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Donald Trump’s decision to back the blockade of Qatar – even as US diplomats have sharply criticised the embargo – follows decades of private business dealings by the US president with the countries leading the charge against the small Gulf nation.
Trump’s financial history with Saudi Arabia, which is leading the blockade, and Saudi ally the United Arab Emirates, includes the purchase of tens of millions of dollars in Trump’s real estate properties by wealthy Saudis over the years. The situation raises questions about whether the president’s personal financial relationships are dictating US policy, rather than his stated claims that he is concerned about Qatar’s alleged link to terror financing.
There is no evidence that Trump has been untruthful about his reasons to support the blockade. But the US State Department and the Pentagon – acutely aware of Qatar’s role hosting thousands of US and US-led coalition forces on a large airbase south-west of Doha – have taken different positions from the White House. A State Department spokeswoman recently said that the Saudi and UAE move against Qatar was “mystifying”.
It is clear that Trump does not have many business connections to Qatar. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly sought but failed to entice Qatari investors to help recapitalise a huge investment in a New York property – 666 Fifth Avenue – that is laden with debt.
Saudi Arabia, however, has been an important partner to the president. In 1995, when Trump was struggling to make payments on one of his most important New York properties, the landmark Plaza Hotel, it was Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a Saudi prince, who came to his rescue with an investment, which relegated Trump to a minority shareholder in the property. A few years earlier, in 1991, bin Talal bought a huge yacht, the Trump Princess, from creditors at a time when Trump’s other big venture, the Atlantic City casinos, were under pressure.
It does not mean the two have always had a warm relationship. The Saudi prince fired off an angry tweet in June 2016 after then-candidate Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, describing the president as a “disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America”. When Trump won the presidency bin Talal congratulated him.
Earlier on the campaign trail, Trump did not hide his appreciation for wealthy Saudis, noting at a rally in Alabama in 2015 that they were frequent buyers of his apartments.
“They spend $40m, $50m. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much,” he said.
More recently, the Saudi government invested $20bn in a fund earmarked for US infrastructure, part of a broader policy that has been endorsed by the White House. The fund is being administered by Blackstone, which also has ties to Trump and his family.
A lawsuit brought by two Democratic officials – from the US state of Maryland and the DC – named Saudi Arabia as one of several foreign countries that have made payments to Trump’s businesses in alleged violation of an anti-corruption clause in the US constitution. The lawsuit cites a public relations firm that was hired by Saudi Arabia that has spent $270,000 on rooms and meals at Trump’s DC hotel.
“We know that foreign governments are spending money there in order to curry favour with the president of the United States,” DC attorney general Karl Racine said.
The White House has dismissed the legal suit as a partisan attack.
Dubai has also been an important bright spot for Trump’s business. According to election-related financial disclosures, The Trump Organization, which is run by the president’s son, Donald Jr, has been paid between $2m to $10m for golfing projects in Dubai that bear Trump’s name and are being built by a group called DAMAC Properties, which is owned by a Emirati billionaire named Hussain Sajwani.
According to an account in the New York Times, Sajwani, who attended Trump’s New Year’s Eve party at Mar-a-Lago, offered to pay Trump an additional $2bn to develop more properties.
A 16 May post on Sajwani’s Instagram account showed him having a meal with Trump Jr, who Sajwani called his “dear friend and business partner”.
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