See our Editor’s Note at the bottom.
On January 11, 2017, a week before Trump’s inauguration, two powerful men huddled together at the bar of the Four Seasons Hotel in the Seychelles, off the coast of east Africa: a fit, 6-foot-tall middle-aged American, with a military bearing, and a slightly younger Russian man, balding and bespectacled. They each nursed a beer and spoke quietly, so that the pair of Arab-looking men in dark suits standing nearby didn’t even try to eavesdrop. Every few minutes, the American checked his watch, a rescue-beacon-equipped Breitling Emergency.
Special counsel Robert Mueller has reportedly zeroed in on the hush-hush meeting as possibly one of the first efforts to set up a covert line of communication between Trump and Putin. But amid the scrutiny of Trump’s ties with Russia, another important foreign influence has been overlooked: the United Arab Emirates.
The de facto ruler of the UAE, crown prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, or “MBZ” as he’s known, has met with members of the Trump coterie in two informal circumstances that we know of: in December 2016 in New York with campaign advisers Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and on January 11, 2017, in the Seychelles. There, MBZ arranged for the drink between Erik Prince—the Breitling-wearing founder of the now-defunct paramilitary firm Blackwater and brother of Trump secretary of education Betsy DeVos—and an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The 57-year-old crown prince would amass a surprising number of useful American contacts. Among them were his adviser, Lebanese-American businessman George Nader, Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy, whose security company later secured hundreds of millions of dollars in UAE contracts, and Trump inauguration committee head Tom Barrack, whose real estate business has profited handsomely from Emirate deals.
There are indications that the “Trump-Emirates” group has already had an impact on U.S. foreign policy, including Trump’s exuberant support for the 2017 Saudi and UAE-led regional boycott of Qatar, and his March 2018 firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The countries have also pressured Washington to move the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command out of Qatar and sever Pentagon ties with a longtime regional ally.
Meanwhile, despite bipartisan protest, the Trump administration has supported a three-year-old Saudi and UAE-led military assault on Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, which last month included an errant missile attack that killed schoolchildren on a bus. More than 16,700 civilians have been killed or injured during the siege, which has fed what the United Nations says is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Erik Prince and the Russian at the bar
Prince told the House’s Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in November 2017 that he was invited to the Seychelles by “one of the members of the Royal Court” to discuss everything from “security issues to mineral issues to even bauxite.” The Emirati customers “mentioned a guy I should meet who was also in town to see them, a Kirill Dmitriev from Russia, who ran some sort of hedge fund.”
Dmitriev is the CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the state’s $10 billion sovereign wealth fund. RDIF’s links with the Kremlin may have led the U.S. to sanction the fund. It also boasts tight links with Abu Dhabi: The UAE sovereign fund Mubadala has co-invested with RDIF in 40 investments in Russia since 2013.
Prince–a former Navy SEAL and founder of disgraced military contractor Blackwater–has been described by other attendees at the meeting as presenting himself as an unofficial envoy for President-elect Trump. But in sometimes testy and arrogant responses to Congress, Prince insisted he was not acting on behalf of Trump, and that the meeting had nothing to do with a Russian backchannel. The encounter with Dmitriev was an impromptu introduction, Prince claimed: The Russian official just happened to be at the hotel, also meeting Emiratis.
They met at the bar and spoke for 30 minutes, Prince said, chatting about “topics ranging from oil and commodity prices to how much his country wished for resumption of normal trade relations.”
“I remember telling him,” Prince recalled, “that if Franklin Roosevelt could work with Joseph Stalin to defeat Nazi fascism, then certainly Donald Trump could work with Vladimir Putin to defeat Islamic fascism.”
According to a memo reviewed by the Daily Beast and first reported on Wednesday, Prince and Dmitriev discussed a range of possible collaborations, including a military effort to take out specific ISIS leaders in Syria, nuclear and chemical nonproliferation, and a perplexing plan for RDIF to invest money in the U.S. Rust Belt, “creating real jobs for hard hit area with high employment.” The proposals echo ideas that have been raised by Moscow more officially.
Why did MBZ broker the meeting? In part, U.S. and European officials say, it was to determine if Russia could be persuaded to withdraw its support of the Assad regime in Syria, an aim of Saudi Arabia as well as the Trump administration. Such a move would have probably required the U.S. to take the unlikely step of lifting sanctions imposed on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine.
