Originally Published on CBS News on February 11, 2009
Jason and Meriam Johnson insist nothing will ever come between them But there are powerful forces trying to pull them apart.
Their romance has become an international incident. In the name of love, they've broken laws and defied a royal family. Correspondent Harold Dow reports.
To Americans, she's a princess (her exact title is sheika) but by coming to the United States with Jason Johnson, Meriam al Khalifa may have put her life in danger. She could risk being sent to jail, she said.
"Because of her relationship with me, she should be lashed, executed, stoned, killed, shot," said Jason Johnson.
Their story began in Bahrain, a tiny island nation in the Persian Gulf. Johnson was stationed there with the U.S. Marines. The son of a truck driver, he had grown up in a tough neighborhood in Long Beach, Calif. Being overseas was a welcome adventure.
Bahrain certainly looks like a modern country but beneath the surface of video games and fast food, it's a land of time-honored customs. Women in particular are expected to play by the old rules.
The al Khalifas have ruled Bahrain for centuries. As a member of the extended family, Meriam is entitled to money, privilege and prestige.
As a young royal, she met a more famous royal, Princess Diana, when she was 5.
And royals also have special obligations.
"When we get married, we have to get married to someone who's in the royal family, too; we have to keep the name and the blood," she explained.
Johnson did not have the right name, nationality, or religion. He's a Mormon; she's a Muslim.
"I know a lot of people said I was crazy. I'm not crazy. I just know what I want," said al Khalifa Johnson.
The Marine and the sheika secretly met at the movies. Then, one day, Meriam made a daring move. She kissed him, though she said she hadn't been planning to.
"It was one of those innocent kisses that your grandmother would give you before you go to bed," Jason Johnson recalled.
And somebody saw them. The next day, Meriam's mother laid down the law. Her mother told her, she had five minutes to call her boyfriend and end it, she recalled.
But weeks later, Meriam defied her parents again and called the Marine. That sparked a flurry of passionate letters.
With Jason Johnson's days in Bahrain dwindling, the couple hatched a bold plan. Meriam would go back to America with him secretly. She would sneak out of her house late at night and meet him in a car parked nearby.
Meriam recalls they were supposed to meet at 11; if she didn't show up by that hour, he should leave; she would not be going.
Jason Johnson and his friends had carefully planned the escape, he said; they studied security procedures at the airport. They used night vision goggles to peer inside the airport while driving around, he explained.
One friend fashioned documents that helped transform the sheika into a U.S. Marine.
At the appointed hour, Johnson dutifully waited for 45 minutes.
But Meriam was having second thoughts. Finally, she made the hardest decision of her life, which she described in her diary: "I closed the door, turned off the lights and opened the window. I knew I was following my heart."
Disguised in a Yankee cap and baggy pants, Meriam sped off to the airport with Johnson.
"I really don't know what they would have done to Meriam," he recalled. "But then again, failure wasn't an option so I tried not to think about it."
"That was my fear," she said. "That I'd get caught, and that he'd get caught and, you know, everything's just going to go wrong."
Finally, they were on a plane together but there was a crucial error. Since she forgot to lock her bedroom door, her absence was discovered in the morning, Johnson said.
Meriam's parents immediately notified authorites. So when Jason Johnson and Meriam al Khalifa landed in Chicago, they were stopped.