Archive for the ‘anti-kleptocracy’ Category

How “The Great Hack” Misses The Point by ANN MARLOWE JULY 22, 2019 5:19 AM

Tuesday, January 28th, 2020

originally published in on 7/22/19

It portrays Cambridge Analytica as taking advantage of lax controls at Facebook. But that was the least of the company’s problematic behavior.

or a moment, it looked as though capitalism was doing precisely what it is supposed to do, policing itself through the market. Almost exactly a year ago, Facebook’s market capitalization lost $119 billion in a single day when it revealed that 3 million Europeans had closed their accounts and that growth projections had slowed in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

The scandal erupted when British journalist Carole Cadwalladr orchestrated revelations by Cambridge Analytice whistleblower data scientist Christopher Wylie to the New York Times and Guardian, together with a sting operation by the U.K.’s Channel 4 News. Wylie admitted to working with a Cambridge University professor, Alexsandr Kogan, on for-profit use of data from FB profiles that was collected under the premise that it was for academic research. There has been much back-and-forth about when —and if—Cambridge Analytica deleted the data.

As a result, the EU introduced new data protection laws. And six U.K. companies in the Cambridge Analytica group had to declare bankruptcy.

It’s important to realize, though, that Facebook showed no interest in cleaning house for a long time.TheCambridge Analytica scandal made headlines in March 2018, but the basic elements were reported in December 2015 in the Guardian. Harry Davies exposed that CA’s work for candidate Ted Cruz used Facebook data harvested without users’ consent. Facebook refused to comment on Davies’ and others’ reporting.

Up until Trump’s election, there was also an unfortunate tendency for the media to see data harvesting as benign as long as left of center campaigns were the ones doing it. As this breathless 2012 Guardian article details, the Obama re-election campaign used Facebook to reach supporters in ways that would now make many of us queasy. “The re-election team, Obama for America, will be inviting its supporters to log on to the campaign website via Facebook, thus allowing the campaign to access their personal data and add it to the central data store.”

And these days, Facebook’s market price is close to its pre-scandal levels, even as the Federal Trade Commission has voted to fine the company a record $5 billion for misuse of data harvested from 87 million users in violation of its own rules. And while Cambridge Analytica, its parent company, SCL Elections, and four other affiliates filed for bankruptcy, spinoff SCL companies were started in 2017-8 in the U.K. When will we find out what they are up to? When something else dreadful occurs?

The coming Netflix documentary The Great Hack is a missed opportunity to remind viewers of what happened when Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica to collect data from users. The film, unfortunately, is not only dizzy and poorly edited, but gives way too much screen time to an impressionistic sketch of a not-very interesting former executive. Distracted viewers may remember the endless shots of Brittany Kaiser in cars, planes, and luxury hotels, and not notice the wrongdoing underlying it all.

But that wrongdoing wasn’t a bug in the way Cambridge Analytica operated, it was a feature. You could say the filmmakers give Kaiser, now 31, enough rope to hang herself, but that would have required them to question her version of the facts. Kaiser tries to portray herself as a human rights activist, but her work history before CA, the Nigerian election work she initiated for CA, and her current reinvention as a crytocurrency hustler with links to organized crime make that vanishingly improbable.

True, the film also follows an American professor of media studies at the New School, David Carroll, who sued Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections, in the U.K. under U.K. data protection laws, requesting all the data they had collected on him. But the bankruptcy of the UK companies led the UK court to decide against Carroll. On a happier note, The Great Hack also features the successful efforts of Carole Cadwalladr, whose Observer articles about Wylie’s revelations led directly to the collapse of SCL Group and to parliamentary hearings. (Full disclosure: I met Carroll and Cadwalladr in the course of tweeting about SCL, and collaborated on an article with Cadwalladr.)

The most disappointing aftermath of the CA scandal, though, is not Facebook’s impunity or Carroll’s defeat. It’s the way it’s been stovepiped as a case of a bad actor that took advantage of lax controls at Facebook. In fact, the data misuse was the least of the company’s problematic behavior.

Since August 2016, I’ve written or co-written five pieces exposing different aspects of Cambridge Analytica, from its former significant ownership by controversial U.K. property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz to its involvement in the “investor passports” business to its organizing hacking in Nigeria to its links with the Trump inner circle (Steve Bannon, Erik Prince, the Mercers).

My theory is that SCL/CA was a one-stop-shop that handled hacking elections, bribing foreign officials, getting them second or third passports, laundering their money, and dabbling in cryptocurrency. In fact SCL was apparently planning its own cryptocurrency just before the end came.

What was the real end game? It’s hard to say. But it’s interesting that SCL Group, which was incorporated in 2005 in the U.K., had seemingly little interest in making money in the data business. The company managed to lose 99 percent of its shareholders’ equity in its first seven years: “Shareholders’ equity plummeted from: £681,000 in 2006 to a modest £273,000 in 2012 to £4,424 in 2013 and £87,420 in 2014,” as I wrote for Tablet in 2016. ( Equity recovered to $244,194 in 2015, the last year the company filed accounts. )

These accounts were unaudited; the firm’s auditor, PKF, resigned in May 2013, apparently so that the firm could be domiciled at its address. It remained listed as accountant. But no other firm stepped in as replacement auditor.

The biggest SCL Group shareholder between 2005 and June 2015 was Vincent Tchenguiz, an innovative real estate investor with a penchant for conspicuous consumerism. As the Telegraph put it, “Tchenguiz’s motivator is money.”

So why did he stay invested so long in an unprofitable company? Tchenguiz only divested his shares when SCL was about to start work for Ted Cruz. His director, Julian Wheatland, remained a director until the company’s end, and even acquired a small shareholding.