But if MBZ aimed to establish a backchannel between Trump and Russia, he was motivated by a range of other self-interested reasons, including obtaining Trump’s support against Qatar and possibly weaning the militant group Hamas from Qatari influence.
Among the Americans MBZ hoped he could count on, perhaps no one was closer to Trump’s White House–and to MBZ himself–than Prince. In his House testimony, Prince said that he has met with the crown prince “more than 12 times,” but does not know the crown prince well and did not do a significant amount of business with the UAE. In fact, Prince has been on MBZ’s payroll since around 2010, when he changed his residence to the UAE.
That year, Prince began building a private army for MBZ for a reported $529 million, and helped train a Somali anti-piracy force funded by the UAE. Through a post-Blackwater company R2, founded in the UAE in 2010, Prince has also trained mercenaries who fight under the UAE flag in Yemen. In 2012, when Prince launched a private equity firm, FRG (Frontier Resource Group), eventually listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the investors included both the UAE’s Sheikh Tahnoun bin Mohammed Al Nahyan and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Court.
Apart from his sister, Prince’s strongest link to the White House was through former campaign chairman and top adviser Steve Bannon. Prince told lawmakers that he spoke periodically with Bannon and sent him unsolicited policy papers during the 2016 campaign. Bannon also hosted Prince frequently on Breitbart’s radio and website, where Prince aired anti-Hillary Clinton stories during the campaign.
In 2016, Prince and his mother donated $150,000 to the Super PAC Make America Number 1, one of Trump’s biggest supporters. And Prince is taken seriously by the Trump administration as a foreign policy guru: The White House is currently reviewing a plan by Prince to privatize the war in Afghanistan that has gained little support in the Pentagon.
Prince may have also introduced former Trump adviser Steve Bannon to MBZ. The crown prince met with Bannon, along with Jared Kushner and General Michael Flynn, in New York in December 2016; in a breach of protocol the UAE didn’t notify the Obama administration of the visit in advance. Prince told the House committee that the former Breitbart CEO said the meeting concerned Iran and Syria, and that the Emirati ruler “is a great guy.”
Bannon, Kushner, and Flynn all have close connections to Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct company part-owned by the U.K.-based SCL Group Ltd. Infamous now for its misuse of Facebook data on behalf of the Trump campaign, in December 2016 this U.S. subsidiary of SCL was basking in its triumph. Within a year, SCL would be waging a clandestine influence campaign against Qatar on behalf of MBZ. According to federal filings, SCL Social Limited was hired for $330,000 in October 2017 to run a #BoycottQatar social media campaign for the UAE. When asked in October about the SCL work against Qatar, Bannon said he had nothing to do with it.
We still don’t know, and we may never know, everyone who was at the now notorious rendezvous in the Seychelles and what they discussed. Apart from MBZ, Prince, and Dmitriev, the UAE’s spymaster Hamad al Mazrouei and another adviser to the crown prince, Palestinian politician Mohammed Dahlan, may have also attended, the Daily Mail reported.
Also present was George Nader, who helped organize the meeting. Nader, a longtime MBZ adviser with ties to the Kremlin, has contradicted Prince’s characterization to the House committee. According to sources close to the Special Counsel’s investigation, Nader–who first met Prince while representing his security contractors in post-invasion Iraq–reportedly told investigators that one of the primary goals of the meeting was to establish a line of communication between the Kremlin and the incoming administration, and said he had met Prince a week before the Seychelles meeting to brief him on Dmitriev.
This wasn’t the only high-powered meeting that the 59-year-old consultant arranged for MBZ in recent years. In mid 2015 Nader helped convene a yacht meeting in the Red Sea that included the crown prince, his Saudi counterpart Prince Mohammad bin Salman, President Sisi of Egypt, the crown prince of Bahrain, and the king of Jordan. The objective, according to sources who spoke with the pro-Qatari Middle East Eye, was to curtail the influence of Turkey and Iran. It’s not known what was discussed at the meeting, which took place after Trump announced his candidacy that June, but these were the countries that, with the exception of Jordan and the addition of Libya, would form an anti-Qatar alliance in 2017.
