Nothing is ever quite what it seems to be when it comes to Dubai, a very sunny place full of very shady characters in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This shiny modern metropolis, built at fabulous expense, is a magnet for the world’s intelligence agents, dodgy businessmen and rich people who enjoy eating the $14 oysters flown in from France at Atmosphere, the highest restaurant in the world, a quarter of a mile up the stupendous 828-meter-high Burj Khalifa tower.
In this Arabian Gotham-on-sand, ruled over with an iron fist by the staggeringly wealthy Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, there are enough dramas, and plots within plots, to keep the most demanding Hollywood producer busy for years.
Few of these dramas, however, come close to matching the three-year saga involving Princess Latifa, a daughter of Dubai’s ruler and therefore a member of one of the world’s most powerful royal families.
“I wanted to preserve that evidence and share it with a variety of people, lawyers and journalists, to ensure I wasn’t the only one with a copy in case I disappeared.”
Those were the thoughts of Radha Stirling, a crisis manager and Middle Eastern policy advisor (and a fierce critic of Dubai’s ruling family), on March 5, 2018, after watching a video recorded by Princess Latifa, then aged 32.
The drama had begun the day before when Stirling received a phone call from Latifa, who was on board a yacht in the Indian Ocean, having carried out an audacious attempt to flee what she called the repressive control of her father.
Her bid for freedom, however, went badly wrong: Eight days into her journey, the boat was caught by commandos sent by her father in a joint UAE-Indian military raid, who forcibly removed Latifa and returned her to Dubai.
As the dramatic smash-and-grab at sea was being carried out, a terrified Latifa phoned Stirling in London, who had been due to help her with her desire to get asylum in America.
Recalling that fateful day in an interview with RT.com, Stirling explains: “I was waiting by the phone, so if anything happened I could swing into action immediately.
“She said, ‘There are men on board, I can hear gunshots’. I said hang up and quickly record as much as you can and send it to me as evidence.
“But at that point they blocked out all communications from the yacht and she was unable to get it through to me. I didn’t hear from her again.”
The commandos captured everyone on board before returning them to Dubai. The yacht’s captain, Herve Jaubert, a former French intelligence agent, was badly beaten and left in a pool of his own blood. “When Jaubert arrived in the UAE, he was told he would be cut up into little pieces and scattered in the desert,” Stirling tells me.
Her father got his daughter (one of his 25 children) back and later said that he considered this a “rescue mission”. But what he did not know was that Latifa had left a backup plan that Stirling was to enact on her behalf: the now infamous video of the princess labeling her father a murderer – “he is pure evil” – and describing her torment.
Since that day, there have been further twists and turns no scriptwriter could ever dream up.
After long months of complete silence about Latifa’s fate, former Irish president Mary Robinson was photographed having lunch with her in Dubai late in 2018, and described her as a “troubled” and “vulnerable” young woman who regretted planning her escape. Robinson said that while the princess was a “very likeable young woman,” she needed the medical care she was receiving.
Then in February this year, the plot thickened again: The BBC broadcast videos secretly recorded by Princess Latifa in which she described her capture and imprisonment after her return to Dubai. She said she was being held alone without access to medical or legal help in a villa with windows and doors barred shut, guarded by police.
Mrs. Robinson told the programme she regretted what she had said back in 2018, and felt she had been “duped”.
Now, to add to the intrigue, over the last few weeks a series of photos have emerged showing a smiling Latifa with a friend called Sioned Taylor, including ones of them in a Dubai shopping mall and at Madrid airport, and another with a cousin of Latifa’s in Iceland.
Law firm Taylor Wessing also released a statement claiming to be from her, saying she wanted to live in peace without media scrutiny.
Stirling, who has not heard from Latifa since 2018, finds this all more than a little odd, and isn’t buying the line that all is now well.
“From the testimony she’s previously given it wouldn’t seem congruent that she’s suddenly OK,” she says. “Every time she’s had access to a telephone or private communication, she has expressed that she has continued to be oppressed, locked up or denied her freedom.
“There is still obviously concern while she’s not speaking for herself. The UAE government’s perspective is that a prominent celebrity or famous person is going to communicate to the press via their lawyers, and they have no obligation to present Latifa to the media, but then that leaves the rest of the world wondering – is she doing this voluntarily or under duress?”
Stirling believes Sheikh Mohammed has put in place a sophisticated media propaganda plan to control the narrative of the affair, and assure the world that all is fine now. If so, it’s working. This week, after the release of the Iceland picture, the Free Latifa campaign group – which Stirling and Jaubert broke with years ago – announced it was shutting down.
Jaubert, the former French intelligence officer, is adamant that all this is being staged and manipulated by Dubai. “It is difficult to reconcile that the woman who planned her escape for seven years and who recently released videos speaking of the pressure Dubai had bestowed upon her to agree to their ‘propaganda’ plan, is truly free,” he says. “I hope she is. In any event, she should never have been kidnapped from a US-flagged yacht in international waters. She was abducted and forced against her will to Dubai, with the help of India. We intend to pursue justice for the victims and accountability for those who orchestrated the violent, military attack on ‘Nostromo’.“
He and Stirling say they are about to file a legal case against the UAE in American courts.