Meanwhile, the key figures at SCL/CA are still riding high, trying to monetize their infamy where they previously tried to monetize our data.

Which brings us to Brittany Kaiser, the former executive turned “whistle-blower.”

When she’s not promoting cryptocurrency, Kaiser is writing a memoir of her “whistleblowing” for a “very high six figures” advance. Meanwhile the real CA whistleblower, Christopher Wylie (the pink-haired young man you may have seen on TV) appears in The Great Hack calling the company “a full-service propaganda machine”, and says Kaiser is no whistleblower.

Unlike Wylie, who left SCL in July 2014, Kaiser stuck with the company long past its sell-by date, leaving in winter 2018 due to a pay dispute, not revulsion at its dishonesty and lack of moral compass. Another problem is Kaiser’s own dishonesty and lack of moral compass.

According to the film and to Kaiser’s publisher, HarperCollins, prior to joining SCL she was “spending most of her career working for progressive political campaigns and human rights organizations.”

But there may even be more than meets the eye to one of Kaiser’s few certified liberal activities. Kaiser says she worked on Obama’s digital campaign alongside fellow Andover alum Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, in the summer of 2007.

Congress questioned Mark Zuckerberg in 2018 about Obama for America’s 2012 campaign which (depending on users’ privacy settings) allowed the same scraping of friends’ data without their permission that Cambridge Analytica’s did.

And contrary to Kaiser’s claims, her work before Cambridge Analystica involved rubbing shoulders with corrupt leaders and power-brokers in Libya, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia and other countries not exactly known for championing human rights.

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It was at a buzzy downtown Manhattan loft party in mid-November 2015. An acquaintance sang out to me as I walked in, ”You have to meet Brittany, you both worked in Libya!”

Brittany Kaiser was smiley and agreeable and young and disarmingly short; she said she’d been a human rights activist in Libya, where I’d worked as a journalist in 2011-12.

It was Kaiser’s bad luck that one of my companions at the party was Libyan, a former private banker with a huge stock of acquaintances. So we hit Kaiser with questions about what she did and for whom.

My Libyan friend had attended a May 2013 foreign direct investment conference in London that Kaiser herself had helped organize, and my friend lost no time in excoriating the then-prime minister whom Kaiser had worked with on the conference, Ali Zeidan, as “a big thief.” (He fled Libya in March 2014 after presiding over its looting and political collapse, and when he tried to return in August 2017 he was promptly kidnapped and lucky to escape the country with his life.)

My Libyan friend had heard enough and walked away in search of food. I continued peppering Kaiser with questions. I challenged her, asking why a “human rights” activist had worked with thieves like Zeidan. I was offensive. But Brittany wasn’t offended; she muttered something about having been very young then. She wasn’t very articulate, but she never lost her cool. She said she worked for a political consulting firm now. She even gave me her business card before we parted.

I found Kaiser’s activities so suspect that though it was late when I got home from the party I sat down at my laptop and went straight to the Companies House website to look up SCL Group Ltd, Kaiser’s employer. I also found the firm she’d worked for on the FDI conference, PACE Group. There was an advance promotional slide deck online.

In the next days, I pieced together part of the story. Kaiser incorporated Pan African Conference and Exhibition (PACE) in January 2013 with a woman from Sudan, Asgad Hagaz, who owned 999 of the company’s 1,000 shares, with Kaiser owning one. Hagaz and her husband Tariq Mohammed were known in the London Libyan community as Gaddafi supporters. PACE also worked with the embassy of Ethiopia in London in May 2014 on investment opportunities. Yet PACE doesn’t seem to have ever had a website.

According to the slide deck online, the “platinum sponsor” of the May 2013 conference that Kaiser organized was ODAC, a Libyan state contracting board helmed from 1989 to 2011 by Ali Ibrahim Dabaiba, a corrupt official said to have stolen more than $2 billion from the Libyan state. Another Libyan friend in London who attended the PACE FDI event thought the real purpose of the conference was to reinstate these corrupt contracts with the new ODAC management. (Coincidentally, when I met Kaiser I was researching the assets stolen by Ali Dabaiba. So it was Kaiser’s double bad luck to run into someone who knew what ODAC was.)

PACE never filed a return or accounts; it was dissolved by compulsory strikeoff in September 2014, presumably for non-filing.

In August 2013, according to her LinkedIn, Kaiser joined a related, equally shadowy group, Pathfinder Trade. Kaiser’s bio for Pathfinder lists work in such beacons of human rights as “Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Burma (sic), Azerbaijan, Mongolia and Iran.” (Oh, and China.) Pathfinder itself lists a seeming charity, World for Libya, as a “strategic partner” on its website. But World for Libya was also set up as a vehicle for political influence by associates of the kleptocrat Dabaiba family, as noted in a Wall Street Journal expose.

It may or may not prove to be relevant to the Kaiser-SCL saga that as I published in January 2017,

Tchenguiz did a £20 million trade-offset deal with Gadhafi in 2008, and was formerly half-owner of a London estate agency, now called Chestertons, which sold the office tower at 14 Cornhill to the Libyan Investment Authority in 2008.

Tchenguiz’ partner in Chestertons, Salah Mussa, a British Libyan, was the founder of World For Libya. So it could be that Kaiser came to the attention of the Mussa-Tchenguiz-Wheatland team in her PACE/Pathfinder days.

As this background suggests, Kaiser did not unwittingly slide down a slippery slope into involvement with nasty causes and people. She jumped down willingly.

But The Great Hack doesn’t begin to suggest how far over to the dark side Kaiser and her associates went during their tenures at SCL.

Kaiser initiated SCL’s work on the Nigerian presidential election of 2015, in an email she sent my source on December 19, 2014. My source on Kaiser’s Nigerian involvement was a former associate of Nigerian billionaire Benedict Peters. My source was furious at what he viewed as SCL’s incompetence, which is why he was willing to talk; later he also had a falling-out with Peters.

