As the trial of Thomas J. Barrack Jr., his assistant Matthew Grimes, and their associate Rashid al-Malik unfolds, The Knows provides critical context to Barrack’s connections to powerful agents of foreign influence prior to his decades-long relationship with Donald Trump.
In 2017, Hedge fund manager Rick Gerson arranged a meeting between his good friend Jared Kushner and former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair.
According to Daphne Barak’s book To Plea or Not To Plea: The Story of Rick Gates and the Mueller Investigation, Blair’s meeting with Jared Kushner “raised a big red flag,” particularly given its timing: soon after Tom Barrack, founder of Colony Capital and chairman of Donald Trump’s 2017 Presidential Inaugural Committee, had introduced Kushner to influential figures in the Arab world.
In her book, Barak claimed she was asked to put together a “package” for Barrack that tied together Blair’s connections to “high-paying masters” in various countries following his term as prime minister.
In 2011, Blair was paid to broker deals at the behest of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund. One of the most visible transactions was for the five-star Claridge’s hotel in London that one participant told The Daily Mail was “no longer about mere business,” but also “ego, pride, and visceral amounts of hatred.”
Claridge’s was just one of three hotels that Qatari royal Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani sought in London. Blair’s role consisted of securing financial backing from the Sheikh for Irish property developer Patrick McKillen.
The Qatari loan, however, was only a short-term fix. McKillen later announced Barrack’s Colony Capital had agreed to buy approximately $780 million of debt owed by the developer to the Irish National Management Agency.
Blair frequently acted as an intermediary for his high-profile Mid East connections. In 2013, Blair introduced MBZ to Chinese businessman and alleged CCP double agent Guo Wengui who later reportedly received $3 billion from the UAE’s royal coffers.
By 2015 the Emiratis were looking to mend their relationship with Israel, also turning to Blair to formulate a cure.
Few politicians have been as ruthlessly discarded by the public as Blair. Nicknamed “Mr. 93%” by The Independent after the death of Princess Diana, by 2016, 48% of Britons described the former Labour Party leader as a “terrible” or “poor” PM in a YouGov poll.
After stepping down in 2007, Blair was named Special Envoy for the Quartet, a joint effort by Russia, the U.S., the EU, and the U.N. to help build the framework for a Palestinian state. But while heading the Quartet, Blair, reported to be personally close to MBZ, began secretly taking millions from the UAE.
The Emirati ruler Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (said to be “Emirati Official 1” in Tom Barrack’s 2021 indictment), or MBZ, was not only a friend of Blair’s but also a client. Tony Blair Associates had a contract to advise Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund Mubadala, chaired by MBZ, on strategic investments.
Blair stepped down from the Quartet in 2015 after his relationships to the Emirates were revealed, announcing his own Mideast peace initiative that November.
In a 2020 interview with Israel Hayom, Blair explained how he’d opened the backchannel between Israel and the UAE that resulted in the Abraham Accords, telling the paper that beginning in late 2015 he had arranged a series of meetings between Israeli shadow diplomat Yitzhak Molcho and an Emirati minister Blair declined to name.
Molcho was a legend, exercising towering discretion. Long considered Netanyahu’s most trusted advisor, the lawyer held no portfolio and was paid a symbolic one shekel a year to do the work.
The outreach worked. After an initial introduction in London, the parties held a series of meetings in Tel Aviv, Abu Dhabi and Nicola, Cyprus. The UAE received a special gift: Israeli technical assistance that had previously been withheld. Eventually, Israeli firm NSO shared its Pegasus spyware with UAE, only withdrawing the gulf nation’s software license when abuses of the software by top royals were exposed in British courts.
In 2006, with the help of investors, South African hospitality magnate Sol Kerzner took his Kerzner International Resorts Ltd. private.
Among these backers were Tom Barrack’s Colony Capital and Istithmar World, the investment arm of Dubai’s sovereign wealth fund.
Most of the UAE’s oil wealth is tied up in Abu Dhabi, the emirate ruled by the bin Zayed family. But it was Dubai, ruled by the Maktoum family, which later emerged as the financial capital of the Gulf States.
Dubai’s Ruler, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum was both vice president and prime minister of the UAE. Through his management of his personal wealth, he became one of the world’s preeminent real estate investors.
