With scuba gear under a burka, French spy Herve Jaubert made his escape from Dubai
On a quiet spring morning, when the Arab villagers were at Friday prayers, Herve Jaubert dragged his rubber dinghy down an empty beach, started the engine, and chugged away to freedom.
As befits a former French naval officer and spy, he had made immaculate preparations for his escape from the United Arab Emirates.
The night before, he claims he had donned wetsuit and scuba diving gear, which had smuggled to him from France in pieces. He dressed himself in women’s clothes, and covered himself with a black abaya, the all-enveloping burka-like robe worn to preserve modesty in the Gulf.
Not a small man, he shuffled awkwardly out of the hotel where he was staying under an assumed name, made his way to the seafront and slipped in.
From there, he swam underwater to the nearby coastguard station, on a remote outpost of the emirate of Fujairah, where he cut the fuel lines on a police patrol boat. He knew it was the only one in the area, and the coast would now be clear.
On his dinghy the next day, it took six hours to reach his destination: a sailing boat, crewed by a fellow former French spy, that was waiting just outside UAE territorial waters.
He clambered aboard, turned the prow towards India, and for the first time since he alleges the Dubai secret police had threatened to insert needles up his nose a year before, felt the fear in his stomach dissipate. He was free.
This, at least, is the remarkable escape story that Mr Jaubert has begun to tell from the safety of his new home in Florida. It will form the centrepiece of a book he is publishing this autumn.
To the Emirati authorities, on the other hand, he is a liar and convicted fraudster.
The publication of his book, Escape from Dubai, is set to be another of the battlegrounds on which the emirate is trying to restore its reputation as a place to do business in the face of the financial crisis.
Although many other foreign businessmen have fallen foul of the Dubai authorities since the first cracks began to appear in its property-led investment boom, none was involved in anything quite as eccentric as the construction of miniature luxury submarines.
That was Mr Jaubert’s business, and his involvement with Dubai began when a man called Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem visited the company he had set up in Florida to serve a speciality tourist market three years after leaving the French secret service, DGSE, in 1993.
Mr bin Sulayem suggested Mr Jaubert might move his work to the Gulf. In the balmy waters off Dubai, filling as it was with luxurious hotels and offshore villa developments in the shape of palm trees or the countries of the world, mini-submarines would be yet another attraction.
It was too good an opportunity to miss. Even when Mr Jaubert arrived, along with his Lamborghini, and found he would not be running his own firm, he was not overly alarmed. He was put in charge of a newly formed subsidiary of the company Mr bin Sulayem chaired, Dubai World, which was also responsible for the emirate’s signature palm-shaped developments.
For a while, life was good. Everything was laid on to the highest quality, he says. The factory built by Dubai World was excellent, finished to the highest standards.
“You could have built an F16 fighter jet there,” Mr Jaubert said.
He lived with his American wife and two children in a villa with private swimming pool.
At weekends, he would speed up the desert highways in his Lamborghini, or take to the sand dunes in one of his two Hummers.
After a couple of years, the boats started coming off the production lines.
Four mini-submarines, a submersible yacht, and, finally, his pride and joy, a larger vessel he called the Nautilus, after the submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which could carry nine people.
It is from here that accounts begin to differ.
According to a case brought against Mr Jaubert after he fled the country, and which led to his being convicted in his absence and given a jail term of five years this summer, at least two of his submarines did not work.
Auditors investigating the company accounts found gaps, the court was told.
Equipment that Mr Jaubert had ordered from his own company in Florida failed to arrive, or parts were faulty.
All told, he is alleged to have short-changed Dubai World by 14 million dirhams – just over £2 million.
Mr Jaubert claims Dubai World had run into cash flow difficulties, and had come across a central problem with its submarine business plan.
Running them â ” particularly the insurance costs â ” was expensive, and it was not clear who the customers were likely to be. He claims Dubai World wanted to pull out of the venture but first wanted someone to blame.
From 2007, Mr Jaubert underwent lengthy questioning at the hands of both the authorities – the state security or secret police, he says – and Dubai World’s auditors.
It was the police, he said, who threatened to “insert needles into your nose again and again”.
Mr Jaubert has a recording that he said he made on his mobile phone.
“Do you know how painful it is to have needles put inside your nose repeatedly and then twisted around?” the interrogator said. “Do you think you can resist this kind of pain?”
Mr Jaubert made a promise to the auditors to pay back the 14 million dirham, a fact which was to form a central plank of the prosecution case against him. He said he did so only to win himself time.
He was forced to hand in his passport to prevent him leaving the country. After doing so, he made the decision to send his family back to America.
Once they had safely left, Mr Jaubert reverted to his training as a spy to go “underground”, living under assumed identities in a series of Dubai hotels until he was able to escape.
Dubai World is dismissive of Mr Jaubert’s allegations, saying that he is now a convicted fraudster whose stories should not be taken seriously.
A spokesman said: “As with any large enterprise anywhere, from time to time financial wrongdoing is uncovered.
“We take the necessary legal steps when that happens and hand the matter to the police.
“After due and proper legal process, the court found Herve Jaubert guilty of embezzlement and he has been sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to repay 14â million dirham. This is entirely appropriate.” But the organisation is also fighting for its own reputation. Of all Dubai’s numerous government-linked companies, Dubai World is the most closely associated with its rise to glitzy pre-eminence in recent years, and the most closely associated with the debts that have followed.
The property subsidiary that built the Palm islands and the World has to repay a $3.5 billion (£2.1 billion) bond by December, and has not yet said how it is going to do so.
With work on many of its high-profile developments, including the World, slowed or stopped, it is not clear where, other than a government bail-out, the money is going to come from.
A company statement on the Nasdaq Dubai stock exchange website gives Dubai World’s total debts as $59 billion (£35.7 billion).
But it also says that the company’s assets are greater than its liabilities.
As for Mr Jaubert, he is now back in Florida. Although some may see his own greed and ambition as the authors of his misfortune, he denies that he put common sense aside in order to live the good life.
“I am a down-to-earth entrepreneur, and I didn’t do the Dubai glitz and glamour,” he said. “I had my Lamborghini, but I didn’t use it to show off like other people in Dubai. It is 15 years old anyway.”
He says that, of course, knowing he will now never go back. Eight days after leaving the beach in May last year, his small boat finally dropped anchor in Mumbai, more than 1,000 miles to the south-east.
“For a year in Dubai, when I had the authorities after me, when I was going to the police and prosecutors, I lived with fear,” he said.
“I may be a sky diver, a former navy officer, but I had fear in my stomach every day.
“You don’t know how relieved I felt when I reached international waters.”