Peters was close to the incumbent Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, and former oil minister Diezani Alison-Madueke, who was first arrested for massive corruption on October 10, 2015, in London, some months after the SCL work in Nigeria described here.

The elections were slated to take place in February 2015—far too soon after Kaiser’s pitch to mount a proper digital campaign. (The election actually took place 28-29 March 2015 due to security issues.) My conclusion is that SCL had no intention of organizing a campaign based on its much-trumpeted personality profiling. They had cruder methods in mind, requiring a lot less time and effort.

The agreement was that Peters would pay SCL Group almost $2 million to work to re-elect Goodluck Jonathan; in addition, one of Kaiser’s friends, Chase Ergen, would obtain diplomatic passports from the Caribbean island of Dominica for Peters, Alison-Madueke, and one other Nigerian businessman. Such passports offer visa-free travel to 135 countries, including the Schengen area while Nigerian passports only offer visa free travel to 45 countries, mainly in Africa. In addition, people who fear indictment and confiscation of their primary passport may attempt to acquire others. (Ergen, a son of DISH chairman Charlie Ergen, is close to Dominica’s longtime PM, Roosevelt Skerritt.)

Most of the $2 million from the Peters group was wired to SCL’s London bank, but a few hundred thousand—my source couldn’t recall the exact figure—was sent to the Swiss bank account of what he called “ Israeli hackers with a Kiev company”. The Israelis did the real work: hacking Goodluck Jonathan’s opponent Mohamed Buhari. (Some of my source’s charges, including illegal hacking of Buhari’s financial and medical records, but not the passport deal, were verified by other sources in this article by Carole Cadwalladr.)

Despite SCL’s efforts, Goodluck Jonathan lost to Buhari in 2015. In March 2019, Buhari won a second term. Since then, Diezani Alison-Madueke has been arrested on money-laundering charges in both Nigeria and the U.K.; she had to return $153 million in state funds to Nigeria.

Speaking of the dark side, to the extent that anyone’s taken the fall for SCL it’s been Kaiser’s boss, the nervous, arrogant SCL Group CEO Alexander Nix. He refused to be interviewed for The Great Hack” but is nonetheless shown often on-screen, most memorably presuming to lecture MP Damian Collins, the head of the parliamentary inquiry into fake news before which he testified.

Nix also appears in famous clips from a Channel 4 (U.K.) sting video released March 19 2018 – the same day that the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office or ICO requested a warrant to search SCL’s offices. In the video, Nix tells a man he believes to be a potential foreign client, actually a reporter in disguise, about the SCL’s use of honeypots. He’s accompanied by the much older Mark Turnbull, a Bell Pottinger veteran then at SCL. (From 2004 until 2012 Turnbull ran Bell Pottinger’s Specialist Unit in Conflict Transformation. Bell Pottinger is better known in the U.K. than in the U.S. It collapsed in September 2017 amid allegations of inflaming racial tensions in work for South African clients, after a long history of work for dictators and rogues.)

Nix was supposed to appear on a panel at the annual Cannes Lions advertising convention this June but had to step down due to the outcry among attendees, including one past award winner who cut up his Lion prize in protest.

Nix’s last business venture, however, still exists, albeit without him. Nix and the CA gang started a new company, Emerdata Ltd., in the U.K. August 11, 2017, a week before the Delaware Cambridge Analytica LLC director Steve Bannon left the White House. Six of its 10 directors have resigned due to the Facebook scandal – Nix resigned March 28, 2018 shortly after resigning from SCL itself—but not Emerdata’s most notorious directors, Rebekah and Jennifer Mercer.

People like Nix and Kaiser don’t give up easily. They just keep plugging away, starting new companies with new hustles. And so just a few months after the collapse of CA, on June 7, 2018, a former director of Emerdata, Ahmad al-Khatib, 29, started Auspex International Ltd with Mark Turnbull, Nix’s co-star in the Channel 4 sting video.

Al-Khatib is one of the sons of Ashraf Hosny al-Khatib, an executive in the UAE crown prince’s court. The court is headed by a brother of the de facto ruler of the UAE, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

According to the unintentionally humorous press release, “It was Turnbull’s integrity, along with his strong track record in strategic consultancy and campaigning, that persuaded Al-Khatib to appoint him.” (Turnbull’s old firm Bell Pottinger had worked for the Abu Dhabi Airports Company and Emirates Airline.)

The Great Hack treads lightly about what Kaiser has done since leaving SCL, which is, besides the arduous task of self-promotion, crypto-hustling.

Kaiser’s LinkedIn lists her as co-founder of Bueno Capital, in the “Zurich area”, since September 2017.) What does Bueno do? The website listed on its LinkedIn page no longer works nor is there any information on who registered it. But one can consult a video from “CryptoHQ,” a side event at Davos 2018 Kaiser was involved with, to watch a lavishly fur-coated Kaiser explain “we work on building teams for blockchain projects and implementing them” and gush that it’s “the greatest time” to get involved with crypto: “The only alarm bell is there’s not enough developers to keep up with the boom.”

Kaiser has also made the time to serve on the advisory board of a crypto junketing company in neighboring Macau, DragonCoin, which has drawn the wrong kind of attention for being associated with Broken Tooth, aka Wan Kuok-koi, a scary convicted felon from Macau’s organized crime triads. Broken Tooth, recently released from prison after serving a 14-year sentence, is banned from Hong Kong.

