DUBAI — The Trump-branded resort was almost set for its glitzy opening. A worker touched up the gold paint on a sign adorned with the American president’s family crest, and the invitations, embossed in gold, had been sent out.
Local media speculated that the nation’s royals would be among the special guests.
On Saturday, President Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Jr. are expected to attend the launch of the Trump International Golf Club, the first opening of a Trump-branded property since their father’s inauguration last month — and the first Trump golf resort in the Arab world.
In a city with outsize ambitions to match Trump’s, the event is sure to be memorable. Well-heeled guests, including those paying nearly $10,000 for an annual membership, will get to hobnob with the Trump sons as a contingent of Secret Service agents keeps watch.
The Trumps arrive in a Middle East divided over their father’s policies. There is outrage over a now-frozen travel ban on refugees and on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. And there’s angst over his stepping back from long-held U.S. support for the idea of an independent Palestinian state.
But in the United Arab Emirates, and in some other countries that are key U.S. allies in the region, such rancor has been invisible, their leaders largely silent or supportive of President Trump’s upending policies. Even as his administration enters a potentially tense political and diplomatic relationship with the Middle East, the president’s business interests here are thriving.
“His brand has gotten stronger,” said Niall McLoughlin, a senior vice president of Damac Properties, a Dubai-based luxury real estate firm whose residential community is home to the Trump golf course. “There’s not many people who don’t know the Trump brand now.”
Trump has left the management of his empire to his children but has refused to divest his ownership. That means he stands to benefit should the golf club and its affiliated businesses become a commercial success, creating potential conflicts of interest.
According to a Federal Election Commission report last year, Trump received between $1 million and $5 million from Damac. His company stands to earn even more in this country through a branding and operating agreement for the golf course based on revenue performance, though McLoughlin did not offer specific figures.
With its gleaming skyscrapers and high-end malls, Dubai is typically on lists of cities where golf is extremely popular. The 18-hole golf course was designed by Gil Hanse, who also created the 2016 Olympic Games golf course in Rio de Janeiro. The 32,000-square-foot clubhouse contains a luxury spa, a golf shop and five high-end restaurants, including one named Fifth Avenue. The world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, can be seen in the distance from the golf course.
According to the local Gulf News, “Trump Steaks aren’t going to be on the menu, but some of the grape beverages from the President’s Virginia vineyards will be flown over.”
The clubhouse, the newspaper said, contains “enough gold to suit even the most exacting Dubai resident. Expect gilt and marble everywhere — from the plates to the stairs and the elevators down to the entrance to the changing rooms, where a giant Trump family crest is irritatingly difficult to grab a selfie against.”
The course is inside Damac Hills, dubbed by its developer as the “Beverly Hills of Dubai.” The sprawling community of roughly 9,000 villas and condos is a short drive from downtown Dubai. Within it are also some 100 Trump-branded villas — designed by Ivanka Trump and nestled in a private, gated community — that sell for between $1.3 million and $4 million. They come with a personalized golf cart and a Trump Lifestyle card to access more Trump services.
The development, which has started selling residential units and is at various stages of construction, is also expected to have a park, luxury stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, banks and an outdoor cinema. Foreign buyers of Damac’s properties, McLoughlin said, are mostly from the Persian Gulf and the Indian subcontinent but also include Americans and Europeans. Russians, he said, make up less than a quarter percent of the buyers, in part because of the weak ruble.
Hussain Sajwani, the billionaire founder of Damac Properties, is a close friend of Trump. At a New Year’s Eve Party at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, the then-president-elect described Sajwani and his family as “the most beautiful people from Dubai.”
On Thursday, two dozen South Asian workers were planting flowers, replacing bricks and sprucing up signs at the entrance to the golf course in preparation for Saturday’s event, which is closed to the media. A potential buyer drove up in a red Rolls-Royce. Seconds later, a gleaming Aston Martin approached the residences.
Across Dubai, huge billboards promote the Trump International Golf Club. Visitors are greeted at the international airport by Damac signs and employees passing out brochures titled “Live the Luxury.”
In public statements, the sheikhdom’s leaders have expressed support for Trump’s policies. Earlier this month, the country’s foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, told journalists that Trump’s travel ban was within Trump’s rights to impose and was not anti-Muslim. The executive order restricted travelers from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Yemen — countries where he does not appear to have business interests.
“We completely support Trump in his ban on entry to those who may cause a breach in America’s security,” Dubai’s deputy police chief, Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan, wrote on Twitter, according to a translation in the al-Arabiya newspaper. “Trump, what you’re doing is right.”
The UAE, a key U.S. ally and home to some 5,000 American military personnel, is not the only Arab country that has not criticized Trump’s policies. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have also remained silent.
“There is a big and growing gap between people and governments in most of the Arab countries,” said Rami Khoury, former editor in chief of the Jordan Times and a Middle East scholar at the American University of Beirut. “Most of the governments are desperately seeking something from the United States. They want protection, they want investment, they want trade, and they want military support.”
“So the silence you get from the Arab governments is explained by the fact that they don’t want to” irritate him, Khoury added. “He could take his golf course and go home and do other terrible things.”
Security experts have expressed concerns about attacks against Trump-branded properties overseas, but McLoughlin said that “the UAE is one of the safest countries in the world.” Dubai police did not respond to requests for comment about security precautions, and a State Department official said the embassy was not involved in the Trump sons’ visit or the opening and was only providing facilities and vehicles for the Secret Service agents, as per protocol.
Damac, McLoughlin added, bought the land for the development from the UAE government for $350 million. The firm is responsible for providing water, electricity, trash pickup and other services to the community, although it still needs government regulatory approval for some issues, including serving alcohol at the golf clubhouse.
Legal and ethics experts have expressed concern that Trump’s global empire could violate the U.S. Constitution’s “emoluments clause,” which prevents public officials from accepting payments or gifts from foreign governments without congressional consent. There are also concerns that Trump’s business interests could open him up to bribes or threats form foreign governments.
McLoughlin called such concerns “a really big stretch,” adding that Damac owns the golf course, the estate and the land and that the company “has nothing to do with the government.”
There were conversations with the Trump Organization for new deals, he said, but those were canceled when Trump took office.
Still, the presidents’ business interests are poised to grow in Dubai. Down the road, a new Damac residential development named Akoya Oxygen is being built. It will be bigger and more luxurious.
It will feature another Trump-branded golf course, this one designed by Tiger Woods, and is scheduled to open as early as next year.