Nader’s entrée to Trumpworld started with Prince. The Blackwater founder arranged an August 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York between Nader, Donald Trump Jr., and an Israeli social media specialist, Joel Zamel. At that encounter–two months after a notorious Trump Tower meeting at which a Russian attorney offered damaging material on Hillary Clinton–Nader told Trump Jr. that the princes who led the UAE and Saudi Arabia were eager to help his father win the election. Zamel pitched Trump Jr. on a multimillion-dollar social media manipulation campaign run by his company PSY-Group, which employed several former Israeli intelligence officers.
It isn’t clear if such a campaign was initiated–Trump Jr.’s lawyer has said that his client wasn’t interested–but Nader was subsequently embraced as an ally by the Trump campaign. In his capacity as an adviser to MBZ, he met frequently with campaign advisers, including Bannon, Flynn, and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. At some point after the election, Nader paid Zamel up to $2 million, reportedly for a presentation about the significance of social media in political campaigns. Mueller is also said to be investigating this payment.
Nader achieved a remarkable amount in the months that followed the Seychelles meeting, after Trump’s inauguration. Nader would become a conduit for Emirati money used to influence Trump’s circle, as he reportedly told the special counsel. He would make frequent trips to the White House in the early months of the administration, meeting with Bannon and Kushner to discuss Middle East issues ahead of Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia in May 2017. In an Oval Office meeting, Nader would pressure Trump to fire Tillerson after the secretary of state had intervened to stop the proposed invasion of Qatar by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. And Nader would get a big fish on the line: former RNC finance chairman and longtime fundraiser Elliott Broidy.
Broidy is very close to Trump, and was a significant fundraiser for the campaign. After the election, he was appointed deputy finance director Republican National Committee, but resigned that position earlier this year after a woman claiming to be his former mistress sued him for breach of an agreement to pay her $1.6 million not to disclose the affair.
(Broidy has previously run afoul of the law: In 2009 the 61-year-old fundraiser plead guilty to paying New York pension fund officials almost $1 million in return for $18 million in management fees. In 2013, he withdrew his original felony plea prior to conviction and in return for his cooperation and restitution of the $18 million, the court allowed him to plead to a lesser misdemeanor charge instead. Broidy is now under investigation for influence peddling in China and Malaysia, the Washington Post reported in August. Nader has a criminal history as well: in 2003, he was convicted in the Czech Republic on charges of child molestation and child pornography.)
Just weeks after the Seychelles meetings, Broidy and Nader met for the first time, during Trump’s inauguration. By February—before Trump’s first visit to Saudi Arabia that May, which is generally thought to be the start of the UAE-Saudi campaign against Qatar—the two men were communicating about Saudi and Emirati policy goals in Washington and discussing potential contracts for Broidy’s obscure private security company, Circinus, with both the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia. Nader also introduced Broidy to MBZ and later in 2017 helped Broidy obtain $200 million in UAE contracts.
A trove of emails between Broidy and Nader allegedly hacked by agents of Qatar and reported by the Associated Press revealed that Nader and Broidy collaborated on an anti-Qatar influence campaign. In one email from February 7, 2017, Broidy wrote to a congressional staffer about an anti-Qatar bill. Later, he would brag to Nader of his closeness to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, saying that he could “educate” Mnuchin on adding Qataris to U.S. sanctions lists.
According to summaries written by Broidy of two meetings he had with Trump, Broidy “was passing messages to the president from the two princes and that he told Trump he was seeking business with them,” the AP reported. Documents also showed that “the lobbying was intertwined with the pursuit of contracts from the very start, and involved specific political tasks carried out for the crown princes.”
On April 24, 2017, the Wall Street Journal published an anti-Qatar op-ed signed by a retired Air Force general, Charles Ward. It turned out that Ward was part of the Circinus team that had pitched Saudi Arabia for security work. And Broidy had sent a draft of the piece to Nader three days before publication.
That May, Broidy, who sometimes referred to Qatar as “the snake,” persuaded a U.S. think tank, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, to hold an anti-Qatar conference at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington. Broidy told the foundation’s CEO that the money for the conference did not come from a foreign government and that he had no contracts in the Gulf at the time.