If you don’t know much about what Kaiser did, her youth and carefully cultivated air of naivete may fool you. Or, if you are involved in fooling others, you may accept her as a kindred spirit. Some elements in the crypto “space” accept Kaiser as a whistleblower on SCL—as she was billed at a recent Hong Kong gathering (video here). Just this month, an Austin company reminiscent of London’s wilder AIM market rides, Phunware, named Kaiser to its advisory board.

Phunware, which describes itself as “a fully-integrated enterprise cloud platform for mobile,” commented that “Brittany has been at the epicenter of the global movement toward privacy, consumer protection and corporate accountability.” Phunware’s stock price has gone from over $300 in February to $2 today.

Ann Marlowe

Is Harvard Whitewashing a Russian Oligarch’s Fortune?

Monday, May 27th, 2019

Originally published in The New York Times on December 5, 2018:

Len Blavatnik made billions as a Kremlin insider. Now he’s writing huge checks to the university.

By Ann Marlowe
Ms. Marlowe is a writer.

Dec. 5, 2018

Len Blavatnik recently pledged $200 million to Harvard Medical School.
Joe Giddens/Pa, via Associated Press

Len Blavatnik recently pledged $200 million to Harvard Medical School.CreditCreditJoe Giddens/Pa, via Associated Press
This article has been updated.

By now, most Americans are aware of the deep and disturbing connections between Russia’s oligarchs and the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, thanks to an onslaught of news coverage and a growing list of sanctions aimed at them and their business empires.

Yet a surprising number of respected American institutions don’t seem to get it, including two that I am connected with: the Hudson Institute and Harvard.

On Tuesday, the founder, director and sole funder of the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative, Charles Davidson, announced that he was leaving his position at the head of the initiative because Hudson had accepted a $50,000 donation for a table at its annual gala from Leonard Blavatnik, a Soviet-born dual British-American citizen who made his money in the rough and tumble of Russia’s commodities privatizations during the 1990s and now owns, among other properties, Warner Music Group.

“Russian kleptocracy has entered the donor pool of Hudson Institute,” he told The New York Post. “Blavatnik is precisely what the Kleptocracy Initiative is fighting against — the influence of Putin’s oligarchs on America’s political system and society — and the importation of corrupt Russian business practices and values.”

Sources at the Hudson Institute said that Kleptocracy Initiative would continue, but did not comment on the Blavatnik gift. (Disclosure: I am a visiting fellow at Hudson, but it is an honorary position, and I have neither received money from the institute nor performed work for it.)

Mr. Blavatnik’s glory at Hudson largely lasted just one night. But he did succeed in attaching his name to Harvard for generations to come. On Nov. 8, Harvard Medical School announced that the Blavatnik Family Foundation had pledged $200 million to the institution, creating the Blavatnik Institute and Blavatnik Harvard Life Lab. This follows on a $50 million gift by the foundation to the university in 2013.

(Asked for comment, a Harvard spokeswoman said in a statement: “Harvard Medical School is deeply grateful for the generous and transformational commitment from the Blavatnik Family Foundation that will support discovery at HMS propelling the school’s mission to transform human health.” She also referred me to someone who handles media relations for the foundation.)

As a Harvard alumna, I find this appalling. Mr. Blavatnik — who, with a net worth of over $20 billion, is the richest man in Britain and the 29th-richest in America — cut his teeth in the brutal aluminum wars in 1990s Russia alongside Oleg Deripaska and Roman Abramovich, who has estimated that every three days someone in the business was murdered. Together, they acquired an empire of recently privatized metals and energy companies, often for outrageously low prices.

Those deals, and others, involved a series of transactions with individuals with checkered pasts, deep Kremlin ties and a reputation for corruption. Though Mr. Blavatnik is not under American sanctions himself, many of his associates are, including Mr. Deripaska. The aluminum giant Rusal, where he is a major shareholder, is facing direct sanctions due to go into effect soon; Rosneft, an energy company owned by the Russian government where he also made millions, expects the ax to fall shortly.

One of Mr. Blavatnik’s early investments, United Trading Company, which he owned with Viktor Vekselberg, another oligarch also under American sanctions, brought him censure from the Russian government.

In 2004 the pair had to give up ownership of United Trading after the Russian government charged it with anti-competitive actions; they sold their shares to three other Kremlin-linked investors, Dmitri Pyatkin, Aleksandr Fraiman and Igor Annensky.

In 1996, Mr. Blavatnik and Mr. Vekselberg helped found SUAL, a large aluminum producer; through it, they own over a quarter of Rusal. The other big shareholder in Rusal is Mr. Deripaska’s En+ Group, which controls 48 percent.

Mr. Blavatnik’s biggest deal involved selling his stake in the Russian oil company TNK-BP to Rosneft in March 2013; he and his partners, including Mr. Vekselberg, together made $27.7 billion. The deal was arranged at the top levels of the Russian government; since 2004, Rosneft has been run by a close ally of Mr. Putin, Igor Sechin, a former deputy prime minister.

To be clear, Mr. Blavatnik is not accused of any crimes, in the United States or in Russia. But he is undoubtedly a Kremlin insider, someone who has made an enormous fortune trading on his political connections to a deeply corrupt circle of oligarchs and a criminal Russian state.

Mr. Blavatnik is entitled to spend his money how he pleases. But institutions like the Hudson Institute and Harvard, which at least in principle stand for the ethical pursuit of knowledge, sully themselves by accepting it.

Accepting gifts — especially naming gifts — from people with dubious sources of funds or close ties to despotic regimes encourages the view that dirty money can be cleansed by charity. What lessons does that teach Harvard students? And what message does it send to citizens of countries troubled by kleptocracy and corruption?

One of the gates to Harvard Yard has a celebrated inscription: “Enter to grow in wisdom. Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.”

I still remember that. I wonder if Harvard does.

Ann Marlowe is a writer and consultant who specializes in investigating corruption.