Why there? Well, any legal action in the UAE would be quickly dismissed, due to Sheikh Mohammed’s influence – while Jaubert is an American citizen and the yacht, ‘Nostromo’, is US-flagged. There are also questions over the role the FBI had in Latifa’s capture – an investigation by USA Today claims that its agents obtained and supplied data about the yacht’s location to the Dubai government after being told the princess had been kidnapped. It’s also alleged that the Indian government, in supplying its troops, also played a key role.
“All action will be launched in the United States and we will potentially look at an action in India,” Stirling tells me. “We’ve asked for comment from the US State Department, the White House and the FBI, and we’ve of course been met with silence.
“We were advised about FBI involvement back in 2018, so it’s wonderful that we now have a proper investigation that has shown their involvement, which gives us the basis and the reason to go ahead with litigation.
“It’s a precedent-setting legal action that will uncover a lot of maritime law and things that do really need to be clarified in international law.”
She says the charges to be filed will include: human trafficking, piracy, abduction, torture, unfair detention and Interpol abuse, as the UAE portrayed the incident as a kidnapping before that claim was withdrawn.
Stirling explains: “The story that was told to them [the FBI] allegedly from the UAE was that she had been kidnapped.
“But it’s difficult to reconcile that the US, with all of their security knowledge, didn’t know the truth behind the scenes. The UAE and the US have the strongest relationship of any allies in the Middle East. They need to be held to account to ensure all people and US citizens are safe to travel.”
The ‘rescue’ operation was so rapid that Stirling was the only person aware before alerting the world’s media. “The speed at which they deployed a number of military vessels to the region to recover a single princess was incredible,” she says. “There were five warships and they forcibly towed ‘Nostromo’ back to the UAE. The fact the US allowed that to happen without participating by sending any of their own military to ensure a US citizen was protected, even if they had condoned the attack, is unbelievable.”
Alongside their legal action, Stirling and Jaubert have launched a website to counter what they term is disinformation against them, including claims, made by Jaubert’s ex-wife, that the whole enterprise was designed to extract money from the Sheikh.
Stirling believes her personal safety has been compromised: “You’re going up against a foreign government, they don’t like what you have to say, so they are going to put disinformation campaigns against you.
“Last year, I was approached by what appeared to be an Israeli security company and they tried to extract information from me under the guise of being a Moroccan billionaire who wanted to assist to promote human rights in the UAE.
“It’s been a constant battle. When I get emails, I have to look at each one and work out, is this a UAE spy or a genuine client? It’s almost a war zone at times.”
Before this, Stirling had been involved in many high profile cases involving Dubai but the royal element has changed the landscape. “Although they involved prominent Emiratis on the other end of the complaint, litigation or criminal action, it wasn’t really an issue until the royals started getting involved.
“Before this, we could post on social media and share photographs. Now we’re absolutely careful about that, we always use a VPN and we’re under strict instructions for the security of myself and my staff.
“I don’t announce my location until after I’ve left and I’m not going to be travelling to any countries that I would deem risky that would perhaps extradite me extrajudicially.”
Stirling’s website is now banned in the UAE and she’s regularly attacked in the local media for “spreading lies”. She has also sent her phone details to Amnesty, following the recent NSO/Pegasus phone hacking scandal, as the UAE was outed as a prolific user of the system.
Stirling hopes the legal action will hold to account the conduct of India, US and the UAE, but she also believes it has deeper implications.
“It’s extremely concerning that an ally of the UK and the United States, India, got involved in something that was illegal,” she says. “They had absolutely no right to attack a yacht in international waters. But also the fact they haven’t been sanctioned by the United States for attacking a US-flagged yacht, that should have had the protection of the US, is extremely concerning.
“It means anyone on a yacht anywhere in the ocean can just be seized by another country. We’re giving the green light to other countries to do whatever they want without sanctioning them and even assisting them to cover up what is essentially a crime.
“It wasn’t just an Emirati princess that was abused, it was another five foreign nationals, including a US citizen and nothing was done about that. The act was just so arrogant.”
What the full truth of this murky affair is, and what eventually becomes of Latifa, is hard to judge. Will she disappear like her sister, Sheikha Shamsa, similarly kidnapped by Sheikh Mohammed back in 2000?
“Latifa has created her own legacy and that was something she communicated to me,” Stirling concludes. “That even if she didn’t make it, she would be happy at least to leave a mark on the world that things might change in the future.
“That women [in the Middle East] are going to have more freedom in the future is because her case will be known about.
“As far as my own legacy, I want to ensure things like this cannot happen, that the UAE does not feel emboldened to do whatever they want, wherever they want. We will continue to help women who are suffering, simply because they contact us and ask us to help.”
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.
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