‘Donald of Dubai’: UAE billionaire trading off President Trump’s name is raising fresh conflict-of-interest questions

Hussain Sajwani owns a real estate company whose Trump-branded properties are raising eyebrows among the US President’s critics

Jon Gambrell
Tuesday 15 August 2017 08:58 BST
Hussain Sajwani, left, has a 70 per cent stake in Damac Properties which this week started selling Trump Estate villas in Dubai
Hussain Sajwani, left, has a 70 per cent stake in Damac Properties which this week started selling Trump Estate villas in Dubai (AP)

During recent trips to Croatia and Malta, a Dubai-based billionaire and business partner of the Trump Organisation looked more like a head of state himself, mingling with government dignitaries, receiving a presidential reception and visiting the glittering Mediterranean sea.

Hussain Sajwani met with leaders in the two European nations and addressed local journalists, many of whom made reference to his ties to President Donald Trump or simply called him “the Donald of Dubai”.

Sajwani’s trips to Europe – as well as a recent deal in Oman – show that Trump’s business partner in Dubai wants to expand his development empire beyond the Middle East, and a tower which is under construction in London.

Enter Sajwani’s Damac Properties. As of this week, it has started selling Trump-branded villas on the Trump golf club estate in Dubai.

“My dream is as we have put our major, iconic tower in London, that we do repeat that in major gateway cities around the world,” Sajwani said in a July online video. “Tokyo, Toronto, New York, Paris, I don’t know. But that would be a dream – to grow Damac with its iconic brands around the world.”

Sajwani’s dream for a global expansion – as well his growing online presence among social media videos and posts – received a major boost with Trump taking the White House. It also raised the public profile of a billionaire whose fortune grew in part out of contracting work his companies did in supplying US forces during the 1991 Gulf War that expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Damac Properties declined a request to interview Sajwani made by Associated Press. Damac spokesman Niall McLoughlin said the company is “exploring opportunities in major gateway cities across Europe and the US, hence the numerous and ongoing meetings over the past many years” by Sajwani.

​Sajwani wholeheartedly embraced Trump, even as the US presidential candidate’s campaign saw him call for a “complete shutdown” of Muslims coming to the US. Once reaching office, Trump’s travel ban on six predominantly Muslim countries avoided naming the UAE, a major US ally that hosts some 5,000 American troops and is the US Navy’s busiest foreign port of call.

In February, Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Jr. opened the Trump International Golf Club in Dubai, the first of two to be built in the kingdom by Sajwani. Damac share prices have nearly doubled from 2.17 dirhams (46p) a share on the day of the US election in November, to a high of just under £1.

That made Sajwani, who owns over 70 percent of Damac stock, even richer.

However, economies overall have slowed across the Middle East amid a glut in global oil prices. An ongoing diplomatic dispute between Saudi-led group of Arab nations and Qatar has likely also affected Damac, as 6 per cent of all its customers from 2014 to 2016 were Qataris, according to an April filing by the company on the Nasdaq Dubai. Damac announced results Monday that put its second-quarter earnings at £150m, down from £183m in the same period last year.

Facing that sluggish market, Sajwani has begun to look abroad.

In Oman he signed a deal in June with the state-run Oman Tourism Development Co. for Damac to help redevelop Port Sultan Qaboos in Muscat, a project valued overall at $1bn (£773m).

Then in July, Sajwani visited Croatia and met with president Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic. Sajwani also visited tourist towns along the coast of the Adriatic Sea, according to a Damac statement at the time. The local branch of Colliers International, a commercial real estate firm based in Toronto, said it organised the three-day trip for Sajwani, trying to pitch him on developments on the Istria peninsula and Central and Southern Dalmatia.

Damac “continues to look at the investment opportunities” in Croatia, primarily along the Adriatic, said Vedrana Likan, the managing partner of Colliers’ Croatian arm.

Sajwani then travelled to Malta, an archipelago nation off Italy in the Mediterranean Sea, and met with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.

Both Croatia and Malta are members of the European Union, which Emirati citizens have been able to travel to without visas since 2015. That can drive business for any possible Damac project in either country, as well as create new European interest in Dubai, where the developer makes its real money, said Issam Kassabieh, an analyst with the UAE-based firm Menacorp Finance.

“It’s a very effective method of branding,” Kassabieh said. “Once foreign investors see the Damac name in Europe, they’ll follow it all the way back to the source, which is Dubai, so they can capitalise on it here.”

This week Damac Properties launched a new set of Trump-branded duplex villas, priced from £624,000, including three years’ golf course membership. The company previously offered standalone villas at priced from around £1m up to just over £3m.

The Trump Organisation, now run by Trump’s sons though the president hasn’t divested from it, also tweeted that the new villas were for sale. It told the AP that the villas are “not a new project” and represented “our longstanding relationship with Damac Properties.”

While Damac merely mentions Trump as representing “the most respected developments throughout the world,” one Dubai newspaper more bluntly suggested buyers could “own a piece of the Trump name.”

And while it remains unclear how Sajwani trades on his Trump ties in private meetings with foreign leaders, advertising and marketing by Damac prominently features Trump. That could lead to potential conflicts, said Norman Eisen, who served as President Barack Obama’s lead ethics attorney and who now is a part of a watchdog group suing Trump for his alleged violations of a clause of the US Constitution that prohibits foreign gifts and payments.

If Sajwani “is featuring the Trump name in his marketing materials and if, as one can fairly assume, that’s being furnished to government officials and others, then that would be a not-very-subtle attempt to trade on his business partner’s presence in the White House,” Eisen said.


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