As the cameras flashed, Donald Trump welcomed Demi Moore and Naomi Watts, Heidi Klum as they joined him at his party the Park Avenue Plaza in New York.
It was the summer of 2008 and Trump was launching his company’s newest hotel, The Trump International Hotel & Tower in Dubai.
This stunning 62-floor stainless steel and glass structure in the shape of a tulip would have sat in the center of Palm Jumeirah, Dubai’s iconic man-made archipelago in the shape of a palm.
I say would have because Trump’s Dubai tower was never built. It was a castle in the air, a fever dream built on the belief that good times would never stop rolling. Which they did not long after the New York party.
As Trump officially kicked off sales of apartments at his party in New York, the Dubai tower was attracting a lot of interest halfway around the world. Donald Trump Jr. famously said in September 2008, “In terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. ” (emphasis added)
And these Russian buyers, whoever they were, were loaded. At the time of the New York party, pre-sales of the Dubai tower had fetched an average of $2,450 per square foot, with some units receiving bids as high as $3,270 per square foot.
After learning a little about Dubai, I’m not surprised that Russian money was attracted to Trump’s $1.1 billion project, his first venture in the Middle East.
Dubai is known for its sun-splashed towers and its man-made archipelagos but it also has a darker side. Sitting at the junction of Europe, Africa and Asia, Dubai was a crossroads for international criminals. When the emirate opened its property market to foreign buyers in 2002, Dubai quickly became a place where dirty money could be washed clean, particularly through property sales.
“During the boom, Dubai was a good place for money laundering, through property, land sales and the big projects,” Hamdan Abdullah al-Sayyah, a managing partner at Al Sayyah Advocates and Legal Consultants in Dubai, told The New York Times (for a 2010 story headlined “Dubai Labors Under Money-Laundering Image.”)
Dubai was and is a bright place for shady people. The emirate’s laissez-faire attitude allowed the vice president of Afghanistan to arrive in Dubai with $57 million in cash and continue on his way. The chairman of Kabul Bank owned 39 properties on Palm Jumeirah.
Russian criminals, too, could relax in Dubai. At least they could until 2006 when Zahar Kalashov, a top Russian Mafia boss, was arrested after leaving a party attended by members of the Georgian and Russia Mafia.
Another Russian criminal exposed in Dubai was Olga Stepanova, who, together with her now ex-husband, acquired three properties in Palm Jumeirah, the site of Trump’s tower, worth a combined $7 million. Quite a feat considering the couple reported an official joint income of $38,000.
It turns out Stepanova was a Russian tax official who had authorized $230 million in fraudulent tax rebates for organized crime groups. The scam was uncovered by Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer working for financier turned human-rights campaigner Bill Browder.
Magnitsky was murdered in a Russian prison in 2009 and Browder has never forgotten him. The Magnitsky Act, signed into law by President Obama three years later, seeks to punish those responsible for his death. (For details and photos of the Dubai properties, see the Website Russian Untouchables.)
Russians were well known for buying luxury properties that then sat empty. “Russians are still coming with suitcases of cash to buy flats which they never live in,” a UK financier working in Dubai told The Guardian of London in 2010 . “It’s easy to get resident permits. These sort of stories are rife. Russia is the biggest source. A lot of it is mafia.” Today one in five Dubai luxury properties sits empty, with many owned by Russians.
Hamdan Abdullah al-Sayyah, the attorney quoted earlier by the Times, cited a case he dealt with, where a person claiming to be a businessman filtered $10 million from Russia into a Dubai land deal. “The money arrived in small transactions, so the bank wouldn’t be suspicious, and he had a sales contract to show the bank,” Mr. Sayyah said. “At that time, nobody was looking into it because the country needed investors to come in.”
Given this background, it’s not surprising then that Trump’s Dubai tower was getting a lot of interest from Russian buyers.
Trump’s partner in the deal was effectively Dubai itself. The developer on the project was Nakheel, a subsidiary of Dubai World, a giant conglomerate owned ultimately by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The terms of the deal made it a partial licensing deal and a partial partnership, Trump said during a 2010 deposition.
Trump and Nakheel were riding high in the summer of 2008. There was another party for Trump’s Dubai tower. This time it was at an even more star-studded affair in Bel Air, California. Christina Aguilera sang for the crowd of 1,000 guests at Tar’s home, which is known as the Cheateau d’Or , which included Pete Wentz, Orlando Bloom, Omarosa, P. Diddy, Hilary Swank, and Aaron Eckhart. The event was held at the estate of Yousuf Tar, a Pakistani who owns Bernini clothing company.
“The battle of the towers” was underway between Trump’s Dubai tower and the Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building, to see which one could sell the emirate’s most expensive apartment. (“Dubai high rises reach record prices as battle of the towers hots up,” Financial Trump was hoping to sell a penthouse in his tower for more than $30 million, which would smash the record.
No one seemed to notice danger signs. Nakheel itself had fueled its incredible expansion on debt and the credit markets were flashing red. Although sign that things were spinning out of control came in August 2008, just before the Bel Air gala, when two Nakheel executives, including the top sales manager, were arrested on suspicion of bribery. (Details on the case were not made public and Trump was never implicated.)
The end came quickly.
Within a few months of the Bel Air party, work on the project came to an abrupt halt, as Nakheel groaned under the weight of its massive debts. Trump’s Dubai tower, just one of the many mega-projects Nakheel had going. Planned and underway projects exceeded $310 billion (!) in 2008. All were predicated on the availability of cheap finance.
The collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing credit crunch forced Dubai to face reality and its massive debts. Its parent company, Dubai World, in 2009 ceased payment on its $59 billion in debts and had to be bailed out by neighboring Abu Dhabi.
In 2011, Nakheel revealed what everyone already knew. Trump’s Dubai tower would not be built.
But Trump’s Dubai dream never died.
Today in 2017, his company is selling the Trump Estates Park Residences in Dubai. He has a new partner, Hussain Sajwani of DAMAC Properties in Dubai, and a new site on the outskirts of the city.
The prices are lower: $800,000 will buy you a 4-bedroom villa with a complimentary 3-year family membership at Trump’s nearby golf course. DAMAC is also building a second Trump-branded golf course, designed by Tiger Woods, in Dubai.
I wonder who the buyers are.