LONDON – When the super-wealthy ruler of the Middle Eastern emirate of Dubai found himself embroiled in a British court case against the princess of Jordan, who was his wife, he did more than hire. top lawyer.
He also deployed high-tech software purchased from an Israeli company to hack the cell phones of his ex-wife, two of her lawyers and three other associates, according to court documents released on Wednesday. Private.
One of the lawyers, Baron Fiona Shackleton, is a permanent member of the House of Commons – potentially adding further friction to the close relationship between the UK and the United Arab Emirates, which includes Dubai.
According to Bill Marczak, a researcher at The Citizen Lab, it appears to be the first confirmed case of the software, called Pegasus and sold by Israel-based NSO Group, being used successfully. to hack the phone of a sitting British official. The University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, who examined the phones mentioned in the case and determined that they had been hacked.
NSO Group has come under intense scrutiny in recent months after it was reported that various governments were using their software to target rivals.
The hack, which came to light in a civil lawsuit ruling in a London court, added a new wrinkle in an already complicated entanglement about Saudi royal strife, diplomacy and the world of Saudi Arabia. companies secretly sell expensive hacking technologies to governments around the world, who can and use them as they see fit.
NSO Group says it sells its products to governments for use in law enforcement and counterterrorism. Technologists have discovered many cases of such technology being used by oppressive governments not to track down criminals but to spy on dissidents, human rights activists and activists. journalist.
In an emailed statement, the NSO Group said: “Whenever suspicion of abuse arises, NSO will investigate, alert NSO, NSO will terminate.”
The company says it is committed to protecting human rights and cooperating with the courts, although it does not recognize the courts’ jurisdiction.
An email seeking comment from the Dubai Communications Office did not receive a response.
The court case fought the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, against his ex-wife, Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein, of Jordan, over custody of their two children after when she ran away with them to London in 2019.
Sheikh Mohammed is also accused of hugging his two daughters in another marriage – Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum and Sheikha Shamsa al-Maktoum – detained in Dubai after they tried to flee.
Representatives for Sheikh Mohammed have denied that the women are being held against their will.
In the UK civil court ruling, made in May but made public on Wednesday, a judge ruled that the surveillance was carried out by agents of Sheikh Mohammed using the The software is licensed to the Emirate of Dubai or the United Arab Emirates. Also under “illegal surveillance” were Princess Haya’s personal assistant and two of her security guards, the court said.
Also earlier the court had ruled that Sheikh Mohammed had imprisoned his daughters with Princess Haya and threatened another of his wives, though he was unlikely to face the consequences. juridical.
Even before fleeing to London, Princess Haya, daughter of Jordan’s predecessor, Hussein, was a well-known figure among the British elite. She trained in British private schools, represented Jordan as a show dancer at the 2000 Olympics and is said to be friendly with Queen Elizabeth II.
In addition to Baron Shackleton, another lawyer for Princess Haya, Nicholas Manners, was also the target of the hack. The verdict said Princess Haya’s phone was hacked several times last year with “express or implied authority”.
Baron Shackleton was told about the hack by Cherie Blair, wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who worked as a humanitarian adviser to the NSO, about the hack, according to court documents.
Mrs Blair was told the NSO had been informed that its software “could have been misused to monitor the mobile phones of Baron Shackleton and her client, Princess Haya of the Royal Family”. , the court said.
Princess Haya’s flight to London in 2019 followed an attempt by Sheikh Mohammed’s two daughters from another wife, Sheikha Latifa and Sheikha Shamsa, to flee from their father’s tutelage. In the end, they were both arrested, returned home and went against their will there, advocates for the women say, arguing that the claims tarnished the reputation of their powerful father. surname.
Princess Latifa’s whereabouts and circumstances are still unclear. Although she appeared in a video earlier this year saying she was being held by her father, photos later surfaced on social media showing her in Iceland, at Madrid’s airport and at a shopping mall. Shop in Dubai. A cousin told the Free Latifa campaign, a group that has worked to make her case public, that he had met her in Iceland.
However, the princess has yet to speak out publicly, raising doubts about whether she is acting on her own accord.
Vivian Yee contribution report from Cairo.