Two Princes: Erik Prince and the Seychelles meeting

Monday, May 27th, 2019

Originally published in Fast Company, September 28, 2018:

Two Princes: How a secret meeting signaled the UAE’s pull in Trump’s D.C.
A meeting in the Seychelles between the Blackwater founder and a Putin ally has drawn scrutiny. It also indicated another backchannel to the White House.
Two Princes: How a secret meeting signaled the UAE’s pull in Trump’s D.C.
There are indications that the “Trump-Emirates” group has already had a frightening degree of impact on U.S. foreign policy. [Photos: skeeze/Pixabay; DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley; Flickr user Miller Center]
Please see the Editor’s Note at the bottom of this article.

On January 11, 2017, a week before Trump’s inauguration, two powerful men huddled together at the bar of the Four Seasons Hotel in the Seychelles, off the coast of east Africa: a fit, 6-foot-tall middle-aged American, with a military bearing, and a slightly younger Russian man, balding and bespectacled. They each nursed a beer and spoke quietly, so that the pair of Arab-looking men in dark suits standing nearby didn’t even try to eavesdrop. Every few minutes, the American checked his watch, a rescue-beacon-equipped Breitling Emergency.

Special counsel Robert Mueller has reportedly zeroed in on the hush-hush meeting, gathering evidence that shows it may have been one of the first efforts to set up a covert line of communication between Trump and Putin. But amid the scrutiny of Trump’s ties with Russia–and on meetings like the one in the Seychelles–another important story has been overlooked: the attempts by the United Arab Emirates, many successful, to influence the Trump administration, especially concerning its archrival Qatar.

The de facto ruler of the UAE, crown prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, or “MBZ” as he’s known, has met with members of the Trump coterie in two informal circumstances that we know of: in December 2016 in New York with campaign advisers Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and on January 11, 2017, in the Seychelles. There, MBZ arranged for the drink between Erik Prince—the Breitling-wearing founder of the now-defunct paramilitary firm Blackwater and brother of Trump secretary of education Betsy DeVos—and an associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The 57-year-old crown prince would amass a surprising number of useful American contacts. Among them were his adviser, Lebanese-American businessman George Nader, Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy, whose security company later secured hundreds of millions of dollars in UAE contracts, and Trump inauguration committee head Tom Barrack, whose real estate business has profited handsomely from Emirate deals.

Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) met with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis in Washington, D.C. on May 15, 2017. [Photo: DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley]
There are indications that the “Trump-Emirates” group has already had a frightening degree of impact on U.S. foreign policy, including Trump’s exuberant support for the 2017 Saudi and UAE-led regional boycott of Qatar and his March 2018 firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The countries have also pressured Washington to move the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command out of Qatar and sever Pentagon ties with a longtime regional ally.
Meanwhile, despite bipartisan protest, the Trump administration has supported a three-year-old Saudi and UAE-led military assault on Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, which last month included an errant missile attack that killed schoolchildren on a bus. More than 16,700 civilians have been killed or injured during the siege, which has fed what the United Nations says is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

None of this, by the way, is meant to endorse Qatar or other rivals of the UAE or their agents of influence in the slightest way. But all of the Emirati efforts need more attention, before the U.S. is dragged into a pointless Middle East conflict.

Prince told the House’s Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in November 2017 that he was invited to the Seychelles by “one of the members of the Royal Court” to discuss everything from “security issues to mineral issues to even bauxite.” The Emirati customers “mentioned a guy I should meet who was also in town to see them, a Kirill Dmitriev from Russia, who ran some sort of hedge fund.”

Dmitriev is the CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the state’s $10 billion sovereign wealth fund. RDIF’s links with the Kremlin may have led the U.S. to sanction the fund. It also boasts tight links with Abu Dhabi: The UAE sovereign fund Mubadala has co-invested with RDIF in 40 investments in Russia since 2013.

Prince–a former Navy SEAL whose Blackwater firm was implicated in a massacre of civilians in Iraq in 2007–has been described by other attendees at the meeting as presenting himself as an unofficial envoy for President-elect Trump. But in sometimes testy and arrogant responses to the committee, Prince insisted he was not acting on behalf of Trump and denied that the meeting had anything to do with a Russian backchannel. The encounter with Dmitriev was an impromptu introduction, Prince claimed: The Russian official just happened to be at the hotel, also meeting Emiratis.

Erik Prince, founder of the defunct security firm Blackwater, appeared before the House Intelligence Committee on November 30, 2017. Prince has been on MBZ’s payroll since around 2010, when he changed his residence to the UAE, and founded his post-Blackwater company R2. [Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images]
They met at the bar and spoke for 30 minutes, Prince said, chatting on “topics ranging from oil and commodity prices to how much his country wished for resumption of normal trade relations.”
“I remember telling him,” Prince recalled, “that if Franklin Roosevelt could work with Joseph Stalin to defeat Nazi fascism, then certainly Donald Trump could work with Vladimir Putin to defeat Islamic fascism.”

According to a memo reviewed by the Daily Beast and first reported on Wednesday, Prince and Dmitriev discussed a range of possible collaborations, including a military effort to take out specific ISIS leaders in Syria, nuclear and chemical nonproliferation, and a perplexing plan for RDIF to invest money in the U.S. Rust Belt, “creating real jobs for hard hit area with high employment.” The proposals echo ideas that have been raised by Moscow more officially.

Why did MBZ broker the meeting? In part, U.S. and European officials say, it was to determine if Russia could be persuaded to withdraw its support of the Assad regime in Syria, an aim of Saudi Arabia as well as the Trump administration. Such a move would have probably required the U.S. to take the unlikely step of lifting sanctions imposed on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine.

