TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Her friends say the last they saw of her was when commandos intercepted their sailboat in the Arabian Sea and dragged her away, kicking and screaming. A daughter of Dubai’s ruler, she had been trying to escape her homeland, saying she was being abused.
Since then, the whereabouts of Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum are unknown, though she was likely brought back to the United Arab Emirates after the commando raid last month, said Herve Jaubert, a French ex-spy who told The Associated Press that he helped organize her escape attempt.
Dubai’s government and Emirati officials did not respond to AP requests for comment.
“I know it sounds incredible,” Jaubert told the AP, but “it’s just the facts.”
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The allegations of a dramatic would-be sea escape intrude into the carefully controlled image maintained by the family of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who not only rules Dubai but is the Emirates’ prime minister and vice president. He is believed to have several dozen children from multiple wives. Some of his sons and daughters figure prominently in local media and online, but others are rarely seen.
Sheikh Mohammed has multiple daughters named Latifa. In recent weeks, one of those Latifas has suddenly appeared frequently in media. The appearances could be an attempt to muddy the picture as local media now make no mention of the Latifa who allegedly tried to leave.
Matters have since grown only murkier. A London-based for-hire advocacy group long critical of the UAE, called Detained in Dubai, has been promoting the case and says it has targeted by threats.
All this takes place against the backdrop of a Gulf-wide misinformation war linked to a diplomatic dispute between typically clubby Arab nations and Qatar. The UAE and its allies Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt have boycotted Qatar since June. Each side has spread critical — or false — reports about the other; millions of dollars have been spent by all involved on public relations campaigns and lobbyists.
That, coupled with Jaubert’s own flair for the dramatic, makes discerning what happened that much more complicated.
Jaubert himself fled the UAE years earlier because of a financial dispute in a cloak-and-dagger escape that he said involved disguising himself as a woman and scuba diving to escape to international waters.
“It’s Herve, that’s the problem. He tells you what he wants to tell you to get you to do what he wants you to do,” said Kathryn Heathcock, a lawyer based in Stuart, Florida, who had Jaubert as a client. “That’s your training when you’re an agent. That’s what they do.”
Jaubert, a former agent of the French DGSE spy agency, first came to the UAE in 2004 as part of a plan to build submarines for the wealthy in a project by Dubai World, a government-owned conglomerate. It was one of a number of luxury projects during a period of feverish development in Dubai.
Dubai World collapsed in the emirates’ 2009 financial crisis, which saw a number of foreigners flee unpaid debts in a nation where debtors face prison time.
Facing financial problems and what he described as threats from authorities, Jaubert said he escaped by wearing a woman’s all-enveloping burqa over scuba gear to reach a raft, then met a waiting sailboat in international waters.
The 2010 book he wrote, “Escape from Dubai,” prompted Sheikha Latifa to contact him, he said.
“She said who she was and I was extremely careful,” Jaubert said. “I was looking for a trap.” He said he confirmed her identity through “surveillance,” without elaborating.
It took eight years for Sheikha Latifa to decide to flee, he said.
Both Jaubert and the sheikha made calls and sent emails at the start of March, seeking political asylum for her in the U.S., said Heathcock, an immigration lawyer. Another Florida lawyer, Linda Braswell, also said she was aware of Jaubert’s efforts on the sheikha’s behalf.
Sheikha Latifa, who is in her early 30s, appears in a 40-minute video in which she says she’s making the testimony just before the escape attempt to be released in case it fails.
In it, she says that on orders of her father she was imprisoned off and on for several years and abused after trying to leave the Emirates. She says that she was later released but kept under heavy restrictions on her movement.
She gave Jaubert and lawyers the video, as well as pictures of an Emirati passport and an Emirati ID card identifying her as a member of the Dubai ruling family. Detained in Dubai later received the video to release if the escape went wrong.
In the video, Sheikha Latifa talks of her skydiving hobby. Kristen Cotten, a 33-year-old skydive instructor and friend of Sheikha Latifa, told the AP the woman in the video and the identification documents is indeed her friend.
“I think a lot of people think it’s fake just because it sounds so crazy,” said Cotten, who was an instructor in Dubai between 2012 and 2016 and now lives in Minnesota.
“If I hadn’t worked with her and known her and seen her every day I’d probably feel the same way. But that’s the same girl I saw every day at the drop zone.”
Sheikha Latifa also was shown and identified in pictures from 2016 and 2017 on an Instagram account connected to her skydiving club. Past articles in state-linked media also confirm she is a daughter of the ruler.
Aided by friend Tiina Jauhiainen, the sheikha made it into neighboring Oman and then took a small boat out to meet Jaubert and his crew aboard his U.S.-flagged sailboat, the Nostromo, the former spy said.
The Nostromo sailed for the Indian coast, but three Indian and two Emirati warships intercepted it on March 4, Jaubert said. A team of commandos boarded the boat in the Arabian Sea some 380 kilometers (235 miles) southwest of Mumbai, according to Jaubert and Detained in Dubai.
Jaubert said the Indian commandos beat him and his crew.
“If you do anything, they are going to vaporize you,” he said.
Indian officials told the AP they had no information about the incident Jaubert described.
Jauhiainen, speaking at a news conference Thursday in London, said Sheikha Latifa kept repeating during the raid: “I am seeking political asylum.”
“At that time I was told to keep my eyes shut, with a threat to be shot if I didn’t comply,” she said. “Then I heard someone speaking Arabic and Latifa said: ‘Shoot me here, just don’t take me back to the UAE.'”
“She was taken away kicking and screaming.”
The Emirati forces took the Nostromo back to a naval base in Fujairah, one of the UAE’s seven emirates, Jaubert said.
The Nostromo’s Maritime Mobile Service Identity number, a nine-digit code broadcast by radio that identifies a ship at sea, showed the vessel in Fujairah on March 20, said Georgios Hatzimanolis, a spokesman for the ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.com.
Detained in Dubai released Sheikha Latifa’s video and began a social media campaign calling for their release. Jaubert credited that for leading the Emiratis, who fed and treated him well but refused him access to a lawyer or consular official, to release him and Jauhiainen.
Both say they last saw Latifa being forced off the Nostromo onto one of the warships. But it remains unclear what has happened to her since. Messages sent by the AP to emails and telephone numbers associated with her have gone unanswered.