The Spy, the King, & the Missing Princess

William Langley
May 2019, The Australian Women’s Weekly

Last year, Dubai’s Princess Latifa made a bid for freedom. She was returned to the palace by force and hasn’t been heard from since.

Shielded from the swirl and dazzle of Dubai, the Zabeel Palace, home of the city-state’s billionaire ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al-Maktoum, presents a reassuring image of serenity. Peacocks wander over velvety lawns, tethered lions snooze beside reflecting pools, and the gilded domes and arches evoke the Tales of the Arabian Nights. Yet from behind the palace walls comes a real-life story of a more disturbing kind.

The sheikh’s 33-year-old daughter, Princess Latifa, has not been seen in public since last March when she was seized aboard a yacht in the Indian Ocean while attempting to “escape” from Dubai. Before fleeing, Latifa wrote to a friend: “All my life I have been mistreated and oppressed. Women are treated as sub-humans here. My father can’t continue to do what he has been doing to us all.”

From the first sketchy details of her disappearance has emerged an astonishing saga of subterfuge, intrigue and high-seas daring, featuring a Mission: Impossible-worthy cast of characters including a former French spy and a sky-diving martial-arts instructor. In the months since she was returned to Dubai, the dark-haired princess has become a global cause célèbre, pitting high-profile campaigners for her freedom against the powerful Maktoum dynasty’s determination to protect its interests.

No one outside the royal household can say exactly where Latifa is, or what conditions she is living under. In late December, the palace released a set of photographs of her meeting Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, who is an old friend of the sheikh and his wife, Princess Haya.

Dressed in a maroon sports top and jeans, Latifa appears heavy-eyed and unsmiling, conspicuously avoiding looking into the camera. In an interview, Mrs Robinson later described her as “vulnerable and troubled”, and said that she was receiving psychiatric help. But her visit – at the royal family’s expense – has been widely denounced as serving the Maktoums’ attempts to conceal the real story.

“There is no evidence to support the suggestion that she has mental problems,” says Radha Stirling, a London-based Australian lawyer who heads #FreeLatifa, a group campaigning for the princess’s freedom. “The photographs were a stunt, intended to make her look fine and stave off some of the pressure, but from what we know she is kept in solitary confinement, and probably drugged. Or worse.”

From an early age, Latifa, one of the sheikh’s six daughters by his numerous wives, had shown an unusually adventurous streak. Annette Morrisey, a British dance teacher who attended Dubai’s prestigious International School with the princess, remembers her being insatiably curious about the world beyond the tiny Gulf kingdom.

“If you had a fashion or celeb magazine, she’d be desperate to borrow it. She just seemed amazed and enthralled by this idea that people could actually have these kinds of lives. She was barely in her teens then, and you could just sense her chaffing at her situation.”

Latifa was 16 when she first attempted to leave Dubai. The plan, such as it was, involved crossing into neighbouring Oman, finding a lawyer and somehow heading on to a third country. But she had no travel documents and was stopped at the border, returned to the palace and, she alleges, imprisoned, drugged and systematically tortured for the next three years.

In little more than three decades, Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, has transformed itself from a down-at-heel desert trading station into one of the most glamorous destinations on earth. Oil provided the early lift-off, but today the city sells itself as a futuristic fantasy land, studded with glitzy shopping malls, soaring skyscrapers, hip beachside resorts, and – crucially – the kind of hands-off approach to life that is hard to find in most of the Islamic world.

It was easy to see Latifa as emblematic of all this. She spoke an easy, Gen X-style English, liked Western films and music, and in so far as it was possible, revelled in her free-spiritedness. A feature in the magazine Emirates Woman shows her skydiving over the sapphire waters of the Persian Gulf, beneath the headline “Sheikha Latifa, the daredevil royal who’s inspiring us all to be more adventurous.”

Most of this, say critics, amounts to an elaborate charade, masking what is in effect a police state, ruthlessly operated by the Maktoums. The personal authority of the 69-year- old sheikh, worth an estimated $18.5 billion, is felt in every aspect of Dubai life, and he expects a similar level of obedience from his family.

In a haunting video address, left by Latifa on the eve of her escape attempt last year, she describes her father as: “The most evil person I have ever met. He is pure evil. He doesn’t care about anyone. He only cares about his reputation and his ego.”

She goes on to say that women – even royal women like herself – are “completely disposable”, and that she is watched and followed at all times. Confined to what she describes as “a house of depressed women”, she tells of being prevented not only from travelling abroad, but even from visiting the homes of friends without supervision. Clearly anticipating that the venture she was about to embark on would be judged too incredible to be true, she adds: “They will, for sure, try to discredit this video, to say it is a lie or an actress or something.”

On the morning of February 24, 2018, she met at a cafe with Tiina Jauhiainen, a 42-year-old martial arts instructor from a small town in Finland. Tiina, of similarly adventurous nature, had arrived in Dubai via London in 2001, first working in the real estate business, then opening her own fitness centre. Both women were devotees of Capoeira, a Brazilian self-defence discipline, enjoyed skydiving, and had become close friends.

Tiina was in on the plot. Unlike the princess, she could come and go from Dubai, and her private communications were less likely to be monitored. “Latifa was determined to get out,” says Tiina, now back at her family home in Iisalmi, Finland. “She felt she had no life there, and was prepared to take any kind of risk, so I agreed to help her.”

