Season 1
From the Travel Journal: The Shady Place in the Sun

Where is Princess Latifah?

by DOMINIQUE FERRARI

This week, Passport traveled to the United Arab Emirates to explore the luxurious and sometimes shady world of Dubai’s man-made islands. But if the lives of Dubai’s richest island residents seem wild and mysterious, its royal family puts them to shame; one of the wildest (and ongoing) mysteries involves Sheikha Latifa, the Sheikh of Dubai’s daughter. In March of 2018, she went missing after being captured off the coast of India during a daring escape attempt. What happened to Dubai’s princess? Where is she now? And was she really in the middle of an escape, or was it all possibly part of an extortion plot she’d cooked up with a French spy and an international activist to tap into some of her father’s billions? It’s a story with espionage, disinformation, and escape via car trunks, dinghies, yachts and jet skis. This week on The Ticket, where is Princess Latifah?

 

“This could be the last video I make. 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.”

The words sound like the dialogue from a movie script. But they were spoken by Latifa al Maktoum, the daughter of Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, in a video she filmed in the winter of 2018. She made them just days before she tried to escape from the UAE — and her father’s clutches — as an insurance policy should anything go wrong with the plan she’d mapped out with her best friend, a Finnish fitness trainer named Tiina, and Herve Jaubert, a former French Navy officer and supposed spy.

She would indeed end up in a bad situation… but just how bad, nobody knows. There are those who say she is being drugged and held prisoner by her father. There are those who say she’s dead. But there are also those who say she was never trying to escape from her father in the first place, but instead to extort him.

In a world full of disinformation campaigns, faked pictures, bogus social media posts, and the rise of authoritarianism and conspiracy theories, the truth can be hard to find. But in a place like Dubai — a city that has fashioned itself as the crossroads between the Middle East and the West, the past and the future, and which has become one of the world’s hotspots for international spies and espionage — finding the truth can sometimes feel impossible to find.

Where is Princess Latifa?

Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum II was born on December 5th, 1985. That “II” after her name is because two of her sisters are also named Latifah. In fact, Latifa II is one of 30 children fathered by the Sheikh between 6 wives. It’s easy to see how a kid in those circumstances might feel a little lost in the shuffle and make an effort to stand out. And on that front, Latifa certainly did.

In many ways, she was far from the picture of the dutiful daughter or princess-in-waiting. A well-known adrenaline junkie, she was an avid skydiver who had undertaken something like 2,000 jumps. She was a lover of all things Western — style, fashion, music, and friends. And she was a woman who had bucked the expectation at every turn to marry the politically or economically expedient men her family had chosen for her.

But in other ways, she was every bit the image of royalty. Someone who had grown up in the lap of a kind of luxury few can even imagine, she had access to not one, but two of the worlds biggest and most expensive yachts, a collection of extravagant homes, and a fleet of sports cars (cars she would, of course, never be allowed to drive). In fact, she had never even ridden in the front seat of a car — until February 24, 2018. That’s the day she hopped out of the trunk of her best friend, a beautiful blonde Finn named Tiina, and into the front passenger seat during her escape. She was so taken with the novelty of the view in the moment that she snapped a selfie, Tiina would later recall. It would be one of her last.

Latifa’s escape attempt in 2018 wasn’t her first. In 2002, when she was just 16 years old, she’d tried to escape the UAE by driving across the border to Oman. But the plan had been haphazard and she’d been captured at the border and returned to the custody of her father, Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. After her forced return, according to the video she left behind before her 2018 escape attempt — she’d been imprisoned and tortured for 3 1/2 years. In the video, she details being drugged, beaten, and left in solitary confinement for undetermined stretches of time by her father and her brothers until she relented to their control. Eventually, she did. Perhaps she saw the futility of fighting. After all, she’d already seen how things had played out for her older sister Shamsa.

In 2000 her older sister, 19-year-old Shamsa, had gone on a trip to visit friends in London but had failed to return home. She hid out for several weeks with friends — until she was found by her father’s men and kidnapped off the streets of London in full view. According to a letter smuggled out by Shamsa after her capture, it went down like this:

“I was caught on the 19th August, in Cambridge. He sent four Arab men to catch me, they were carrying guns and threatening me, they drove me to my father’s place in Newmarket, there they gave me two injections and a handful of tablets, the very next morning a helicopter came and flew me to the plane, which took me back to Dubai. I am locked up until today.”

She has never been seen in public since. For 20 years, Shamsa’s situation and condition have remained a mystery. But according to Latifa’s bombshell tape, Shamsa has been drugged and held captive all this time.

