For President Trump, Saudi Arabia is not just a political ally. It has also been a customer.
Trump’s business relationships with the Saudi government — and rich Saudi business executives — go back to at least the 1990s. In Trump’s hard times, a Saudi prince bought a superyacht and hotel from him. The Saudi government paid him $4.5 million for an apartment near the United Nations.
Business from Saudi-connected customers continued to be important after Trump won the presidency. Saudi lobbyists spent $270,000 last year to reserve rooms at Trump’s hotel in Washington. Just this year, Trump’s hotels in New York and Chicago reported significant upticks in bookings from Saudi visitors.
“Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million,” Trump told a crowd at an Alabama campaign rally in 2015. “Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
The Trump Organization issued a statement Thursday saying that although it has pursued new hotel deals in Saudi Arabia in the past, it has no current plans to do so.
.. Saudi royalty has been buying from Trump dating to 1995, with some of the deals coming during periods when Trump was in need of cash.
.. In 1991, when Trump was nearly $900 million in debt from failed casino projects, he sold his 281-foot yacht to Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal for $20 million.
.. A few years later, the prince bought a stake in Trump’s Plaza Hotel by agreeing to pay off some of Trump’s debts on the property.
.. Tim O’Brien, a journalist who wrote the 2005 biography “TrumpNation,” said these deals were one-sided — in the prince’s favor. He said Trump was in dire financial straits, so the prince got a good price.
.. But there was no indication, back then, that Saudis wanted to curry favor with Trump by giving him a better deal, O’Brien said. “Talal saw him as a profit center,” he said, “not as somebody who he was cultivating as a future president.”
.. In 2001, Trump sold the 45th floor of his Trump World Tower, in New York, to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for $4.5 million.
.. More recently, Prince Nawaf bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz al-Saud acquired what would become a 10,500-square-foot triplex apartment in a Trump building on the west side of Manhattan. Nawaf sold it in February for $36 million.
.. During Trump’s presidential campaign, he also seemed to be exploring plans to build a hotel in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city, part of an international expansion plan. In August 2015 — two months after he got into the race — Trump established eight new shell companies that included the name “Jeddah.”
.. The names of those corporations — four of which also included the word “hotel” — seemed to indicate Trump was planning a hotel in the city.
.. Since Trump won the presidency, Saudis have been patrons of three of his 11 Trump-branded hotels.
.. In early 2017, a lobbying firm working for the Saudi Embassy reported spending $270,000 on food and lodging at Trump’s hotel in downtown Washington. The rooms were used to house people visiting Washington to lobby against a law that the Saudi government opposed — a law that allows victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to sue the Saudi government.
.. the general manager at Trump’s hotel on Manhattan’s Central Park West
.. One major reason, General Manager Prince A. Sanders wrote: “a last-minute visit to New York by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.”
Sanders told the investors that the Trump hotel’s Saudi guests did not include Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself because the hotel did not have a suite large enough to suit him. But, he said, “due to our close industry relationships, we were able to accommodate many of the accompanying travelers.”
.. Saudi bookings at Trump Chicago had gone from 81 “room-nights” in the first half of 2016 to 218 in the first half of this year — an increase of 169 percent. (In the same time frame, bookings from Saudi Arabia’s rival Qatar increased 1,633 percent, from three “room-nights” to 52).
Frankly, it’s a disgrace that Trump administration officials and American business tycoons enabled and applauded M.B.S. as he
- imprisoned business executives,
- kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister,
- rashly created a crisis with Qatar, and
- went to war in Yemen to create what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis there.
Some eight million Yemenis on the edge of starvation there don’t share this bizarre view that M.B.S. is a magnificent reformer.
.. Trump has expressed “great confidence” in M.B.S. and said that he and King Salman “know exactly what they are doing.” Jared Kushner wooed M.B.S. and built a close relationship with him — communicating privately without involving State Department experts — in ways that certainly assisted M.B.S. in his bid to consolidate power for himself.
The bipartisan cheers from Washington, Silicon Valley and Wall Street fed his recklessness. If he could be feted after kidnapping a Lebanese prime minister and slaughtering Yemeni children, why expect a fuss for murdering a mere journalist?
.. M.B.S. knows how to push Americans’ buttons, speaking about reform and playing us like a fiddle. His willingness to sound accepting of Israel may also be one reason Trump and so many Americans were willing to embrace M.B.S. even as he was out of control at home.
In the end, M.B.S. played Kushner, Trump and his other American acolytes for suckers. The White House boasted about $110 billion in arms sales, but nothing close to that came through. Saudi Arabia backed away from Trump’s Middle East peace deal. Financiers salivated over an initial public offering for Aramco, the state-owned oil company, but that keeps getting delayed.
.. The crackdown on corruption is an example of M.B.S.’s manipulation and hypocrisy. It sounded great, but M.B.S. himself has purchased a $300 million castle in France, and a $500 million yacht — and he didn’t buy them by scrimping on his government salary.
.. In fairness, he did allow women to drive. But he also imprisoned the women’s rights activists who had been campaigning for the right to drive.
Saudi Arabia even orchestrated the detention abroad of a women’s rights activist, Loujain al-Hathloul, and her return in handcuffs. She turned 29 in a Saudi jail cell in July, and her marriage has ended. She, and not the prince who imprisons her, is the heroic reformer.
.. The crown prince showed his sensitivity and unpredictability in August when Canada’s foreign ministry tweeted concern about the jailing of Saudi women’s rights activists. Saudi Arabia went nuts, canceling flights, telling 8,300 Saudi students to leave Canada, expelling the Canadian ambassador and withdrawing investments. All for a tweet.
.. Western companies should back out of M.B.S.’s Future Investment Initiative conference later this month. That includes you,
- Credit Suisse,
- Bain and
all listed on the conference website as partners of the event.
.. We need an international investigation, perhaps overseen by the United Nations, of what happened to Jamal. In the United States, we also must investigate whether Saudis bought influence with spending that benefited the Trump family, such as $270,000 spent as of early 2017 by a lobbying firm for Saudi Arabia at the Trump hotel in Washington. The Washington Post reported that Saudi bookings at Trump Chicago increased 169 percent from the first half of 2016 to the first half of this year, and that the general manager of a Trump hotel in New York told investors that revenues rose partly because of “a last-minute visit to New York by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.”
.. If Saudi Arabia cannot show that Jamal is safe and sound, NATO countries should jointly expel Saudi ambassadors and suspend weapons sales. The United States should start an investigation under the Magnitsky Act and stand ready to impose sanctions on officials up to M.B.S.
America can also make clear to the Saudi royal family that it should find a new crown prince. A mad prince who murders a journalist, kidnaps a prime minister and starves millions of children should never be celebrated at state dinners, but instead belongs in a prison cell.