NICE, France—The saga of the mysterious young princess who escaped from Dubai only to disappear—as she predicted ominously in an Instagram video that went viral last week—is heartbreaking, if it is true.
“This could be the last video I make,” 32-year-old Latifa al Maktoum said in a clip that detailed a life of abuse and misery under her “evil” father’s control prior to fleeing the emirate of Dubai, which the ruler, her father, has built into the metropolis it is today.
“All my father cares about is his reputation. He will kill people to protect his reputation. This video could save my life. If you’re watching this video that is not good. Either I’m dead or in a very bad situation.”
But Latifa’s story has some plot holes, according to sources close to the situation as well as one former U.S. intelligence operative who has studied the case.
Activists working on Latifa’s behalf say the princess fled Dubai but was ambushed at sea by forces working for her father and now has been “forcibly disappeared”—probably back to Dubai under armed guard. They’ve mounted an extraordinarily slick—and convincing—PR campaign ostensibly aimed at rescuing her.
Some of Latifa’s supporters, however, have serious grudges against the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is the most famous, in a region roiled by disinformation wars. It’s been suggested that Qatar might be helping push the story to make the UAE look bad.
“Dubai is awash with intelligence [agents] from all over the world,” said one former CIA agent who now works at a private security company that specializes in handling kidnapping and extortion cases. “It’s a very small place. It’s highly implausible that this young woman from the royal family could have escaped as easily as she did with no one seeing her and equally implausible that no one has eyeballed her since if she was returned to Dubai. Everyone talks there.”
On Feb. 24, the official story goes in a narrative that could be out of an old Charlie’s Angels episode, Latifa allegedly escaped the ruthless clutches of her father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, by crossing into Oman with another woman, her blonde Finnish skydiving partner.
A French martial arts instructor ferried them on jet skis to international waters where they were met by a former French “spy master” who spirited them onto his U.S.-registered boat Nostromo and set sail for Goa, India. Once there, Latifa planned to fly to the U.S. and ask for asylum.
What could go wrong?
Plenty. After eight days on the vast Indian Ocean, Latifa, her Finnish friend, the French spy, and three Filipino crew members allegedly were ambushed on March 4 by a “joint United Arab Emirates-Indian military raid” on the high seas complete with masked men, tear gas, pools of blood, five warships with cannons and missiles, two planes, and a helicopter. The raid allegedly was ordered by Latifa’s father.
Latifa, one of 30 children of the 68-year-old sheikh and one of three named Latifa, was last seen being dragged off the boat into a rubber dinghy. Calls for the UAE to come clean about her whereabouts have come from Human Rights Watch, prompted by a London-based, anti-UAE outfit called Detained in Dubai.
Among the partners of Detained in Dubai is an American convert to Islamic activism who served time for murder in Dubai and a lawyer and former investment banker who said he was imprisoned and tortured in Dubai for 22 months on false charges of fraud and embezzlement.
You can’t make this stuff up. Or can you?
Depending on whom you ask, Latifa is either the victim of a sadistic, abusive dad who sent the military out to recapture her—or she is a restless, privileged daughter who stage-managed her own escape in order to extort $3 million from her father, but planned it poorly.
The American ex-wife of 62-year-old Herve Jaubert (who calls himself a former “secret agent” and “spy master” with French intelligence), told The Daily Beast this week that she believes Jaubert cooked up a scheme with Latifa and the head of Detained in Dubai, Radha Stirling—which Jaubert adamantly denies.
Helene Jaubert, who was married to Herve for 18 years and told The Daily Beast she is still in contact with him, said Stirling and Jaubert have known each other for years. Princess Latifa had been in contact with Jaubert for five years and Stirling for part of that time, mulling over an escape and extortion plan, the ex-wife alleged.
Helene Jaubert provided The Daily Beast with copies of some emails between Stirling and Herve Jaubert dating back to 2010.
“The whole plan was for Herve to help her escape and once he got her out the daughter was going to get to the dad and say I want $3 million or else I’ll tell all to the media,” Mrs. Jaubert said. “Herve was just in it for the money. It was a con. It’s a corrupt scheme gone haywire and they hired a corrupt French dude to try to pull it off. Latifa’s had a taste of Western life and she just wanted more.”
Herve Jaubert did not respond to emails and phone calls for comment when this story was originally published in May 2018.
However, in an email last week, he rejected his ex-wife’s account.
“Radha Sterling [sic] could not have planned anything because she knew about Latifa escape only from March 2, 2018,” he wrote.
“It was never, ever about extortion, it was only to help Latifa to escape. No money demands were ever made to Dubai. None what so ever, by neither parties involved.”
Herve Jaubert also said he had no recent contact with his ex-wife and that she could not have known anything about Latifa’s plight.
