‘We nearly escaped Dubai, but commandos seized princess’

Lucy Jones, Helsinki
June 17 2018, The Sunday Times

Tiina Jauhiainen, left, with Latifa Al Maktoum

When Tiina Jauhiainen moved to Dubai from Finland in 2001, she thought she had found her place in the sun. The beaches were pristine, the cocktails flowed and work, as a sales agent in the booming property market, was easy to find.

Seventeen years later she lay tied up on the deck of a luxury yacht in the Indian Ocean, watching her best friend, Latifa Al Maktoum, 32, a princess from Dubai’s ruling family, being dragged away by a commando unit.

Jauhiainen was accused of kidnapping the princess, who she says had enlisted her help to flee from her family and life in a gilded prison.

Now back home in the pine forests of central Finland, she believes Latifa is locked up somewhere in the Gulf kingdom and is fighting to get her out.

“If it was a member of British royalty, something would have happened,” Jauhiainen told The Sunday Times in her first significant interview with a British newspaper. “But because it was in the Gulf, no one cares. I’m back now, and I’m asking people to listen.”

Jauhiainen, a martial arts expert, told their story in a wood-panelled lakeside cafe near her family home.

She had been living in Dubai for nine years when she received an email from a woman asking for lessons in capoeira, a Brazilian hybrid of fighting and dance.

Her new pupil turned out to be a daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the ruler of Dubai and vice-president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He has homes in Britain and is one of the most prominent racehorse owners in the world.

After a year and a half of daily capoeira lessons, the two women had become close friends, sharing vegan meals and training together. The Finn noticed, however, that Latifa trusted no one.

They took up skydiving at a Dubai club owned by one of Latifa’s half-brothers. Without her usual minders, she flourished. But eventually she confided to Jauhiainen that her pampered world was a prison, racked with terror.

Latifa had been at school when, in 2000, her sister Shamsa, then 18, had escaped in a Range Rover from the family’s vast estate in Surrey, but was allegedly captured in Cambridge and taken back to Dubai.

At 16, Latifa had also decided to try to escape but — used to travelling on a private jet with no border control — she was caught trying to cross from Dubai to Oman without a passport and was returned to her family.

According to her own account, she was thrown into a windowless cell with a dirty mattress, beaten and threatened with death. Sometimes the lights stayed on — or off — for days. Two former members of staff to UAE royals have confirmed that her case was strikingly similar to several others they had seen.

Latifa was 19 before, she says, she was released from house arrest. She had been imbued with a furious desire for revenge and hatred for her family. Soon, she was plotting to escape again. It took more than a decade.

Through a friend, she heard of Hervé Jaubert, a former French spy who had escaped the UAE by boat after putting on a burqa. She contacted him, and they began to make a plan.

By the end of 2017, the details were arranged. Jauhiainen would drive Latifa to Oman. They would take a dinghy to Jaubert’s 100ft yacht, Nostromo, sail to India and fly to the US and freedom.

“She didn’t really know what she was going to do once she arrived,” said Jauhiainen. “She would seek asylum, and then try to find work. She told me, ‘I’m a qualified skydiving instructor. But I’m happy to flip burgers as long as I’m not here.’”

One morning in late February this year, the two friends drove into Oman in secret, each with a small backpack. They felt safe only when they scrambled aboard the yacht, which was moored in international waters.

By the fifth day at sea, Jaubert noticed a strange boat on the radar — following them, but coming no closer. At night, search-and-rescue aeroplanes flew overhead, their lights off. “Latifa couldn’t relax,” said Jauhiainen. “She kept saying that they would find us.”

On the evening of the eighth day, 40 miles from the Indian coast, Latifa and Jauhiainen were preparing for bed when they heard the pop of stun grenades. There were crashes and raised voices.

The two women locked themselves in the bathroom but grey smoke seeped through the air vents, choking them. They stumbled out, clinging to each other.

Jauhiainen emerged on deck, with her hands up, and saw red laser sights pointing at her. She was grabbed and thrown to the side of the boat. A man pushed her almost into the water. “This is your last breath,” he said, before shoving her back on the deck face down.

She could hear Latifa kicking and screaming. “I’m claiming political asylum,” she shouted. A man spoke to her in Arabic, and she screamed in English: “Please don’t take me back. Just shoot me instead.”

Jauhiainen believes that the boarding party were Indian commandos. She could hear Jaubert pleading with them to stop beating him. When she was rolled over, she could see that his face was badly swollen, his clothes ripped into shreds.

Around 2am, a group identifying themselves as Emirati soldiers appeared. Jauhiainen says one told her: “If you want to jump off, I won’t stop you. You’re going back to the UAE.”

After six days under guard at sea, Jauhiainen and Jaubert disembarked in blindfolds and handcuffs. They were separated, and Jauhiainen was questioned. When she asked to call her family, the interrogator smiled: “No one knows you’re here. You can’t call anyone.”

Jauhiainen said: “They told me I had stabbed the ruler in the back. And they kept asking me why I had done it, whether Qatar or some political organisation was behind it. I said: no, I’m just her friend. They kept telling me I would get life in prison or the death penalty.”

Latifa had vanished but had prepared for this moment. Before the escape from Dubai, she had recorded a 40-minute video. As the commandos stormed the Nostromo she had sent a voice message to some contacts, triggering its release online.

Now it was spreading around the world, racking up more than a million views of her sitting calmly, her hair uncovered, wearing a blue T-shirt, setting out her claims of horrific treatment by her family.

After lobbying by Finland, Jauhiainen was put on a flight to Europe. But her best friend was still missing. “I think about where she is,” she said last week, looking out over the lake. “Whether she’s drugged . . . and where they’re keeping her. I want her to be free.”

More than a dozen Emirati women have contacted her with stories of imprisonment at the hands of their families and botched escape attempts, she said. The nightmares that followed her return have receded, and she is planning on leaving Finland while she continues her fight for justice. But she will not say where she will head to.

“During the interrogation they made it clear that they can get me anywhere,” she said. “I wonder whether 
they will.”

The UAE has not responded to a request for comment. Media channels linked to the royal household have said that Latifa is back with her family and that the case is a private matter.