Barrack soon found himself on corporate boards with prominent figures from Dubai such as Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaibani, director general of Sheikh Mohammed’s royal court. Shaibani was also the vice chairman of Dubai Aerospace Enterprise, an aviation leasing and services company.
Dubai Aerospace Enterprise was the brainchild of Rashid al-Malik, a former commercial pilot for UAE’s Emirates Airlines named as Barrack’s co-conspirator in his 2021 indictment.
Al-Malik, secretly indicted in 2019, convinced two sovereign wealth funds controlled by UAE royals – Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Development Co. and Dubai’s Istithmar World – to back the new venture.
In 2009, Colony Capital had leveraged new deals with Abu Dhabi, then ruled by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed.
A trove of emails stolen by hacking group Global Leaks allegedly show that the UAE deployed Yousef al-Otaiba, its ambassador to the U.S., to close the L’Ermitage deal.
Ambassador Otaiba, said to be Emirati Official 5 in Barrack’s 2021 indictment, emailed him in December 2009 urging the Colony Capital head to accept a bid on L’Ermitage from the group.
The emails detail how Ambassador Otaiba received $66 million from Malaysia’s 1MDB development fund after completing the deal.
“I’m contacting you today to endorse this bid as the UAE ambassador,” Otaiba wrote, “but also as someone who understands that the full weight of a major investment entity is behind this project.”
Barrack told The Wall Street Journal Otaiba was “a friend,” and that the bid from Viceroy Hotel Group was accepted because it was the highest.
In 2010, Colony sold the L’Ermitage Beverly Hills hotel to Viceroy Hotel Group, partially owned by Mubadala and the family trust of alleged Malaysian 1MDB kleptocrat mastermind and fugitive Low Taek Jho, better known as Jho Low.
A federal indictment in 2018 charged Jho Low with bribing UAE and Malaysian officials to allow several UAE-based sovereign wealth funds to guarantee bond transactions totaling $6.5 billion, from which Jho Low and his co-conspirators embezzled $4 billion.
A list of officials to be bribed included UAE Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, vice chairman of the Mubadala investment fund and half-brother of Mubadala chairman MBZ.
Goldman Sachs Banker Tim Leissner testified that Jho Low told his alleged co-conspirators that Sheikh Mansour “would not get out of bed for less than 100 million dollars.”
Barrack’s Colony Capital deepened its relationships with the UAE in 2013, teaming up with al-Malik’s Bay Investment Group to sign a deal with the City of Oakland, California, for redevelopment of the area around the Oakland Coliseum where the Athletics and the Raiders played.
The development plan between Colony and Malik’s Hayah Holdings allegedly fell apart in 2015 when Colony claimed, for reasons that remain unclear, it was unable to raise money for the project.
Blair’s reach also extended to the heights of the House of Saud by way of Prince Turki bin Abdullah, the son of King Salman’s predecessor King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud.
This relationship presaged Blair’s rivalry with Barrack by way of his own Saudi partner Prince Turki al-Faisal. (In 2017, MBS ordered Prince Turki bin Abdullah arrested on corruption charges.)
Years earlier, in 2009, PetroSaudi was already deeply entwined in the same 1MDB scandal that would touch the UAE. A sham joint venture between 1MDB and PetroSaudi was used to transfer $1 billion to a bank account controlled by 1MDB mastermind Jho Low.
In summer 2010, PetroSaudi, one of the world’s largest companies, hired Tony Blair Associates to lobby for them and arrange contacts with China’s National Petroleum Corporation.
According to emails obtained by The Guardian, Blair “courted” Chinese leaders on behalf of PetroSaudi for nearly $100,000 a month. The venture was successful and the Chinese government “blessed” the deals.
According to extensive reporting from NRC Handelsblad, in early 2014, Alex Copson reached out to Jan Willem Henkelman, a senior official with the Dutch heavy transport giant Mammoet, to push a new plan: selling Russian reactors and nuclear waste storage to Saudi Arabia.
At a series of meetings at a Washington, D.C. law firm, Mammoet agreed to pay Copson’s company $5 million to lobby the U.S. government to support the sale.