The other key figure in the escape plan was Hervé Jaubert, a raffish, 63-year-old French former intelligence officer. Modestly describing himself as “no ordinary man”, Hervé says he was lured to Dubai in 2004 by a lucrative offer to set up a company making miniature submarines, but fell out with the authorities and found himself looking at a lengthy prison sentence. One night, in 2008, he staged his own disappearance, slipping down to the beach (having taken the precautionary measure of disabling the local police patrol boat), and setting sail in a rubber dinghy. He claims it took him six hours battling rough seas to reach international waters, where he was picked up by an accomplice’s waiting yacht. He now lives in Florida, where Tiina, during one of several overseas trips she made, tracked him down and persuaded him to help.

Inside the coffee shop, Latifa changed her clothes and sunglasses, aiming to throw anyone tailing her off the scent, and the two women drove in Tiina’s car across the border into Oman and on to an undisclosed spot on the coast where an inflatable dinghy was waiting. Then came a 40km voyage into international waters, to rendezvous with Hervé’s US-flagged sailing cruiser, Nostromo, and begin the 1800km passage to Goa in western India.

For the first week, the voyage went smoothly, although Tiina says Latifa was constantly anxious and convinced that her father’s men were in pursuit. On the night of March 4, with the Indian coast almost in sight, her fears were realised.

“We were attacked. I don’t mean stopped or ordered to turn around, I mean attacked,” says Hervé. “There were actually warships with missiles pointed at us: planes, a helicopter, everything. About a dozen men came aboard and took control of the boat, and beat us with their guns.”

The attackers, it quickly transpired, were not from Dubai, but India, which has a close military co-operation pact with the UAE. The Nostromo was then handed over to the Emirates navy and towed all the way back across the Indian Ocean. Hervé, Tiina and two crewmen were released after two weeks in jail, and signing what they say were forced confessions, but no-one knows for sure what has befallen Latifa. “The last I saw of her,” says Tiina, “she was kicking and screaming as they dragged her away.”

When the first accounts of what had happened leaked out, many media organisations were sceptical. “It sounded too incredible,” says Radha, “too like something out of James Bond. People struggled to believe it, which was exactly what Dubai wanted.”

Then, the haunting video of Latifa emerged. “If you are watching this,” she begins, “it is not such a good thing. Either I’m dead or I’m in a very, very bad situation.” Soon, more evidence surfaced – emails sent from the yacht, transcripts of phone calls, and a belated confirmation of events from India.

“I don’t think anyone can contest the truth of it now, or doubt the seriousness of what’s happened,” says Radha, who grew up in Melbourne and is the founder and CEO of the human rights organisation, Detained in Dubai. “We’re looking at a case of a young woman being violently abducted by her own government in international waters.”

The pressure on Dubai to explain itself and provide access to Latifa is growing. The United Nations, through its Working Group on Involuntary Disappearances, has taken up the case, as have several human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and Dubai’s relations with several foreign governments has been strained.

The US State Department wants to know why a vessel sailing under its flag was boarded by foreign troops, while the British government still has an open file on the alleged kidnapping of another of the sheikh’s daughters, Princess Shamsa, 18 years ago. Shamsa, then 20, slipped out of the Maktoums’ vast, guarded estate in Surrey, and spent some weeks in hiding with friends in south London. The following month, she was allegedly dragged off a street in Cambridge, bundled into a car and flown out of the country in a private jet.

Chief Inspector David Beck, the former head of Cambridge criminal investigation department, says his request to make enquiries in Dubai was turned down, and the case has lain dormant ever since. In its sole response to the Latifa affair, the royal family issued a statement claiming that the princess had been “kidnapped” by Hervé and his “accomplices”, who had sought a US$100 million ransom. It said that she was now “safe in Dubai”, and that both Latifa and Shamsa were “adored and cherished by their family”.

Toby Cadman, a London barrister retained by the #FreeLatifa campaign to represent the princess says: “There clearly have to be consequences. Tiina and Hervé have the right to take legal action against Dubai in their own countries, but beyond that there are questions of international law and binding treaties signed by the UAE that appear to have been flouted, and this has to be addressed too.”

Since becoming Dubai’s head of state 13 years ago, Sheikh Maktoum has spent tens of millions of dollars, much of it with global public relations firms, cultivating his image as a dynamic, enlightened ruler. His personal website throbs with testimonials to his various accomplishments as “The Leader”, “The Poet”, “The Father”, “The Visionary” and “The Philanthropist”. He travels the world as a figurehead of progress and, appreciative of his tough stance against Islamic extremism, Western governments have tended not to dwell on regular claims of human rights abuses and the lack of freedom for women.

For all its glossy packaging as the “Hong Kong of the Middle East”, Dubai remains a deeply conservative society, steeped in the tribal traditions that shaped the Maktoum dynasty from its beginnings as a wandering desert clan.

British businessman David Haigh, who was imprisoned for 22 months in the emirate before being acquitted, and who has been an advisor to the group Detained in Dubai, says: “I have seen literally thousands of people put through the horror of the jail system, many of them physically and sexually abused by the police for simply holding the hand of their girlfriend, having a drink in public or, as in my case, using social media.”

The tourist trail comes to an abrupt stop at the gates of the Zabeel Palace. No-one uninvited enters and no-one really knows what happens inside. One old Dubai hand likens the place to a movie studio, where a despotic director creates illusions, indulges his favourites, and crushes anyone who gets in his way.