But if MBZ aimed to establish a backchannel between Trump and Russia, he was motivated by a range of other self-interested reasons, including obtaining Trump’s support against Qatar and possibly weaning the militant group Hamas from Qatari influence.

Mahe Island in the Seychelles. The meeting MBZ helped arrange there between Prince and a Putin ally is being examined by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. [Photo: SCAPIN/Pixabay]
Among the Americans MBZ hoped he could count on, perhaps no one was closer to Trump’s White House–and to MBZ himself–than Prince. In his House testimony, Prince said that while he has met with the crown prince “more than 12 times,” he does not know the crown prince well and did not do a significant amount of business with the UAE. But Prince and has been on MBZ’s payroll since around 2010, when he changed his residence to the UAE.
That year, Prince began building a private army for MBZ for a reported $529 million and helped train a Somali anti-piracy force funded by the UAE. Through a post-Blackwater company R2, founded in the UAE in 2010, Prince has also trained mercenaries who fight under the UAE flag in Yemen. In 2012, when Prince launched a private equity firm, FRG (Frontier Resource Group), eventually listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the investors included both the UAE’s Sheikh Tahnoun bin Mohammed Al Nahyan and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Court.

Apart from his sister, Prince’s strongest link to the White House was through former campaign chairman and top adviser Steve Bannon. Prince told lawmakers that he spoke periodically with Bannon and sent him unsolicited policy papers during the 2016 campaign. Bannon also hosted Prince frequently on Breitbart’s radio and website, where Prince aired anti-Hillary Clinton stories during the campaign.

In 2016, Prince and his mother donated $150,000 to the Super PAC Make America Number 1, one of Trump’s biggest supporters. And Prince is taken seriously by the Trump administration as a foreign policy guru: The White House is currently reviewing a plan by Prince to privatize the war in Afghanistan that has gained little support in the Pentagon.

Prince may have also introduced former Trump adviser Steve Bannon to MBZ. The crown prince met with Bannon, along with Jared Kushner and General Michael Flynn, in New York in December 2016; in a breach of protocol the UAE didn’t notify the Obama administration of the visit in advance. Prince told the House committee that the former Breitbart CEO said the meeting concerned Iran and Syria, and that the Emirati ruler “is a great guy.”

Bannon, Kushner, and Flynn all have close connections to Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct company part-owned by the U.K.-based SCL Group Ltd. Infamous now for its misuse of Facebook data on behalf of the Trump campaign, in December 2016 this U.S. subsidiary of SCL was basking in its triumph. Within a year, SCL would be waging a clandestine influence campaign against Qatar on behalf of MBZ. According to federal filings, SCL Social Limited was hired for $330,000 in October 2017 to run a #BoycottQatar social media campaign for the UAE. When asked in October about the SCL work against Qatar, Bannon said he had nothing to do with it.

We still don’t know, and we may never know, everyone who was at the now notorious rendezvous in the Seychelles and what they discussed. Apart from MBZ, Prince, and Dmitriev, the UAE’s spymaster Hamad al Mazrouei and another adviser to the crown prince, Palestinian politician Mohammed Dahlan, may have also attended, the Daily Mail reported.

Also present was George Nader, who helped organize the meeting. Nader, a longtime MBZ adviser with ties to the Kremlin, has contradicted Prince’s characterization to the House committee. According to sources close to the Special Counsel’s investigation, Nader–who first met Prince while representing his security contractors in post-invasion Iraq–reportedly told investigators that one of the primary goals of the meeting was to establish a line of communication between the Kremlin and the incoming administration, and said he had met Prince a week before the Seychelles meeting to brief him on Dmitriev.

This wasn’t the only high-powered meeting that the 59-year-old consultant arranged for MBZ in recent years. In mid 2015 Nader helped convene a yacht meeting in the Red Sea that included the crown prince, his Saudi counterpart Prince Mohammad bin Salman, President Sisi of Egypt, the crown prince of Bahrain, and the king of Jordan. The objective, according to sources who spoke with the pro-Qatari Middle East Eye, was to curtail the influence of Turkey and Iran. It’s not known what was discussed at the meeting, which took place after Trump announced his candidacy that June, but these were the countries that, with the exception of Jordan and the addition of Libya, would form an anti-Qatar alliance in 2017.

Nader’s entrée to Trumpworld started with Prince. The Blackwater founder arranged an August 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York between Nader, Donald Trump Jr., and an Israeli social media specialist, Joel Zamel. At that encounter–two months after a notorious Trump Tower meeting at which a Russian attorney offered damaging material on Hillary Clinton–Nader told Trump Jr. that the princes who led the UAE and Saudi Arabia were eager to help his father win the election. Zamel pitched Trump Jr. on a multimillion-dollar social media manipulation campaign run by his company PSY-Group, which employed several former Israeli intelligence officers.

It isn’t clear if such a campaign was initiated–Trump Jr.’s lawyer has said that his client wasn’t interested–but Nader was subsequently embraced as an ally by the Trump campaign. In his capacity as an adviser to MBZ, he met frequently with campaign advisers, including Bannon, Flynn, and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. At some point after the election, Nader paid Zamel up to $2 million, reportedly for a presentation about the significance of social media in political campaigns. Mueller is also said to be investigating this payment.

Nader achieved a remarkable amount in the months that followed the Seychelles meeting, after Trump’s inauguration. Nader would become a conduit for Emirati money used to influence Trump’s circle, as he reportedly told the special counsel. He would make frequent trips to the White House in the early months of the administration, meeting with Bannon and Kushner to discuss Middle East issues ahead of Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia in May 2017. In an Oval Office meeting, Nader would pressure Trump to fire Tillerson after the secretary of state had intervened to stop the proposed invasion of Qatar by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. And Nader would get a big fish on the line: former RNC finance chairman and longtime fundraiser Elliott Broidy.