Latifa had no intention of ending up like Shamsa and after her release from confinement around 2006, she seemed to return back to “normal” life. Of course, “normal” for Latifa really meant larger-than-life. On the outside, she was an “adventure princess,” but inside, Latifa was tormented by the lack of control and freedom she had over her own life. In 2010, she met Tiina and as the two grew closer, she confided in her about there situation as well as what had happened to her sister. Then, for seven years, she and Tiina planned her escape. But to escape this time, they knew they needed help. That’s when Latifa reached out to Herve Jaubert. A former French Navy officer and one-time spy, it’s no mystery why Latifa had chosen him to reach out to: he’d once had to escape Dubai himself. After becoming embroiled in a business venture gone wrong in the UAE, Jaubert had been accused of embezzlement and imprisoned. But he’d managed to escape by disguising himself as a woman. He’d worn a burka over scuba gear and then swum from the coast of Dubai to an escape boat.

He’d written an account of his wild escape and that’s how Latifa had found him. By then living in Florida, at first Jaubert believed that Latifa’s email was a trap meant to lure him back to Dubai. But eventually, he became convinced it was real and agreed to help her escape along with the help of Tiina.

Initially the trio had hatched a plan similar to Jaubert’s — it required the women to swim from the coast of Dubai out to a boat. But when they realized the distances involved were too great, they found a new plan — and it was right out of James Bond movie. First, they would secure a car with a secret compartment in the trunk. Tiina would drive it across the border of Oman with Latifa hiding in the trunk. Once across the border, they would make their way to a small dinghy in Muscat, Oman and head out to sea. Then, they would rendezvous with a French martial arts instructor waiting with a set of jet skis and make their way out even further into international waters where a proper boat, the US-registered yacht Nostromo, would be waiting with spymaster Jaubert aboard. From there, they would sail to the popular Indian tourist destination, Goa and seek asylum.

And it worked. The women successfully made it onto the Nostromo and the team made their way towards Goa. Once at sea, Latifa made contact with a woman from the activist group Detained in Dubai and asked for her assistance with asylum. Everything seemed to be lining up. But then Latifa made a crucial error. She made a post on social media announcing her escape and the reasons why she’d done it. Perhaps she’d been overcome with emotion. Perhaps she hoped that her announcement would bring international attention to her plight and make it harder for her father to capture her again. But either way, it was a miscalculation. At 11pm on March 4th — after 8 days at sea — and within sight of Goa, a joint Indian and UAE commando force struck the Nostromo. They beat Jaubert, subdued Tiina and then drug Latifa off in the dark of the night as she screamed for them to kill her there rather than take her back to Dubai. That was the last image Tiina has of her friend.

Latifa’s capture was cited in the UK’s recent, much publicized decision this year to allow Princess Haya, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s estranged wife, to remain in the country with their two young children. She told the courts she feared for her life and the lives of her children based on what had happened to Shamsa and Latifa — and the courts agreed.

There is a growing consensus internationally that Latifa was indeed abducted against her will and is being held against it now. But someone has spoken out this year and cast doubt on the entire story: Jaubert’s ex-wife. Just this year, Helene Jaubert, who was married to Herve for 18 years, released a statement that Jaubert and Latifa had been planning an extortion plot, disguised as an escape, for years. She claims that Jaubert agreed to help Latifa escape and then, once she was safe, they would blackmail her father for $3 million dollars, under the threat that she’d go to the international media.

Helene’s accusation certainly thickens the plot — but it doesn’t quite hold water. If Latifa and Jaubert’s plan had been extortion, Latifa’s social media post would have clearly torpedoed any chance of using privacy as a bargaining chip. And what’s more, Tiina’s account completely backs up the official story. She maintains that Latifa was a peaceful, vegan, woman simply looking for basic freedom only to have it violently snatched from her. And Tiina had been willing to risk life and limb for her best friend to help her get it. Today, she is part of the campaign called Free Latifa.

So where is Princess Latifa now? Nobody knows. Since her capture, she has only been seen once — in a strange series of grainy photos taken of her and the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, who was visiting the royal palace in Dubai. But there is new international attention on her plight — especially as the case of Princess Haya made its way through British courts. And just two weeks ago, Sheikha Zeynab Javadli — a former Azerbaijani gymnast and World and European Championship medalist and the wife of the Sheikh of Dubai’s nephew, Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum — posted a series of videos online making the same claim’s as Haya: that she is being held against her will and that they are threatening to steal her children from her.  

What will happen to the royal women of Dubai? Perhaps as more speak out, there will be pressure on Dubai — a city that has painted itself as a safe, Western-friendly oasis — to live up to the image it markets to the. world. But as focus begins to fade — especially against the backdrop of a global pandemic and unrest — there is the fear that Latifa may end up just like Shamsa. We certainly hope not.

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.