The same day as the conference, the UAE was behind a series of hacks targeting Qatari news and social media sites. The Washington Post reported that disinformation was posted and attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani–including false reports that the emir called Iran an “Islamic power” and said, “Hamas is the representative of the Palestinian people.”
As Qatar’s Al Jazeera reported, citing research from the University of Exeter, a well-orchestrated bot campaign “began spreading sectarian, anti-Iranian, and anti-Semitic rhetoric, while heaping praise on Trump” and “began framing the discussion of ‘extremism’ towards criticism of Qatar for being a ‘servant of Iran’ (while being paradoxically close to Israel), and for its alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and others.” At the end of May, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt cited the false news reports as the reason for a ban on Qatari media. They broke relations with Qatar and imposed a trade and diplomatic boycott.
In early June, the email of Yousef al-Otaibi, the UAE’s high-powered ambassador to the U.S., was hacked and offered to U.S. media outlets. One of his emails, to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, was especially embarrassing, as Otaiba had sent Gates greetings from MBZ. Gates had been a speaker at the anti-Qatar FDD conference in May.
A month later, in July, Broidy sent George Nader a spreadsheet outlining a proposed $12.7 million campaign against Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. And between 2017 and March of this year, Broidy gave $600,000 to members of Congress backing anti-Qatar legislation. In October, Broidy helped arrange another anti-Qatar conference at the Hudson Institute in D.C., featuring a keynote by Steve Bannon.
The payments for Broidy’s influence efforts took a circuitous route. As the AP discovered, a Nader company in the UAE sent two payments totaling $2.5 million to Xiemen Investments Limited, a Canadian company belonging to a friend of Broidy, in April 2017. From there it entered a Broidy bank account in L.A. The source of Nader’s funds remains unknown.
Broidy maintains that he was not working under the direction of a foreign government, and that therefore he had no obligation to register with the U.S. government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The federal law requires lobbyists to disclose their ties and certain political activities if they are paid or even merely directed by foreign interests to influence policy. Violating FARA carries a maximum fine of $10,000 or up to five years in prison. Mike Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Rick Gates all failed to register under FARA, only doing so retroactively. Last month, campaign consultant Sam Patten pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent during the election, paying $50,000 in cash from an unidentified Ukrainian oligarch to the Trump inauguration committee, for which Broidy was vice chairman.
On June 5, 2017, the Saudi-UAE led coalition announced its blockade of Qatar. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson quickly intervened in an effort to calm the situation. He succeeded, but reportedly infuriated Crown Prince MBZ as well as members of the Trump White House. During an Oval Office meeting that October, Nader urged the President to fire Tillerson, “but only at a good time, politically,” as Nader recounted in a memo to Broidy. Tillerson would depart on March 31, 2018.
Tillerson was also undermined by Trump himself, who, after the blockade was announced, called Qatar “a funder of terrorism at a very high level.” At the time, Tillerson’s aides thought that Emirati ambassador Otaiba might have written that line for Trump.
Otaiba already had enough influence in Trumpworld that this suspicion was plausible. Jared Kushner was introduced to Otaiba by real estate financier and GOP donor Tom Barrack. Barrack, 71, whose parents are Lebanese-Catholic, is a native Arabic speaker and has had long ties in the region. He also had many business connections with Otaiba, and had even dealt with Otaiba’s father.
In 2009, Barrack worked with Otaiba to sell a Beverly Hills hotel for $41 million to a joint venture half owned by the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund. In 2012 Otaiba himself invested $1 million in a fund Barrack set up. Last year, a state investment fund controlled by MBZ invested $70 million in one of Barrack’s real estate partnerships, a landmark office tower in Los Angeles.
Barrack himself also once helped Kushner out of a financial jam. As the New York Times reported in June, the GOP donor bought up $70 million of Kushner’s debt on 666 Fifth Avenue and at Trump’s request was “among a group of lenders who agreed to reduce Mr. Kushner’s obligations to keep him out of bankruptcy.”
In spring 2016, Barrack introduced Otaiba and Kushner, telling Otaiba, who was skeptical of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, that the candidate “also has joint ventures in the U.A.E.!” Kushner’s introduction to Otaiba quickly led to a connection to MBZ himself. Reportedly, Kushner spoke directly with UAE Crown MBZ and the Saudi Crown Prince through WhatsApp, bypassing the State Department in an astonishing breach of procedure.