Broidy is very close to Trump, and was a significant fundraiser for the campaign. After the election, he was appointed deputy finance director Republican National Committee, but resigned that position earlier this year after a woman claiming to be his former mistress sued him for breach of an agreement to pay her $1.6 million not to disclose the affair.

(Broidy has previously run afoul of the law: In 2009 the 61-year-old fundraiser plead guilty to paying New York pension fund officials almost $1 million in return for $18 million in management fees. In 2013, he withdrew his original felony plea prior to conviction and in return for his cooperation and restitution of the $18 million, the court allowed him to plead to a lesser misdemeanor charge instead. Broidy is now under investigation for influence peddling in China and Malaysia, the Washington Post reported in August. Nader has a criminal history as well: in 2003, he was convicted in the Czech Republic on charges of child molestation and child pornography.)

Just weeks after the Seychelles meetings, Broidy and Nader met for the first time, during Trump’s inauguration. By February—before Trump’s first visit to Saudi Arabia that May, which is generally thought to be the start of the UAE-Saudi campaign against Qatar—the two men were communicating about Saudi and Emirati policy goals in Washington and discussing potential contracts for Broidy’s obscure private security company, Circinus, with both the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia. Nader also introduced Broidy to MBZ and later in 2017 helped Broidy obtain $200 million in UAE contracts.

A trove of emails between Broidy and Nader allegedly hacked by agents of Qatar and reported by the Associated Press revealed that Nader and Broidy collaborated on an anti-Qatar influence campaign. In one email from February 7, 2017, Broidy wrote to a congressional staffer about an anti-Qatar bill. Later, he would brag to Nader of his closeness to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, saying that he could “educate” Mnuchin on adding Qataris to U.S. sanctions lists.

Elliot Broidy, fundraiser and former deputy finance chairman for the Republican National Committee. A George Nader company in the UAE sent $2.5 million to a Canadian company belonging to a friend of Broidy. From there it entered a Broidy bank account in L.A. [Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Pepperdine University]
According to summaries written by Broidy of two meetings he had with Trump, Broidy “was passing messages to the president from the two princes and that he told Trump he was seeking business with them,” the AP reported. Documents also showed that “the lobbying was intertwined with the pursuit of contracts from the very start, and involved specific political tasks carried out for the crown princes.”
On April 24, 2017, the Wall Street Journal published an anti-Qatar op-ed signed by a retired Air Force general, Charles Ward. It turned out that Ward was part of the Circinus team that had pitched Saudi Arabia for security work. And Broidy had sent a draft of the piece to Nader three days before publication.

That May, Broidy, who sometimes referred to Qatar as “the snake,” persuaded a U.S. think tank, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, to hold an anti-Qatar conference at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington. Broidy told the foundation’s CEO that the money for the conference did not come from a foreign government and that he had no contracts in the Gulf at the time.

The same day as the conference, the UAE was behind a series of hacks targeting Qatari news and social media sites. The Washington Post reported that disinformation was posted and attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani–including false reports that the emir called Iran an “Islamic power” and said, “Hamas is the representative of the Palestinian people.”

As Qatar’s Al Jazeera reported, citing research from the University of Exeter, a well-orchestrated bot campaign “began spreading sectarian, anti-Iranian, and anti-Semitic rhetoric, while heaping praise on Trump” and “began framing the discussion of ‘extremism’ towards criticism of Qatar for being a ‘servant of Iran’ (while being paradoxically close to Israel), and for its alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and others.” At the end of May, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt cited the false news reports as the reason for a ban on Qatari media. They broke relations with Qatar and imposed a trade and diplomatic boycott.

In early June, the email of Yousef al-Otaibi, the UAE’s high-powered ambassador to the U.S., was hacked and offered to U.S. media outlets. One of his emails, to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, was especially embarrassing, as Otaiba had sent Gates greetings from MBZ. Gates had been a speaker at the anti-Qatar FDD conference in May.

A month later, in July, Broidy sent George Nader a spreadsheet outlining a proposed $12.7 million campaign against Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. And between 2017 and March of this year, Broidy gave $600,000 to members of Congress backing anti-Qatar legislation. In October, Broidy helped arrange another anti-Qatar conference at the Hudson Institute in D.C., featuring a keynote by Steve Bannon.

The payments for Broidy’s influence efforts took a circuitous route. As the AP discovered, a Nader company in the UAE sent two payments totaling $2.5 million to Xiemen Investments Limited, a Canadian company belonging to a friend of Broidy, in April 2017. From there it entered a Broidy bank account in L.A. The source of Nader’s funds remains unknown.

Broidy maintains that he was not working under the direction of a foreign government, and that therefore he had no obligation to register with the U.S. government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The federal law requires lobbyists to disclose their ties and certain political activities if they are paid or even merely directed by foreign interests to influence policy. Violating FARA carries a maximum fine of $10,000 or up to five years in prison. Mike Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Rick Gates all failed to register under FARA, only doing so retroactively. Last month, campaign consultant Sam Patten pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent during the election, paying $50,000 in cash from an unidentified Ukrainian oligarch to the Trump inauguration committee, for which Broidy was vice chairman.

On June 5, 2017, the Saudi-UAE led coalition announced its blockade of Qatar. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson quickly intervened in an effort to calm the situation. He succeeded, but reportedly infuriated Crown Prince MBZ as well as members of the Trump White House. During an Oval Office meeting that October, Nader urged the President to fire Tillerson, “but only at a good time, politically,” as Nader recounted in a memo to Broidy. Tillerson would depart on March 31, 2018.

Tillerson was also undermined by Trump himself, who, after the blockade was announced, called Qatar “a funder of terrorism at a very high level.” At the time, Tillerson’s aides thought that Emirati ambassador Otaiba might have written that line for Trump.

