'She had no freedom': How a Finnish fitness instructor tried to help a Dubai princess escape

Tiina Jauhiainen, a Finnish national and former fitness instructor, spoke to CBC News and Reuters about she become embroiled in a saga involving a Dubai princess that took her to the Philippines, the Arabian Sea, and a British courtroom.

Tiina Jauhiainen was found credible by judge ruling on messy saga of Emirati ruler's kids, ex-wife

Tiina Jauhiainen speaks of  friendship with Dubai ruler's daughter and high risk attempt to escape

2 years ago
Duration 3:20
'I remember the day very well where she asked me to help her,' says Jauhiainen of Sheikha Latifa's request. 3:20

Three years ago, in secluded corners of a sprawling mall in Dubai, Sheikha Latifa, the daughter of the emirate's ruler, plotted with a close friend to escape her father's clutches.

The eventual plan was like a plot from a movie: Latifa disguised her appearance as the pair fled Dubai by car to the coast, took a dinghy and rode jet skis to a waiting boat which was to take the princess and her companion to freedom.

The escape attempt that began on Feb. 24, 2018 was carefully arranged over a six-month period by Tiina Jauhiainen. She met Latifa in 2010 while teaching her capoeira, a martial art, in Dubai.

"Latifa asked me if I would help her to leave Dubai, to escape basically," Jauhiainen told CBC News this week.

"Over the years, nothing had changed," Jauhiainen added. "She had no freedom. She had lost a good friend in a skydiving accident also, which made her think that, you know, life is precious."

The escape attempt is among a number of damning allegations and incidents in a case that has attracted international attention. 

In a judgment published on Thursday, a British judge ruled that the Emirati ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum had abducted Latifa — just as he had her elder sister Shamsa from England almost two decades earlier — and subjected her to inhumane treatment.

Latifa snapped a selfie as the two women drove into Oman as part of their daring escape plan. (Free Latifa/Facebook)

The court also ruled the sheikh orchestrated a campaign of intimidation against Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, believed to be his sixth wife.

Haya, the half-sister of Jordan's King Abdullah, fled to London on April 15 last year with the children, Jalila, 12, and Zayed, 8, fearing for her safety amid suspicions that she had had an affair with one of her British bodyguards.

For the past two years, Jauhianen has made it her mission to try to bring international attention to Latifa's plight. She submitted a 20-page testimonial to the British court which heard Princess Haya's case.

Jauhiainen told CBC News that on the day of their escape, they met at a cafe in Dubai, where Latifa changed her clothes, ditched her phone and hopped in a car as a passenger as Jauhiainen drove to Oman.  

They snapped a selfie at the start of their journey, as it was the first time Latifa had been able to sit in the front seat and they wanted to document the moment. 

'It was very, very scary'

After arriving in Oman, Jauhiainen said they got into a dingy, which took them to a pair of Jet Ski, and finally to a boat which they boarded to try and cross the Arabian Sea to India.  

But on their eighth day aboard, their cabins started filling with smoke from what Jauhiainen assumes was a grenade.

Latifa began to gradually open up to Jauhiainen, the Finnish national says, and soon confided her desire to escape an oppressive situation. (Free Latifa/Facebook)

When they climbed the stairs toward the deck of the boat, Jauhiainen said, they were met by "commandos" brandishing machine guns.  

"These men were basically threatening to kill us," she said. "One of them told me that he was going to shoot my brains out. It was very, very scary."

Jauhiainen remembers she was pleading with the soldiers to let her go, saying Latifa wanted to be granted political asylum.

But Latifa was put face down on the deck with her hands tied, and ultimately dragged away.

That was the last time Jauhiainen saw her friend, who she believes was flown back to the Emirates. 

As for Jauhiainen​​​​​​​, she was taken back by boat, and held in a national security prison for three weeks, threatened with indefinite detention, and then released.  

Jauhiainen gave a witness statement as part of the recent British case and briefly appeared in court in London to confirm it was true.

"In making an overall assessment of the evidence relating to Latifa, I regard the evidence of Tiina Jauhiainen as being of singular importance," the judge, Andrew McFarlane, said in his ruling, which described the Finnish national as a "wholly impressive individual."

Hoping for 'light at the end of the tunnel'

Jauhiainen describes Latifa as quiet and private. It was years before Latifa confided in her, revealing she had tried to escape Dubai in 2002 when she was a teenager and that she had subsequently spent three-and-a-half years effectively imprisoned.

Reuters and CBC News are not able independently to confirm Jauhiainen's version of events, which she has recounted to media before.

"It was only around 2016 when she started telling me about her sister Shamsa and her escape and her own imprisonment," said Jauhiainen.

In the summer of 2017, Latifa, who told Jauhiainen that she had not been allowed to leave Dubai since 2000 and had no passport, asked Jauhiainen for help in trying to leave her homeland again.

Jauhiainen went to the Philippines to meet former French naval officer and spy Herve Jaubert and the three of them began plotting the escape. For the two women, that meant clandestine discussions in the glitzy Dubai Mall, one of the world's largest shopping centres.

"We would find a corner, we would switch off our mobile phones. So we were taking all the precautions," Jauhiainen told Reuters, adding that Latifa would regularly change her email address to avoid detection.

"It was a bit scary so we didn't want anyone to overhear the conversations or follow us or anything like that."

Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein is shown with her lawyer, Baroness Fiona Shackleton, at London's High Court on Feb. 28. Haya's custody case with her estranged husband also shone light on two of the sheikh's daughters. (Pete Summers/Getty Images)

Jaubert told Reuters that he planned the escape with Latifa and subsequently asked Jauhiainen to meet him in the Philippines on six or seven occasions to train her.

Two weeks before the attempted escape, Latifa made a 45-minute video recording in Jauhiainen's apartment which she passed to supporters outside Dubai in case she failed to get away. That video, in which Latifa launched an excoriating attack on her father, was made public after it went to U.K.-based campaign group Detained in Dubai and was posted on YouTube.

Jaubert said he captained the vessel and witnessed the raid by Indian commandos. Raveesh Kumar, a spokesperson for India's foreign ministry, did not respond to Reuters for a request for comment on India's alleged role in the operation.

As for Haya, McFarlane said in his ruling the sheik had divorced her on the 20th anniversary of the death of her father King Hussein of Jordan, timing she said was deliberate.

The judge's conclusions were made in December but could only be reported after restrictions were lifted after the U.K. Supreme Court earlier rejected Mohammed's request for permission to appeal against their publication.

Tiina Jauhiainen longs to see her one-time friend, Sheikha Latifa of Dubai, freed and hopes the international attention on her plight will help her gain her freedom. (Lily Martin/CBC)

After the ruling became public, Mohammed said it only represented "one side of the story."

Haya is now living with their children in the couple's luxury mansion near Kensington Palace in west London.

Jauhiainen​​​​​​​, who is no longer a fitness instructor, is looking to get into human rights work after this ordeal. She hopes that through the attention the case has attracted, that Latifa can be finally freed from her family in Dubai.  

"If I could speak to her now, I would tell her, don`t give up,there is light at the end of the tunnel," she said.  

"The whole world knows now what happened, and hopefully we will be able to get her out soon." 

With files from Briar Stewart, CBC News