Trump Family Bolsters Its Dubai Connection

In the Middle East, Don Jr. meets with one of the president’s biggest business partners.

Saul Loeb/AP


On Saturday, Donald Trump Jr. gave the commencement speech at the American University in Dubai, where he urged the graduates to emulate his father. “Whether you will be successful at it or not, the fact is to take the risk in the first place and to have the will to put yourself out there and go against all odds,” Trump Jr. said, according to local media. “Looking back at what my father did in the past election and the risk he took, to me I’m far more impressed with the fact that he tried, than by the fact that he actually won.”

Neither the university where Trump Jr. spoke nor the Trump Organization responded to questions about his visit or whether he was paid to make the speech, but Trump Jr. wasn’t just in the Emirates to pose for selfies with the students and serve up warmed-over platitudes. He also met with Hussain Sajwani, a Dubai billionaire who pays the president’s company millions of dollars in annual licensing fees for the use of the president’s name on his new Trump International Golf Club Dubai project. Sajwani posted a picture of their meeting on his sparse Instagram feed and made a comment that raised questions about the elder Trump’s claim his family business would no longer be pursuing new overseas deals.

 

Sajwani has been a symbol of President Trump’s ongoing (and conflict-riddled) relationship with his business empire, which still includes a cast of international partners to whom he and his family have maintained close ties. During a January press conference, ostensibly focused on the steps Trump was taking to eliminate his conflicts of interest, Trump bragged that Sajwani, who runs a development company called DMAC, had recently offered him a multi-billion deal that he had rejected. “Over the weekend I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai with a very, very, very amazing man, a great great developer from the Middle East,” Trump said. “Hussain [Sajwani], DAMAC, a friend of mine, a great guy. I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai, a number of deals, and I turned it down. I didn’t have to turn it down because as you know I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president.”

At that press conference, Trump promised that the Trump Organization would not engage in any new business overseas. Trump Jr.’s visit with Sajwani—and Sajwani’s vague reference to “new ideas”—raised the possibility that new deals were being discussed. But as with much of the Trump Organization’s wheeling-and-dealing at home and abroad, there is no mechanism for determining if the company is abiding by Trump’s vow of no new overseas transactions.

Since Trump was elected president, Sajwani has remained close to him and his family. He attended the inauguration celebrations as a VIP guest, along with other Trump foreign business partners. In a photo posted to Instagram the day after the inauguration, Indonesian billionaire Hary Tanoesoedibjo, who is developing two Trump resorts, posed with Sajwani in the bar of Trump’s Washington, D.C. hotel.

 

Bersama Hussain Sajwani, Chairman & CEO Damac Group, perusahaan properti dari Dubai, partner Trump Organization

A post shared by Hary Tanoesoedibjo (@hary.tanoesoedibjo) on

 

Sajwani’s son later posted a less subtle (and now-deleted) Instagram post congratulating the president and noting the “world is looking forward to a lucrative 8 years ahead.”

Trump earns between $2 million and $10 million a year in licensing fees from DAMAC. Because Trump has not divested from his holdings, those payments directly wind up in his pocket, though the Trump-owned company that collects the licensing fees is now part of a revocable trust overseen by Trump’s adult sons.

Eric and Donald Trump Jr. have been criticized for their extensive global travel since their father’s inauguration—in part because they are receiving taxpayer-funded Secret Service protection as they jet around the world, strengthening the family’s business ties abroad.

Wherever they go, foreign businesspeople and others, seeking to showcase their proximity to the First Family, are eager to take pictures with them. In Dubai, it wasn’t just Sajwani who showed off Trump Jr.’s presence. The official Twitter account of the government of Dubai posted a photo of Trump Jr. alongside Sheikh Ahmad Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the son of the ruler of Dubai, attending the graduation ceremony.

The graduates of the American University in Dubai seemed thrilled to be able to sidle up to the American president’s son and snap selfies.

 

Other social media posts documented Trump Jr. handing out degrees to students, alongside the Sheikh.

 

Trump will travel to the Middle East later this week, stopping in Saudi Arabia, where as recently as September 2015, in the midst of the Republican primary campaign, he was working on a deal to open a new hotel.

  • Russ Choma

    Russ Choma is a reporter in the Washington bureau of Mother Jones covering money in politics and influence.

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