Last week’s installment of Detained in Dubai told the story of the daring escape of former French spy Hervé Jaubert from Dubai, where he was under house-arrest following accusations of fraud. After his escape, Jaubert became an infamous figure in the UAE, loathed by the country’s regime and idolized by its captives in equal measure. 

The Princess, daughter of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, had read Jaubert’s book, Escape from Dubai, and believed the Frenchman could be her ticket out of the Emirates.

The most high-profile of these prisoners of the state, Princess Latifa, contacted Jaubert in early 2011. The Princess, daughter of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, had read Jaubert’s book, Escape from Dubai, and believed the Frenchman could be her ticket out of the Emirates.

”We became friends,” Jaubert confided in Inside Arabia. “She was like a little sister to me.” Over the following years, Jaubert assisted Latifa in preparing three separate escape plans, two of which were cancelled by Latifa at the eleventh hour. Jaubert outlines the extensive nature of their contact: “I trained her in secret communications, I organized secret meetings with my agents, I trained her in security and covert ops. She was smart, focussed, always on schedule, organized, and determined.”

The plan that finally came to fruition in 2018, mirrored Jaubert’s own escape in several respects. With her friend and personal trainer,Tiina Jauhiainen, Latifa escaped to Oman by car and then sailed by dinghy into international waters, where Jaubert was waiting aboard a yacht—a US vessel. As soon as they were on board, Jaubert set sail for India. 

Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al Maktoum

Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al Maktoum

Shortly before landing on the coast of Goa, however, the boat was stormed by Indian and Emirati security forces. Latifa was recaptured and returned to the UAE by helicopter immediately, despite her pleas for asylum. Jaubert and Jauhiainen were beaten, threatened with death, and detained. 

Jaubert recalls how UAE security officials who had previously allowed him to slip through their fingers were determined to make up for past errors. “They did not make the same mistakes again,” he told Inside Arabia. “After Latifa’s escape, they sent over 500 men, five warships, two planes, two helicopters, two high-speed boats, 15 commandos; this time they really wanted to make sure we would not get away.” 

Jaubert argues that the UAE’s flagrant violations of international law are the actions of a state that feels it has the power to act with impunity. “Once Latifa stepped foot on my boat she was a free woman, she was under US jurisdiction because I was sailing a US flag vessel,” Jaubert explains. “That tells you a lot about Sheikh Mohammed—he violated US sanctity to remove by force a passenger and abduct her, in violation of maritime laws and international agreements.”

Other states in the region are not permitted to act in this way. “Had it been Iran who had attacked a US vessel, the US would have bombed the hell out of Iran,” says Jaubert. 

The UAE and other US allies in the Gulf are used to being able to violate international treaties and conventions with near complete impunity. The incident passed with little or no protest in the US, no official investigation and barely a whiff of a diplomatic row.

The UAE and other US allies in the Gulf are used to being able to violate international treaties and conventions with near complete impunity. The incident passed with little or no protest in the US, no official investigation and barely a whiff of a diplomatic row. This is despite the fact that the vessel’s position was allegedly given to the UAE authorities by the FBI, after the former claimed Latifa had been kidnapped. Jaubert is considering suing the bureau for its negligence in this matter. 

Jaubert confides his disbelief at the way in which the incident played out: “To this day I cannot believe that the US let a free woman be removed from a US territory by force and by foreign forces. She was under US jurisdiction and she was claiming political asylum; it was denied. I thought my American flag would protect us, I was wrong.”

Jaubert explains how the economic power of the UAE was also leveraged to bring the Indian authorities into line on this issue. “The Gulf states survive only because of oil, their political ties, and their buying power in relation to military equipment,” he says. 

“How do you think Sheikh Mohammed convinced prime minister Modi to attack a private vessel in international waters? The answer is by corruption, because the attack was illegal and they knew it was illegal; they knew Latifa ran away and was not kidnapped. Sheikh Mohammed and Modi must have entered into a secret deal to allow this to happen,” Jaubert asserts.  

After her recapture on March 4, 2018, around nine days after her escape, Latifa appeared in a video alongside former Irish President and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robsinson. Many, including Jaubert, regard the video as nothing more than propaganda for the Dubai regime. 

“[Latifa] was not a ‘troubled woman’ as Mary Robinson said, absolutely not. I categorically deny that,” Jaubert told Inside Arabia. Jaubert believes it is possible that Latifa was tortured and sedated with drugs upon her return to Dubai, as happened to her sister Shamsa following her own escape in the year 2000. 

The Dubai authorities have stated that Latifa is undergoing “psychiatric care.” For Jaubert, who worked in clandestine operations in the former eastern bloc, this phrase carries sinister connotations. 

“It is reminiscent of the Soviet era when they put dissidents in psychiatric care,” he says. “So she is under the influence of drugs, and she is a fighter; they will need more drugs and force to contain her, this treatment eventually can only lead to death.”  In fact, Jaubert says he fears the princess is already dead. 

Jaubert holds out hope that the widespread effective imprisonment of women (even nominally powerful women) under systems of male guardianship will come to an end. 

While his pessimism about the current situation in the Middle East is as understandable as it is palpable, Jaubert holds out hope that the widespread effective imprisonment of women (even nominally powerful women) under systems of male guardianship will come to an end. 

“When I was held hostage, officials told me I had broken Islamic law by helping a woman get away from her male guardian,” he says. He shares the hope of many that such laws stand too starkly against the base human desire for freedom to be able to persist for long. Countless women languish without hope in the Gulf, lacking Latifa’s connections and financial means to mount an escape attempt. 

“Latifa is a model for all women [in the Gulf] who want to get away,” says Jaubert. “Eventually, the male guardianship will have to stop and will stop because it is unsustainable.” Only time will tell whether this change will come too late to save Latifa.