In February 2017, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump were on hand for a party in Dubai. Celebrating the opening of the Trump International Golf Course Dubai, the Trumpsvlavished praise on the leadership of the UAE. Eric Trump declared that the opening was just the beginning of “a lot of fun years together.” Both sons took the stage with the UAE-based developers that had funded the project. Meanwhile, back in Washington, Donald Trump casually mentioned that he had turned down a $2 billion deal with those developers after the election, saying that he didn’t want to “take advantage.”
Neither of them mentioned that Donald Trump Jr. had welcomed representatives from the UAE and Saudi Arabia to Trump Tower the previous August, to talk about how they might help Trump win the White House. Just as in the meeting that was held with Russian operatives, it was all perfectly innocent—so innocent that they covered up the event until it was revealed in the New York Times.
Opening Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s files and discovering all-purpose bribery and pay-off hub Essential Consultants may have painted a picture of tawdry affairs, hush money, and corruption so blatant it might have walked out of a ‘B’ movie. However, looking at what was happening with Cohen in comparison to what was happening in the Middle East is like comparing a parakeet to a pterodactyl. Because when it comes to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Trump made good on his business connections by slinging the power of the defense department to both support, and ignore, governments in crisis.
Two months after the Trump sons were celebrating in Dubai, Donald Trump hit the ground in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It was Trump’s first out-of-the-country trip, and the first time that any president had chosen Saudi Arabia over close allies like Canada or the UK for that honor. He was there to meet with Saudi leaders, touch the orb, and sign off on the largest arms deal in the history of the world.
That deal had originated in 2016, when the government began assembling a package containing updated tanks, warships, helicopters, and thousands of missiles. However, Saudi Arabi’s aggressive moves toward Yemen—in particular the deliberate targeting of a funeral procession for one of thousands of airstrikes—put the deal on hold, and the Obama administration announced that it would halt some arms sales and review the entire military relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Trump moved quickly to restore those sales. The $110 billion deal he brought to Riyadh didn’t just set a record, it included the weapons the Saudis wanted to attack the Iran-allied Houthis across the border.
But the visible activities during Trump’s visit were clearly not the whole of what was discussed. Both Trump and Jared Kushner spent time with King Salman bin Abdulaziz. The 82-year-old ruler became king after both his brother and half-brother died in 2015. The Americans also spent considerable time with the King’s son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Bin Salman was the prince who George Nadar had represented when offering the Kingdom’s help securing the election for Trump. At the time of Trump and Kushner’s first visit, bin Salman was not the heir to the throne. That was about to change.
What Trump and the Saudi leadership talked about is no secret at all. Less than two weeks after Trump arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia abruptly closed the land border to its tiny neighbor, Qatar. Within hours, the UAE and Bahrain announced that they were closing their ports and airports against their neighbor. Qatar was presented with a list of demands, some of which insisted that Qatar break ties with any group that the other states, or the United States, considered a terrorist organization. But if that demand seemed almost reasonable, the rest of the list included closing Al Jazeera and any other news organization, closing a military base belonging to NATO member Turkey, not “interfering” in the affairs of other Arab states, following Saudi Arabia’s lead in foreign policy, and paying an unspecified sum to compensate Saudi Arabia and the UAE for “loss of life and other financial losses caused by Qatar's policies."
Qatar was given 10 days to comply. If it complied, the document promised that Qatar’s neighbors would relent—but only after they put their own troops on the ground in Qatar, imposing an "audit” on the country that would have to be met on a monthly basis. Neither side of the disagreement seems to have believed that Qatar ever would, or even could, surrender to the demands.
Well before that 10 days were up, a cascading set of restrictions were imposed on the Gulf peninsula. Warships set off the coast, keeping away shipping. Qatari airliners were forbidden to land at many airports. Shipping out of the country was essentially eliminated. Imports, roughly half of which had previously come across the border from Saudi Arabia, were restricted to what could be brought in by air, much of it from Turkey. The losses to Kuwait were estimated at $20 billion a month.
Two weeks after the blockade was launched against Qatar, on June 21, a mini-coup took place in Saudi Arabia. King bin Abdulaziz, who had already changed the line of succession once when he became king, did so again, making his son, the 32-year-old bin Salman, the next ruler. The move set bin Salman up to be leader of the country for decades—and in fact, many already saw him as the de facto ruler. The formal change also included the opening rounds of a purge that would see hundreds of Saudi princes, family members, and ministers forced from power over the remainder of 2017. Though bin Salman was represented as a “reformer,” and famously supported lifting the ban on women driving in the kingdom, his reforms mostly seem to consist of raking the assets of ousted relatives into his own coffers, jailing civil rights campaigners, clamping down on the already restricted press, upping Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen, and starting the fight with Qatar.