Stirling told The Daily Beast she never heard of the princess until Latifa emailed her from the getaway boat on the Indian Ocean in late February, three days before they allegedly were ambushed. She said she knew of Herve Jaubert but had not been in touch with him for about 10 years.
Stirling said when she got the email from Latifa from the boat, four days before the ambush, she thought it was a hoax at first and didn’t respond. “I had never heard from her before,” Stirling said.
Stirling could not explain why the princess hadn’t reached out to her prior to making her escape if she knew about Radha and her organization. Stirling said Jaubert emailed her from the boat two days after Latifa did and explained the situation.
Then, Stirling said, Latifa phoned her from the boat in the middle of the ambush, saying she feared for her life and “was hearing gunshots.”
Stirling said she has screenshots of the call but apparently neither Latifa or her Finnish friend took any photos of themselves on the boat or during the ambush as proof. Latifa made the call via WhatsApp, although a satellite phone is normally needed to call from their alleged location in the Indian Ocean.
Stirling said that after speaking to Latifa she checked her out by an “extraordinary vetting process” and a “long process of validation” in part by contacting associates of Latifa’s, and decided she was legit.
The first story about Latifa’s case ran in the Daily Mail on March 9 with extensive information about Latifa provided by Detained in Dubai. The reporter also mentioned the strange case of her older sister who made the papers in the U.K. in 2001 when she allegedly tried to escape from her father’s home in Surrey, but was caught and taken back to Dubai. No pictures or evidence from that case ever surfaced.
Helene Jaubert lived with Herve in Dubai for part of their marriage when he moved there to make small submarines for the government. But he ran afoul of authorities who accused him of embezzlement and placed him under house arrest. Jaubert had to make his own break from Dubai. He said he escaped by disguising himself as a woman, donning a burka and swimming out to a boat that rescued him and took him to India.
Jaubert wrote a book called Escape from Dubai in 2010 that included photos of him in a burka.
Helene Jaubert said it was true that Herve had to escape from Dubai but said the burka-clad swim was bogus.
“I took those pictures of him in a burka myself back in Florida,” she said. “He just wanted to sensationalize the story. Radha Stirling read the book and reached out to him back then. He did work for French intelligence but never as a spy. He was an engineer, a gadget guy.”
In years past, Herve Jaubert posted videos on YouTube featuring him as a Bond-esque secret agent set to tunes like the theme from Mission Impossible or The Prisoner and repeatedly using the phrase “Escape from Dubai.”
To complicate matters, the campaign to #FreeLatifa, as it is called all over social media, includes an elaborate website called Escape from Dubai which gives extremely detailed timelines and “proof” of Latifa’s alleged escape and recapture.
Stirling’s main organization, Detained in Dubai, calls itself the “international authority on UAE law.” Mrs. Jaubert says Stirling has “serious grudges” against the UAE which is known for masking human rights abuses behind its gleaming, modern façade, major sporting events, and alliances with, among others, Queen Elizabeth, who shares the sheikh’s passion for horses.
One of Stirling’s partners in Detained in Dubai is Shahid Bolsen, 46, an American convert to Islam who was born Shannon Morris in Boulder, Colorado. In 2015, The New York Times described Bolsen as an “Internet provocateur” and the “latest in a series of Westerners, including the American citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to turn up as propagandists for various forms of Islamist violence.”
Bolsen has also been blogging and tweeting about Latifa, mainly as a pretext to accuse her father of being “deeply unstable and unreliable.” Bolsen served seven years in prison for manslaughter in the UAE, a strange case involving the murder by chloroform of a German national, and allegations of sex for sale.
Latifa’s story is most persuasively supported by her Finnish friend Tiina Jauhiainen, 41, who appeared at a press conference arranged by Detained in Dubai in London on April 12. Herve Jaubert was also there.
Jauhiainen described Latifa as a kind, animal-loving vegan who shunned her family’s wealth. She and Jauhiainen completed about 2000 skydives together. She described their capture aboard the boat as a terrifying ordeal during which one of the special forces threatened to “shoot her brain out.” She said Latifa tried to protect her before she was dragged off.
“Latifa is probably the kindest person I know,” Jauhiainen said. “When she asked me to help her escape I didn’t hesitate. She is like my family. She is the reason I was in Dubai for the last seven years.”
Several attempts to reach Jauhiainen directly for comment, as well as through the Detained in Dubai group, were unsuccessful.
Jauhiainen, Jaubert, and the Filipino crew members were returned to the UAE, according to Detained in Dubai. They were all interrogated and threatened for more than a week and the men were beaten and tortured. They were all released on March 29 and warned that if they spoke publicly, they could be tracked down and kidnapped again.
The person who answered the phone at the United Arab Emirates Embassy in London said he could not comment on the story and repeatedly transferred calls to a “colleague” who never picked up.
This story has been updated to include comments from Herve Jaubert.