Trump’s ties to Saudi king­dom run deep

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Worldwide - Bernard Con­don, Stephen Braun and Tami Ab­dol­lah in New York

HE’S booked ho­tel rooms and meet­ing spa­ces to them, sold an en­tire floor in one of his build­ings to them and, in des­per­ate mo­ments in his ca­reer, got a bil­lion­aire from the coun­try to buy his yacht and New York’s Plaza Ho­tel over­look­ing Cen­tral Park.

Don­ald Trump’s ties to Saudi Ara­bia run long and deep, and he has of­ten boasted about his busi­ness ties with the king­dom.

“I love the Saudis,” Trump said when an­nounc­ing his pres­i­den­tial run at Trump Tower in 2015. “Many are in this build­ing.”

Now those ties are un­der scru­tiny as the US pres­i­dent faces calls for a tougher re­sponse to the king­dom’s govern­ment fol­low­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance, and pos­si­ble killing, of one of its big­gest crit­ics, jour­nal­ist and ac­tivist Ja­mal Khashoggi.

Yes­ter­day Trump warned of “se­vere pun­ish­ment” if Saudi Ara­bia is found to be be­hind the sus­pected killing. Yet he stopped short of threat­en­ing to ban arms deals with the Saudis — claim­ing such sanc­tions would only hurt jobs in the US de­fence in­dus­try.

“The Saudis are fun­nelling money to him,” said for­mer fed­eral ethics chief Wal­ter Shaub, who is ad­vis­ing a watch­dog group su­ing Trump for for­eign govern­ment ties to his busi­ness. That un­der­mines “con­fi­dence that he’s go­ing to do the right thing when it comes to Khashoggi”.

Trump paid his first for­eign visit as pres­i­dent to Saudi Ara­bia last year, praised its new young ruler and boasted of strik­ing a deal to sell $110bn (¤95bn) of US weapons to the king­dom.

But those close ties are in peril as pres­sure mounts from Congress for Trump to find out whether Khashoggi was killed and dis­mem­bered af­ter en­ter­ing a Saudi con­sulate in Turkey, as Turk­ish of­fi­cials have said without proof.

Trump said last Fri­day that he will soon speak with Saudi Ara­bia’s king about Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance. But he has also said he doesn’t want to scut­tle a lu­cra­tive arms deal with the king­dom and noted that Khashoggi was only a US res­i­dent and not a ci­ti­zen. For its part, Saudi Ara­bia has called al­le­ga­tions it killed Khashoggi “base­less”.

The pres­i­dent’s links to Saudi bil­lion­aires and princes go back years, and ap­pear only to have deep­ened.

In 1991, as Trump was tee­ter­ing on per­sonal bank­ruptcy and scram­bling to raise cash, he sold his 86m yacht Princess to Saudi bil­lion­aire Prince Al­waleed bin-Talal for $20m (¤17m), a third less than he re­port­edly paid for it.

Four years later, the prince came to his res­cue again, join­ing other in­vestors in a $325m (¤281m) deal for Trump’s money-los­ing Plaza Ho­tel.

In 2001, Trump sold the en­tire 45 th floor of the Trump World Tower, across from the United Na­tions in New York, for $12m, the big­gest pur­chase in that build­ing to that point, ac­cord­ing to the bro­ker­age site StreetEasy. The buyer: The King­dom of Saudi Ara­bia.

Shortly af­ter he an­nounced his run for pres­i­dent, Trump be­gan lay­ing the ground­work for pos­si­ble new busi­ness in the king­dom. He reg­is­tered eight com­pa­nies with names tied to the coun­try, such as THC Jed­dah Ho­tel Ad­vi­sor LLC and DT Jed­dah Tech­ni­cal Ser­vices, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure re­port to the fed­eral govern­ment. Jed­dah is a ma­jor city in the coun­try.

“Saudi Ara­bia, I get along with all of them. They buy apart­ments from me. They spend $40m, $50m,” Trump told a crowd at an Alabama rally on Au­gust 21, 2015, the same day he cre­ated four of the en­ti­ties. “Am I sup­posed to dis­like them? I like them very much.”

The pres­i­dent’s com­pany, the Trump Or­gan­i­sa­tion, said shortly af­ter his 2016 election that it had shut down those Saudi com­pa­nies. The pres­i­dent later pledged to pur­sue no new for­eign deals while in of­fice.

In a state­ment this week, the com­pany said it has ex­plored busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties in many coun­tries but that it does “not have any plans for ex­pan­sion into Saudi Ara­bia”.

Since Trump took the oath of of­fice, the Saudi govern­ment and lob­by­ing groups for it have been lu­cra­tive cus­tomers for Trump’s ho­tels.

A pub­lic re­la­tions firm work­ing for the king­dom spent nearly $270,000 (¤233,000) on lodg­ing and cater­ing at his Wash­ing­ton ho­tel near the Oval Of­fice through March of last year, ac­cord­ing to fil­ings to the Jus­tice Depart­ment. A spokesman for the firm told The Wall Street Jour­nal that the Trump ho­tel pay­ments came as part of a Saudi-backed lob­by­ing cam­paign against a bill that al­lowed Amer­i­cans to sue for­eign gov­ern­ments for re­spon­si­bil­ity in the Septem­ber 11 ter­ror at­tacks.

At­tor­neys gen­eral for Mary­land and the Dis­trict of Columbia cited the pay­ments by the Saudi lob­by­ing firm as an ex­am­ple of for­eign gifts to the pres­i­dent that could vi­o­late the Con­sti­tu­tion’s ban on such “emol­u­ments” from for­eign in­ter­ests.

The Saudi govern­ment was also a prime cus­tomer at the Trump In­ter­na­tional Ho­tel in New York early this year, ac­cord­ing to a Wash­ing­ton Post re­port. The news­pa­per cited an in­ter­nal let­ter from the ho­tel’s gen­eral man­ager, who wrote that a “last-minute” visit in March by a group from Saudi Ara­bia ac­com­pa­ny­ing Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man had boosted room rentals at the ho­tel by 13pc for the first three months of the year, af­ter two years of de­cline.

Saudi Ara­bia has also helped on one of Trump’s key pol­icy prom­ises, and helped the pres­i­dent’s friends along the way.

Last year, the king­dom an­nounced plans to in­vest $20bn in a pri­vate US-fo­cused in­fra­struc­ture fund man­aged by Black­stone Group, an in­vest­ment firm led by CEO Stephen Sch­warz­man. Black­stone stock rose on the news. Ear­lier this year, Trump un­veiled a $200bn (¤170bn) fed­eral plan to fix the na­tion’s air­ports, roads, high­ways and ports, tap­ping pri­vate com­pa­nies for help and sell­ing off some govern­ment owned in­fra­struc­ture. Sch­warz­man, who cel­e­brated his 70th birth­day at the pres­i­dent’s Mar-a-Lago re­sort in Florida, ac­com­pa­nied Trump on his visit to Saudi Ara­bia.

BEST OF FRIENDS: Don­ald Trump’s first over­seas visit as US pres­i­dent was to Saudi Ara­bia in May 2017

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