The Times: Hervé Jaubert: Great Dubai escape of French 007

A former agent turned expat businessman tells how he fled when he was threatened with jail and torture

Matthew Campbell and Sara Hashash
August 23 2009, 1:00am, The Sunday Times

ONE night last summer, Hervé Jaubert, a former French secret agent, put on the flowing black robes worn by women in the Islamic world. Nobody paid him any attention as he walked down to the shore.

Underneath the disguise he wore a diving suit and a device known to military commandos as a “rebreather”. He swam underwater to a police boat riding at anchor. Climbing aboard, he disabled the engine.

It was just like the old days, when he had taken part in covert adrenaline-charged missions to former Soviet countries and the Middle East. This time he was not spying for his country. He was preparing to flee Dubai, where he was about to be thrown into jail for crimes he says he did not commit.

“The police had interrogated me for hours and threatened me with torture,” he said last week from Palm Beach, Florida, where he lives with his wife and two children. “I lived with a ball of fear in my stomach.”

He was sentenced in absen-tia earlier this year to five years in prison after his escape in a rubber dinghy. “If I hadn’t left I’d be stuck in the same nightmare as the others,” he added, referring to dozens of expatriate businessmen, including Britons, who are languishing in jail in Dubai for alleged “economic crimes”, some of them without being charged.

Jaubert, 53, who designs and builds leisure submarines, was drawn to the desert city in the United Arab Emirates by the offer of a luxurious lifestyle in one of the world’s few western-friendly Arab countries. He drove a red Lamborghini and lived rent-free in a poolside villa. Now the party is over.

As the slump deepens, foreigners are falling foul of tough insolvency laws and some have been jailed for misdeeds hardly considered criminal in their own countries, such as bouncing a cheque.

For those whose passports have been confiscated, escape is more complicated. Simon Ford, who had set up a luxury gift service, fled across the desert into Oman and from there back to Britain. In a “letter to the Dubai public” he promised to pay back his debts but said he could not face the prospect of prison.

Jaubert, a naval engineer who left the French intelligence service in 1993, had been contracted by Dubai World, a government company, to build vessels that would cater to the fashion among wealthy citizens for exploring coral reefs in private submarines.

His trouble began two years ago, just as the economy was beginning to show signs of strain. Since then property prices have plummeted, unemployment has risen and so have the arrests of expatriates in what, some suspect, is an effort to make foreigners pay for Dubai’s downturn.

Jaubert was called in for questioning by police in 2007 when an executive at Dubai World reported finding bullets in his office. Police suspected that Jaubert, a keen marksman, might be involved in a murder. Jaubert explained that although he had bullets, the rifle he had brought with him to Dubai was still being held at airport customs.

“They said they thought I was a mercenary or a hitman,” Jaubert recalled last week. “But why would I go with my wife and two young children on such a mission and declare my gun at the airport? It didn’t make any sense.”

According to Jaubert, his employers had run out of money and wanted to find a way of sacking him without paying benefits that would have been due under a five-year contract.

He was questioned twice more by police and made a recording on his mobile phone of the last interrogation, conducted by two men in white robes.

“We will insert needles into your nose again and again,” one of them is heard telling Jaubert. “Do you know how painful it is to have needles put inside your nose repeatedly and then twisted around? Do you think you can resist this kind of pain?”

At the same time, executives at Dubai World accused Jaubert of billing for goods that did not arrive. A spokesman for Dubai World said last week that Jaubert had been dismissed because “he was found stealing from the company”, adding that his five-year sentence was “entirely appropriate”.

Jaubert denied stealing anything. He sent his wife and children back to America but could not leave himself because police had confiscated his passport. He began planning an alternative escape. “I became a secret operative once more, a professional,” he said.

He began reconnoitring the coast, concluding that the best and safest way out was by sea. He imported diving equipment, including the naval rebreather, imagining that it might be useful.

After disabling the engine of a police boat so he could not be pursued, he swam back to the beach, got into a Zodiac dinghy and headed out to sea. Six hours later he was 25 miles offshore and outside Dubai’s territorial waters. Another former French agent met him in a 35ft yacht. “In this kind of job we are like brothers,” he said.

They sailed to Mumbai, in India, which took a week. He told the French consul that he had lost his passport and was given a new one.

Since then he has been concentrating on a memoir about his adventures, called Escape from Dubai. He vows never to set foot again in the emirate.

“They would probably kill me if I went back,” he said. “They’d say that I escaped and died in the desert.”