Bin Salman’s moves had one central focus: Prepare to go to war with Iran. And …
He is also naïve, young, and being encouraged — make no mistake here — by the Trump administration.
Saudi Arabia has a fresh injection of U.S. weaponry, an abiding antipathy for Iran, and a fresh young ruler at the helm who Trump views as a friend. Equally important, bin Salman replaced Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was close to the leaders of Qatar and had previously kept Saudi Arabia from taking steps to isolate its small neighbor. With bin Salman at the helm, Trump had someone who would support him in the effort to break the Iran nuclear deal. Trump tweeted his support of bin Salman, and of the blockade of Qatar. The largest U.S. military base in the Middle East was under blockade by nations that were U.S. allies, to which the United States had just given a record amount of arms, with the support of the U.S. administration.
It wasn’t just Trump who was taken by bin Salman. Kushner also felt he had found someone who would help him with his problems. He not only stayed with the prince on Trump’s official visit, he’s been back. And if Donald Trump had come bearing gifts in the form of arms, Jared Kushner had something else.
Months before he was stripped of his security clearance, Kushner did what Trump did not: he read the daily briefs. And he used his clearance to collect additional information. And in October 2017, Kushner paid a secret visit to bin Salman to deliver what he had learned: The names of other members of the Saudi royal family who were opposed to bin Salman’s rule. Less than two weeks after Kushner’s visit, Riyadh and sites around the kingdom were filled with the sounds of gunfire and wailing sirens as bin Salman carried out an “anti corruption” campaign to clear his opposition.
Kushner’s list was undoubtedly handy for bin Salman, and less handy for the people on the other end of the purge who were imprisoned, beaten, or tortured to death. But if Kushner thought that “the two princes” were close friends, bin Salman apparently saw it differently. When bin Salman checked in with UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed—the other leader who George Nader had represented in that visit to Donald Trump Jr.’s office—bin Salman let the UAE leader know that he had Jared Kushner “in his pocket.”
Of course he did. Because what the Saudis and UAE understood from before the election was simple enough: Donald Trump and Jared Kushner could be bought. And having been bought, Trump and Kushner delivered on their end of the deal, whether the payoff was in the form of missiles for the arsenal, permission to harm a U.S. ally, or an enemy list. Bin Salman and bin Zayed did very, very well out of their associations with Trump.
Everything worked out in the end for Jared Kushner, as well. In January, and again in February, visiting Qatari officials thought about going to Robert Mueller. They could show him the information they had collected on Jared Kushner, including his willingness to deal in top secret information to gain the friendship of the future Saudi king. But the Qataris worried about retaliation—and for very good reason. Considering the price they had already paid, and were still paying, it seems entirely reasonable to assume that exposing Trump or Kushner might only result in more aggression directed at Qatar.
Instead, they took a different route. Earlier this month, 11 months after the start of the blockade, and just over a year after Qatar dropped out of the deal to finance Jared Kushner’s mid-town boondoggle, Qatar is back in. The Qatari Investment Authority, working through Brookfield Asset Management, decided that it would fund the 666 Fifth Avenue project after all. And, in fact, appears to be ready to put in considerably more than Qatar had committed to bring in the initial round of financing. But even if Qatar gives Kushner a profit, it will be considerably less than the $20 billion a month they continue to bleed due to the embargo. Whether that embargo will continue is the next big question. There were 13 points on the list of demands sent to Qatar, but it may turn out there was only one real requirement.
As for Donald Trump, he already laughingly claimed to have turned down $2 billion from the UAE. That money could be waiting for him when he leaves office … though he may not wait. After all, in June—three days after Trump posted his support for the Qatar embargo—the Justice Department quietly decided that Donald Trump taking money from foreign governments was just peachy. So there may be no reason to delay.
Whether it’s Russia, or Saudi Arabia, or the UAE, the places where Donald Trump has business associates get his business. Which, at the moment, means the support of the U.S. military—along with the world’s best chocolate cake. Those that don’t make a deal with Trump … can look at Qatar for a lesson.
2010 — Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump visit Qatar in an attempt to interest the state investment authority in a portfolio of “distressed real estate” he is assembling. But the meeting is unsuccesful and Trump feels insulted.
2011 — Jared Kushner visits Qatar in effort to secure funding for the 666 Fifth Avenue project, but is unsuccessful.
2013 — Donald Trump and a Dubai developer firm enter into a development deal to build a resort in the UAE.
