my father was ill.’

King Hussein died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999. In her grief, Haya almost pulled out of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. ‘I said to King Abdullah [King Hussein’s eldest son and successor], “I don’t want to do this any more. I’m going to give up the dream.” And he said, “You can’t,” and he really helped me get back on my feet. In Sydney, I missed my father, but I trusted he was there helping me get over those fences.’

Two years later, Haya’s path crossed that of Sheikh Mohammed in Jerez de la Frontera in Spain, when both rode in the World Equestrian Games (he in the endurance event). ‘We had met before but we fell in love in Jerez. It was wonderful to understand someone without the need for words.’

‘My father was not divorced from Princess Muna when he married my mother. So it’s not totally alien to me as a concept. I went into this marriage with my eyes open’

My Dubai contacts talk about the conspicuous happiness of the 59-year-old sheikh since the 2004 wedding. Yet his 29-year marriage to Sheikha Hind, his first wife, continues.

Foreign as this may seem to us, the Eastern tradition of plural marriages perhaps offers a sophisticated solution to the complexities of the human heart? ‘It might, but I don’t think I’m going to advocate [it], nor do
I judge.

'If you’d read me the script of my life ten years ago, I would have burst out laughing. But falling in love can eclipse a lot of things. Actually, my father was not divorced from Princess Muna when he married my mother, and I think that Princess Muna and my father were very much in love. So it’s not totally alien to me as a concept. I went in [to this marriage] with my eyes open and certainly I’m very happy.’

She used to suffer bouts of something like jealousy because her father’s attention was given to Jordan, and now has to accept the sheikh’s absorption with Dubai. ‘After that, another person is not so difficult [to cope with],’ she adds gently.

She sees many similarities between the two men: both knew hard times in childhood, created nations, steered them through troubles.

‘You get wise when you have nothing and then see the way people change towards you when you have the world in your hands. It’s probably very jading and yet [Sheikh Mohammed] isn’t cynical. He is emotional and can be deeply hurt.’

She frets about her husband’s safety – he drives himself around Dubai – as she once fretted about
her father’s.

With her husband Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum,

the ruler of Dubai, at last year's Epsom Derby


She still has many ties to Jordan, where she founded the first food aid non-governmental organisation in the Arab world (known as Tkiyet Um Ali). ‘In our region it’s incredibly difficult for governments to admit they have a hunger problem, and our organisation has opened a door for the subject to be discussed, so I’m proud of that.’

Her other patronages are social, cultural or linked to sports, especially horses; she is an elected member of the International Olympic Committee. Was she serious when she said she wanted to compete in the London Olympics? ‘Definitely. I would love to and if I put my mind to it, I could.’ She is also a UN Messenger of Peace, promoting its Millennium Development Goals (concerning hunger and poverty).

Of the impact of the global recession on these, she says: ‘If nations adopt isolationist policies, then…people would die as a result.’

in plane

Princess Haya's public roles include being a UN Messenger for Peace and the founder of  the Tkiyet Um Ali food aid programme

So has her life traced a full circle? Her mother was a trailblazer in her time, delicately positioning herself as an active consort to the king without establishing a rival cult of personality.

‘And that’s probably the model that I would like to follow. I feel comfortable in my skin,’ she says. ‘I’m the kind of person who parks things in different boxes to deal with later, and I think the whole issue of growing up without my mother was parked,’ she continues.

‘Today, I look at my daughter and I think, “Oh my God! My mother loved me this much!” It was always something that I wanted to quantify. I kept thrashing around trying to figure it out.

'In time, the answer came. My father always used to say, “Your mother would have been so proud of you.” And today, I realise that a lot of my character must come from her.’

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