Otaiba already had enough influence in Trumpworld that this suspicion was plausible. Jared Kushner was introduced to Otaiba by real estate financier and GOP donor Tom Barrack. Barrack, 71, whose parents are Lebanese-Catholic, is a native Arabic speaker and has had long ties in the region. He also had many business connections with Otaiba, and had even dealt with Otaiba’s father.

In 2009, Barrack worked with Otaiba to sell a Beverly Hills hotel for $41 million to a joint venture half owned by the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund. In 2012 Otaiba himself invested $1 million in a fund Barrack set up. Last year, a state investment fund controlled by MBZ invested $70 million in one of Barrack’s real estate partnerships, a landmark office tower in Los Angeles.

Tom Barrack, real estate investor and GOP donor. “Thanks to you, I’m in constant contact with Jared,” the UAE’s ambassador to the U.S. wrote Barrack in an email. [Photo: Brinson+Banks]
Barrack himself also once helped Kushner out of a financial jam. As the New York Times reported in June, the GOP donor bought up $70 million of Kushner’s debt on 666 Fifth Avenue and at Trump’s request was “among a group of lenders who agreed to reduce Mr. Kushner’s obligations to keep him out of bankruptcy.”
In spring 2016, Barrack introduced Otaiba and Kushner, telling Otaiba, who was skeptical of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, that the candidate “also has joint ventures in the U.A.E.!” Kushner’s introduction to Otaiba quickly led to a connection to MBZ himself. Reportedly, Kushner spoke directly with UAE Crown MBZ and the Saudi Crown Prince through WhatsApp, bypassing the State Department in an astonishing breach of procedure.

“Thanks to you, I’m in constant contact with Jared,” Otaiba wrote Barrack in an email obtained by the Times.

Otaiba was also close to Trump’s 2017 deputy national security adviser, Egyptian-American Dina Powell, whose entrée to the White House came through advising Jared’s wife, Ivanka Trump, during the campaign. The relationship was such that Otaiba forwarded to Powell an email exchange he had with a Politico journalist who criticized Egyptian President Sisi.

The Trump administration was also good for Barrack. His real estate fund Colony Northstar has received $7 billion in investments since Trump’s nomination, a quarter of which has come from the UAE or Saudi Arabia.

Some Trump-Emirates links suggest MBZ may be managing financial ties with Trump companies in other ways. One example is his bidding in the auction of a Leonardo painting belonging to Dmitry Rybolovlev. In 2008, the Russian billionaire paid Trump $95 million for an oceanfront Palm Beach estate that Trump had purchased for $41 million in 2004; the house sat empty for years before being demolished. The property has since been divided into three lots, two of which Rybolovlev has re-sold for over $71 million.

In November 2017 Rybolovlev sold Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” in a Christie’s auction that set a new world record price of $450 million. The price of the 26-inch painting–valued at around $80 million the year before–was driven high by a bidding war between a representative for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince bin Salman and the UAE’s MBZ, each of whom claimed they mistakenly thought they were bidding against the Qataris. MBZ was trying to buy it for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia “won” the painting, but then gave it to MBZ in exchange for the crown prince’s $450 million superyacht, the Topaz. (MBZ has donated it to the museum, where it was scheduled to be have been unveiled in September, but its exhibit has been delayed.)

Could the bidding war have been a way to funnel UAE funds to the Russian tycoon? While it’s unlikely the painting sale–which made Rybolovlev over $320 million–was related to the Palm Beach purchase, it is conceivable that these two deals are part of a larger number of transactions we don’t yet know about, in which the UAE rewards Trump indirectly for his support.

There is a UAE link straight to Trump’s business holdings, too. As Trump prepared to run for president, MBZ would have known that in April 2014, Trump bought the Turnberry golf course in Scotland from Leisurecorp, a UAE state-owned enterprise, for what was termed at the time a “bargain price,” in a £35.7 million ($63 million) “cash deal.” The UAE had put a total of £92 million into the property, which it bought in 2008. Leisurecorp paid £52 million for the resort–which comprises three courses, a golf academy, a five-star hotel, as well as lodge and cottage accommodations–and then proceeded to spend a further £40 million on renovations.

It’s unclear why the UAE effectively made a £58 million gift to Donald Trump in 2014. But this is one of many questions about the Trump-Emirates relationship that needs more attention, especially before that relationship drags the U.S. into more dangerous adventures in the Middle East.

Ann Marlowe (@AnnMarlowe) is a writer and consultant in New York. The author is indebted to the reporting of Wendy Siegelman for many insights, including the importance of the Bannon link and her research on the UAE ties of Cambridge Analytica and its successor companies.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the subsequent division and sale of the Palm Beach estate. An earlier version of this story also contained several inaccuracies regarding Elliott Broidy which have been corrected and/or clarified. They are:

The nature of Broidy’s work with the UAE in 2017. Broidy and Nader collaborated on an influence campaign in Washington in support of UAE and Saudi interests at a time when Broidy was expecting contracts from the UAE eventually worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Broidy maintains that because that work involved no direct instruction or payments from those governments for Washington lobbying he was not required to register under FARA.
When Broidy first met Nader, as well as the timing of UAE contracts with Broidy’s company.
How Broidy represented the source of his funding for a May 2017 anti-Qatar conference in Washington. According to the CEO of the foundation hosting the conference, Broidy said at the time that he had no contracts in the Persian Gulf.
That Broidy resigned his RNC position as a result of the controversy surrounding a payment to an alleged former mistress, but not because of a request to investigate the payment.
In 2013 Broidy withdrew an original felony plea related to rewarding official misconduct and plead to a lesser misdemeanor charge instead.