x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The spy who came in from the sea

Herve Jaubert's account of his escape from Dubai is full of drama and intrigue - but to UAE officials he is a swindler.

Hervé Jaubert in his scuba equipment.
Hervé Jaubert in his scuba equipment.

If Hervé Jaubert is to be believed, the one thing he learnt well during 15 years spying for France's intelligence service was how to disappear. So in May 2008, facing accusations in Dubai of fraud and embezzlement worth Dh14 million (US$3.8m), this country's most wanted Frenchman appears to have done just that. He vanished.

He tells a tale befitting a spy thriller, much of it difficult to confirm as fact, but no less fantastic for a man convicted in absentia for embezzlement, and named in a separate case in France. It was on a Friday morning during dhuhr prayers, under a scorching sun in Fujairah, that the former submarine builder for Dubai World claims he boarded a rubber dinghy. He charted a six-hour route to a French accomplice on a waiting sailboat, and then fled to India.

For the nearest patrol craft, 5km away, giving chase would have been impossible, according to Jaubert - even if his dinghy had been sighted. A master scuba diver, he said he had swum underwater for more than an hour to disable the fuel line to the boat previous night. In the days before he executed the plan, he claims, he scoped the country's borders using Google Maps for a perfect escape route, then surveyed the area on the ground. To elude the authorities, he said, he used aliases to book hotels and even to buy a sail boat. He disguised himself as a bespectacled tourist, a bearded Emirati man in a dishdasha and even, he says, as a local woman by wearing a padded abaya misted with Arabic perfume.

"When you wear an abaya, you become a ghost. Nobody talks to you. Nobody looks at you. Not even a police officer would talk to you." Jaubert is not shy about the fact he is trying to profit from this story. His book, Escape from Dubai, will be released in October. But to UAE authorities, he is nothing more than a swindler. On April 15, Jaubert was tried in absentia and convicted of illegally acquiring Dh14.12m by abusing his position with Exomos, a subsidiary of Dubai World, according to court records. He was sentenced to five years in prison but denies the charges against him.

He also denies being the Hervé Jaubert who, according to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation report, was sentenced to two years in prison in France for a 1994 plot to intimidate a company official over a water supply deal. "I know the story but it's a business story; it's my name so it sounds like me but I was not an army captain. I had nothing to do with these people, it's a fabricated story. I can e-mail you a certificate from the French ministry of justice showing that I have no criminal record."

In the UAE case, two witnesses, an Egyptian and an American, both directly linked to the investigation, testified in writing against Jaubert.  The first, a financial investor, told the court: "Jaubert used Exomos bank accounts to pay off lawyers in the United States. In addition, he expensed Exomos shipping his car and his wife's car."  The witness added that Jaubert used Exomos bank accounts, "to purchase items from his company in the US, Seahorse Submarines, many of which did not arrive at all".

The total was worth Dh11.86m according to the witness.  Court records also show Jaubert charged Exomos Dh1.8m for two submarines "which were never delivered". The witness claims Jaubert gave himself a commission exceeding Dh2m.  The second witness, an American, said: "Two submarines were purchased from him. The first, Discovery, was purchased for Dh1,100,000. The second, Sting Ray, was purchased for Dh220,000 ... The submarines arrived with two cars belonging to him and his wife. The submarines were not functional underwater." 

Jaubert claims his fellow employees were "coerced" to testify against him or face dismissal. Originally hired in 2004 by Sultan bin Sulayem, the chairman of Dubai World, Jaubert was expected to build recreational submarines as the chief executive of Exomos Submarines. The plan was for his luxury underwater craft to serve as a niche product for marine tourism.

On a salary of about US$13,000 a month, Jaubert lived at the Garden View Villas in Jebel Ali, drove Hummers and a red Lamborghini shipped from Florida and cruised around in high-speed boats. "The way [the job] was presented to me was basically I would have unlimited funds," he said. "I could build the factory I wanted and develop the models I wanted. To me, it was the opportunity of a lifetime." Among his claimed achievements was the Nautilus, a 45ft vessel capable of carrying nine passengers and designed to look like the fictional submarine in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

"It was a remarkable vessel. A beautiful submarine. It looked like an antique. Because of the nature of how it looks, I scheduled international media coverage. You can imagine a submarine like that in the Palm Jumeirah; that picture would have circled the globe and would have brought a lot of exposure to the company and on its creator." Days before the planned September 2007 launch, however, he was fired. Jaubert believes this was a successful attempt to block his "working design" from ever being publicly shown to function.

He claims the submarine still exists, but is languishing in the open air with no maintenance. Like a good spy, his defence is to call the facts in question: he says Dubai World's auditors, who questioned him about faulty or missing equipment, were unqualified to assess what parts were missing or not. "If I have an autopilot submarine system, do you know what it looks like? No. Same with them. They labelled it as missing but they did not know what it was," he said.

Dubai World auditors questioned him for two years, he said. His passport was confiscated and Jaubert estimates he was interrogated at least 20 times for hours on end by auditors, a prosecutor and police. He alleged in press reports that he was threatened with physical abuse. He was ordered to repay the Dh14m. "I knew I was facing life imprisonment," Mr Jaubert said. "They had my passport and I lost my job. When you don't have your passport, you cannot survive in Dubai ... so I prepared my escape."

Obtaining a bogus passport or a new one from the French consulate was out of the question due to travel bans that he knew would be flagging his name. Quitting the country without an entry stamp would pose a problem, as would going through Saudi Arabia. "That would just make your situation worse," he said. "In the end, I'm a sailor, I'm a navy officer, so to me the ocean was a natural way out." With his claimed background in espionage serving with French intelligence until 1993 - though it is rare for a spy, and often even an ex-spy, to admit that he is one - he claims he already had the abilities to concoct an elaborate escape.

"Military training, combat, skydiving, shooting, explosives, electronics, surveillance, there are so many things," he said, reciting his claimed skills. "Manipulation, psychology," he added. Jaubert enlisted a friend from France, also said to be a former agent for France's Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, to help map his getaway to a 35ft sailing boat positioned in international waters and crewed by his co-conspirator. They sailed for eight days, finally landing in Mumbai. According to Jaubert, he travelled from there back to Florida to be reunited with his wife and two sons, whom he had sent home beforehand.

"I had a formidable feeling of freedom," he said. "I may be a former military man and skydiver and all the commodore stuff, but for [the criminal charges] I lived in fear every single day. Once I found myself on a dinghy in the water, then it was my element." Now in the US, Jaubert, who is not an American citizen, but said he holds a green card for permanent residency, feels confident he has evaded the authorities in the UAE: "If they want to extradite me from the US, it's going to take some legwork."

His new book, he hopes, will also help exonerate him around the world. If nothing else, however, it is likely to make him some extra cash. mkwong@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Marten Youssef