2015 — Jared Kushner and his father Charles negotiate for financing from the Qatar sovereign wealth fund, and secure a deal that is contingent on getting most of the money for redevelopment of the property from some other source.
Aug 03, 2016 — Donald Trump Jr. hosts a meeting with Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, Republican strategist George Nader, and Israeli social media specialist Joel Zamel. Trump Jr. is reportedly enthusiastic about a plan to use former intelligence officers to provide “an edge” to the Trump campaign’s social media team. Nader informs Trump Jr. that princes from Saudi Arabia and UAE want to help the Trump campaign. Nader goes on to conduct multiple meetings with the Trump campaign, including meetings with Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon. While the New York Times report was the first to reveal the Trump Tower meeting hosted by Donald Trump Jr., earlier reports had already indicated that Mueller was interested in Zamel’s actions and in Nader’s connections to the campaign.
Jan 13 2017 — Erik Prince visits Seychelles to meet with Russian oligarch Kirill Dmitriev and officials from UAE in meeting arranged by Nader.
Feb 18, 2017 — Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump are both in the UAE for the opening of Trump International Golf Club Dubai. The course was the first Trump property project launched since their father’s inauguration.
Mar 29, 2017 — Chinese company Anbang Insurance Group drops out of talks to redevelop 666 Fifth Avenue. Anbang was to provide the principal financing behind a scheme that would knock down the existing 43-story office tower and replace it with a new $4 billion development. Part of those funds were to come from the Qatar sovereign wealth fund, but the loan from Qatar was contingent on the other financing.
Apr 24, 2017 — Jared Kushner’s father meets with the head of the Qatar sovereign wealth fund over two days in an attempt to find funding for the deeply underwater 666 Fifth Avenue office building, whose $1.2 billion mortgage comes due in February 2019. Earlier negotiations with Qatar had secured a promise of a $500 million loan, assuming that Kushner can come up with the remainder of the funds. However, Chinese investors pulled out before the election, and Jared Kushner has been unable to find another source. Without that other source in place, the Qataris back out of the deal. Kushner does not mention the meeting until it appears in the press three months later, at which point he claims that the meeting was just a “courtesy” and that it “would be inappropriate” to seek funds from a foreign government. Instead Kushner explains that the company wanted to avoid “even the appearance of impropriety.”
May 20, 2017 — Donald Trump and Jared Kushner arrive in Saudi Arabia on Trump’s first foreign trip. It was the first time that any U.S. president made Saudi Arabia his first trip outside the country, bypassing more traditional trips to Canada or the UK. On the visit, Donald Trump announced an arms deal for Saudi Arabia worth more than $100 billion, the largest arms deal in history. While there, Trump and Kushner met with both Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
May 22, 2017 — Trump signs $100 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the largest in history.
Jun 5, 2017 — Saudi Arabia abruptly cuts access to Qatar’s only land border. Ships from Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain enforce a blockade as ports across the region are closed to Qatar-based ships. The blockading forces deliver a list of demands to the leaders of Qatar. That list includes:
- Stopping support for any group that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, or the United States designates as a terrorist organization.
- Closing an air base belonging to NATO member state Turkey, and ceasing any military collaboration with the Turkish government.
- Paying reparations to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for any loss of life “caused by Qatar's policies”
- Shuting down Al Jazeera and other Qatar-funded news outlets, and stop “interferring in the affairs of other sovereign countries.
- Following Saudi Arabia’s lead on international policy.
Jun 6, 2017 — Rather than admonish the forces that are blocking a U.S. ally that hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, Donald Trump instead tweets that he heard from “leaders” in the region that Qatar is the source of funding for “radical ideology.” On the same day, Egypt and Libya follow the Saudi lead and begin turning away ships and flights from or to Qatar. For all practical purposes, commercial shipping to and from Qatar is shut down. The cost to Qatar from this point forward is estimated at $20 billion per month.
Jun 09, 2017 — Justice Department rules that there’s no problem with Donald Trump taking money from foreign governments without congressional approval.
Jun 21, 2017 — Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz rewrites the line of succession, ousting Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in favor of his son, bin Salman.
Oct 25, 2017 — Jared Kushner makes secret trip to Saudi Arabia where he provides Prince bin Salman with the names of opposition leaders.
Nov 10, 2017 — Saudi Arabian purge solidifies bin Salman’s control in name of “anti-corruption.”
Jan, 2018 — Qatari officials visiting the United States consider approaching Robert Mueller about evidence linking Jared Kushner to the actions of Saudi Arabia and UAE, but stop out of fear of retribution.
Feb 27, 2018 — Jared Kushner loses top security clearance.
Mar 17, 2018 — Kushner announces Qatar investment group will bail out the 666 Fifth Avenue property.