STUART, Fla. – Former French intelligence officer Herve Jaubert believed he was essentially being held captive in Dubai when his passport was confiscated by authorities amid a dispute with his employer, a powerful government-run conglomerate. He claimed he was threatened with torture and worried each day he would be arrested.
So Jaubert disguised himself as a Muslim woman and fled the country. The accomplished diver hid scuba gear under the head-to-toe abaya. He swam out to the area's only patrol boat and cut the fuel lines. Then, he said, he launched his rubber dinghy, started the motor and piloted it six hours to meet an awaiting sailboat.
Now he's in South Florida, embroiled in a federal lawsuit over an ill-fated business venture with Dubai World Corp., which says the 2008 escape story is one of his many lies. Jaubert sued the company, claiming the failed plan to build recreational submarines for tourists and the super-wealthy cost him millions in lost business opportunities.
"I lived with fear in my stomach for more than a year. Every day when you wake up, you expect to be picked up by the police," Jaubert said.
Dubai World countersued, saying Jaubert owes them $1 million. The company said he fled to avoid his debts and described him as nothing more than sophisticated con man. They said he lied about his ability to build the submarines and overcharged them for parts from his former Florida firm.
"We tried to handle this internally and spent almost a year in negotiations with Mr. Jaubert, who promised on many occasions to repay the missing funds. Instead, he chose to flee the country," said George Dalton, Dubai World's general counsel.
Dubai World executives contend his designs never worked and his operation was a failure from the start. The venture ultimately lost $31 million.
To bolster its case, Dubai World provided e-mails and internal company documents to The Associated Press that raised questions about the validity of sales leads that never materialized and also claimed Jaubert hired incompetent workers.
"There are no proper designs and the entire production process is haphazard, unstructured and unplanned," concluded one Dubai World report.
Jaubert, 53, has a colorful resume that describes a decade spent as a French naval officer involved in covert operations, mainly constructing surveillance devices. It said he trained as a combat diver and submarine pilot and retired as a commandant.
In 1996, he started a submarine charter business in Puerto Rico and in 2000 founded Seahorse Submarines in Stuart, Fla., a sub construction business he ran until the Dubai World deal came together in late 2003. Seahorse also struggled and was sued in 2003 by a Dominican company that claimed Jaubert failed to deliver two submarines it was purchasing for more than $290,000.
Still, Jaubert was named CEO of a new Dubai World subsidiary called Exomos and said he thought the deal had a bright future.
"I saw it as an opportunity to mass produce recreational submarines worldwide," he said.
As head of the company, Jaubert said he had difficulty finding the right workers and no budget to hire them. Dubai World's bureaucracy, he said, prevented quick decision-making. The company audits and reports suggesting he was incompetent and a thief were pure fabrications, he said.
Jaubert's passport was confiscated by the police in April 2007 after Dubai World told authorities they suspected Jaubert illegally possessed 450 rounds of ammunition discovered in the Exomos building.
Then, Jaubert said he was given an ultimatum — either pay up or never leave Dubai.
Jaubert was charged in February 2008 in a lawsuit in Dubai with embezzlement of government funds, breach of trust and benefiting from ill-gotten gains.
In March, according to the company, an agreement was reached to settle the charges if Jaubert would repay a portion of the money he owed, but he instead fled.
Jaubert contends he is the victim and is writing a book, "Escape from Dubai," which is critical of the conglomerate.
"In Dubai, you have no rights. You are guilty until proven guilty," he said. "I welcome the trial. This will give me the opportunity to explain everything. The truth will come out."