“Thanks to you, I’m in constant contact with Jared,” Otaiba wrote Barrack in an email obtained by the Times.
Otaiba was also close to Trump’s 2017 deputy national security adviser, Egyptian-American Dina Powell, whose entrée to the White House came through advising Jared’s wife, Ivanka Trump, during the campaign. The relationship was such that Otaiba forwarded to Powell an email exchange he had with a Politico journalist who criticized Egyptian President Sisi.
The Trump administration was also good for Barrack. His real estate fund Colony Northstar has received $7 billion in investments since Trump’s nomination, a quarter of which has come from the UAE or Saudi Arabia.
A $450 million Leonardo and a bargain golf course
Some Trump-Emirates links suggest MBZ may be managing financial ties with Trump companies in other ways. One example is his bidding in the auction of a Leonardo painting belonging to Dmitry Rybolovlev. In 2008, the Russian billionaire paid Trump $95 million for an oceanfront Palm Beach estate that Trump had purchased for $41 million in 2004; the house sat empty for years before being demolished. The property has since been divided into three lots, two of which Rybolovlev has re-sold for over $71 million.
In November 2017 Rybolovlev sold Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” in a Christie’s auction that set a new world record price of $450 million. The price of the 26-inch painting–valued at around $80 million the year before–was driven high by a bidding war between a representative for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince bin Salman and the UAE’s MBZ, each of whom claimed they mistakenly thought they were bidding against the Qataris. MBZ was trying to buy it for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia “won” the painting, but then gave it to MBZ in exchange for the crown prince’s $450 million superyacht, the Topaz. (MBZ has donated it to the museum, where it was scheduled to be have been unveiled in September, but its exhibit has been delayed.)
Could the bidding war have been a way to funnel UAE funds to the Russian tycoon? While it’s unlikely the painting sale–which made Rybolovlev over $320 million–was related to the Palm Beach purchase, it is conceivable that these two deals are part of a larger number of transactions we don’t yet know about, in which the UAE rewards Trump indirectly for his support.
There is a UAE link straight to Trump’s business holdings, too. As Trump prepared to run for president, MBZ would have known that in April 2014, Trump bought the Turnberry golf course in Scotland from Leisurecorp, a UAE state-owned enterprise, for what was termed at the time a “bargain price,” in a £35.7 million ($63 million) “cash deal.” The UAE had put a total of £92 million into the property, which it bought in 2008. Leisurecorp paid £52 million for the resort–which comprises three courses, a golf academy, a five-star hotel, as well as lodge and cottage accommodations–and then proceeded to spend a further £40 million on renovations.
It’s unclear why the UAE effectively made a £58 million gift to Donald Trump in 2014. But this is one of many questions about the Trump-Emirates relationship that needs more attention, especially before that relationship drags the U.S. into more dangerous adventures in the Middle East.
Ann Marlowe (@AnnMarlowe) is a writer and consultant in New York. The author is indebted to the reporting of Wendy Siegelman for many insights, including the importance of the Bannon link and her research on the UAE ties of Cambridge Analytica and its successor companies.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the subsequent division and sale of the Palm Beach estate. An earlier version of this story also contained several inaccuracies regarding Elliott Broidy which have been corrected and/or clarified. They are:
- The nature of Broidy’s work with the UAE in 2017. Broidy and Nader collaborated on an influence campaign in Washington in support of UAE and Saudi interests at a time when Broidy was expecting contracts from the UAE eventually worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Broidy maintains that because that work involved no direct instruction or payments from those governments for Washington lobbying he was not required to register under FARA.
- When Broidy first met Nader, as well as the timing of UAE contracts with Broidy’s company.
- How Broidy represented the source of his funding for a May 2017 anti-Qatar conference in Washington. According to the CEO of the foundation hosting the conference, Broidy said at the time that he had no contracts in the Persian Gulf.
- That Broidy resigned his RNC position as a result of the controversy surrounding a payment to an alleged former mistress, but not because of a request to investigate the payment.
- In 2013 Broidy withdrew an original felony plea related to rewarding official misconduct and plead to a lesser misdemeanor charge instead.