The May 2014 contract refers to a master agreement with the Russian government. The vehicle for the joint venture was a Netherlands company ACU Mammoet, B.V.
Lawyers for Copson proposed that Henkelman meet with John Parke Wright IV, a consultant based in Tampa, Florida, to make an introduction to Barrack’s one-time Saudi business partner Prince Turki al-Faisal. Wright’s LinkedIn page describes him as “in Saudi Arabia, [in] close association with HRH Prince Turki al-Faisal, working on special projects to build economic relations.”
The Tampa businessman delivered: Henkelmann met with Prince Turki in London to set up connections with Saudi Arabia. The scheme, however, would need support in the United States and Israel for it to move forward.
Copson found new generals and admirals to push the scheme, including Rear Admiral Michael Hewitt and former Defense Intelligence Agency director General Michael Flynn.
To assuage Israeli and U.S. concerns about security of the reactors and fuel, the partners created a new company helmed by Hewitt, X-Co Dynamics, focused on providing security for the new reactors.
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud died on January 23, 2015. He was succeeded by his half-brother Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who in turn named Muqrin bin Abdulaziz the new crown prince.
Prince Muqrin was pushed aside by late April 2015, and King Salman named a new crown prince: Mohammed bin Nayef, colloquially known as MBN.
Additionally, King Salman appointed his young son Mohammed bin Salman — better known as MBS and later associated with the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi — to the dual post of deputy crown prince and defense minister.
In the aftermath, long-simmering tensions among the Saudi royal family bubbled to the surface. Relations were further strained by the perception that MBN was more aligned with U.S. interests than his cousin MBS.
MBS began undercutting MBN in order to displace his cousin as rightful heir to the throne, going so far as sending an emissary to ask the Barack Obama administration if it would object to MBS pushing aside MBN to become the new crown prince.
As the UAE’s de facto ruler, MBZ considered MBN a long-time enemy in this Arabian game of thrones. MBZ had sought American approval for MBS as Crown Prince, wholeheartedly throwing his enormous Washington lobbying machine behind the young son of King Salman.
Obama Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told Yahoo News’s Michael Iskakoff that the effort was “one of the most aggressive influence operations that I experienced in eight years.”
In 2015, MBZ, one of the biggest backers of foreign agents in Washington, spent more than $10 million on lobbying firms to advance UAE interests.
Anxious to raise his stature, MBS sought to meet with President Obama. When Obama refused, MBS scheduled a meeting with Vladmir Putin in June 2015 while Russia was under sanctions for its 2014 invasion of Ukraine.
The groundwork for the Saudi-Russian rapprochement was commenced via a backchannel opened by George Nader, a Lebanese businessman with ties to both the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Nader later told the FBI he’d visited Russia with Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and close confidant of the Bush family. The Associated Press reported on two meetings between Bandar and Putin in 2013.
Nader also told federal investigators that the purpose of Bandar’s Russian visit was “to build a trusted relationship with Russia.” According to Nader’s statements, Putin appointed Kirill Dmitriev, head of sovereign wealth fund the Russian Direct Investment Fund, to run point on the “trusted relationship” between Saudi Arabia and Russia.
In June 2015, MBS flew to Russia and signed a nuclear cooperation deal with Russia’s state nuclear firm Rosatom to help build 16 nuclear plants in Saudi Arabia.
In a meeting with Putin, who was entangled in the Ukrainian misadventure that would come to define his presidency, MBS broke from decades of Saudi diplomacy that oriented itself with U.S. interests.
At the end of 2016, Nader attended a secret meeting with Jared Kushner, MBZ, Steve Bannon, Yousef Otaiba, and former General Michael Flynn at the Four Seasons hotel in New York City, where he was introduced to Rick Gerson.
Nader later introduced Gerson to Dmitriev, who told Gerson that Putin had tasked him with developing and executing a “reconciliation” plan between the U.S. and Russia, and the two men worked together on a strategy.
In January 2017, after Dmitriev laid out his and Gerson's plan on paper, he gave it to Kushner who handed it off to Bannon and incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. That same month, Gerson vacationed in the Seychelles, but claimed he left before the meeting between Dmitriev and Blackwater founder Erik Prince, whose presence on the island Prince said was requested by MBZ.