Dubai billionaire seeks to sell Trump-branded villas abroad

During recent trips to Croatia and Malta, a Dubai-based billionaire and business partner of the Trump Organization looked more like a head of state himself — mingling with government dignitaries, receiving a presidential reception and visiting the glittering Mediterranean Sea.

Hussain Sajwani met with leaders in the two European nations and addressed local journalists, many of whom referred to his ties to President Donald Trump or simply called him "the Donald of Dubai."

Sajwani's trips, as well as a recent deal in Oman, show that Trump's business partner in Dubai wants to expand his development empire beyond the Mideast and a tower under construction in London.

Enter Sajwani's DAMAC Properties, which launched a new effort this week to sell Trump-branded villas at the golf course bearing the American president's name.

"My dream is as we have put our major, iconic tower in London, that we do repeat that in major gateway cities around the world," Sajwani said in a July online video. "Tokyo, Toronto, New York, Paris, I don't know. But that would be a dream — to grow DAMAC with its iconic brands around the world."

Sajwani's dream for a global expansion — as well his growing online presence among social media videos and posts — received a major boost with Trump taking the White House. It also raised the public profile of a billionaire whose fortune grew in part out of contracting work his companies did in supplying U.S. forces during the 1991 Gulf War that expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

DAMAC Properties declined an Associated Press interview request with Sajwani. In a statement, DAMAC spokesman Niall McLoughlin said the company is "exploring opportunities in major gateway cities across Europe and the U.S., hence the numerous and ongoing meetings over the past many years" by Sajwani.

Sajwani wholeheartedly embraced Trump, even as the U.S. presidential candidate's campaign saw him call for a "complete shutdown" of Muslims coming to the United States. Once reaching office, Trump's travel ban on six predominantly Muslim countries avoided naming the UAE, a major U.S. ally that hosts some 5,000 American troops and is the U.S. Navy's busiest foreign port of call.

In February, Trump's sons Eric and Donald Jr. opened the Trump International Golf Club in Dubai , the first of two to be built in the sheikhdom by Sajwani. DAMAC share prices have nearly doubled from 2.17 dirhams (59 cents) a share on the day of the U.S. election in November, to a high of over 4 dirhams ($1.09).

That made Sajwani, who owns over 70 percent of DAMAC stock, even richer.

However, economies overall have slowed across the Middle East amid a glut in global oil prices. An ongoing diplomatic dispute between Arab nations and Qatar has likely also affected DAMAC, as 6 percent of all its customers from 2014 to 2016 were Qataris, according to an April filing by the company on the Nasdaq Dubai. DAMAC announced results Monday that put its second-quarter earnings at 704 million dirhams ($191.6 million), down from 864 million dirhams ($235.2 million) in the same period last year.

Facing that sluggish market, Sajwani has begun to look abroad.

In Oman, he signed a deal in June with the state-run Oman Tourism Development Co. for DAMAC to help redevelop Port Sultan Qaboos in Muscat, a project valued overall at $1 billion.

Then in July, Sajwani visited Croatia and met with President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic. Sajwani also visited tourist towns along the coast of the Adriatic Sea, according a DAMAC statement at the time. The local branch of Colliers International, a commercial real estate firm headquartered in Toronto, said it organized the three-day trip for Sajwani, trying to pitch him on developments on the Istria peninsula and Central and Southern Dalmatia.

DAMAC "continues to look at the investment opportunities" in Croatia, primarily along the Adriatic, said Vedrana Likan, the managing partner of Colliers' Croatian arm.

Sajwani then traveled to Malta, an archipelago nation off Italy in the Mediterranean Sea, and met with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.

Both Croatia and Malta are members of the European Union, which Emirati citizens have been able to travel to without visas since 2015. That can drive business for any possible DAMAC project in either country, as well as create new European interest in Dubai, where the developer makes its real money, said Issam Kassabieh, an analyst with the UAE-based firm Menacorp Finance.

"It's a very effective method of branding," Kassabieh said. "Once foreign investors see the DAMAC name in Europe, they'll follow it all the way back to the source, which is Dubai, so they can capitalize on it here."

Meanwhile, DAMAC Properties just this week launched a new set of Trump-branded duplex villas, priced from 2.96 million dirhams ($806,000) that include three-year memberships at the golf course. The company previously offered stand-alone villas at prices starting at 5 million dirhams ($1.3 million) up to 15 million dirhams ($4 million).

The Trump Organization, now run by Trump's adult sons though the president hasn't divested from it, also tweeted that the new villas were for sale . It told the AP that the villas are "not a new project" and represented "our longstanding relationship with DAMAC Properties."

While DAMAC merely mentions Trump as representing "the most respected developments throughout the world," one Dubai newspaper more bluntly suggested buyers could "own a piece of the Trump name."

And while it remains unclear how Sajwani trades on his Trump ties in private meetings with foreign leaders, advertising and marketing by DAMAC prominently features Trump. That could lead to potential conflicts, said Norman Eisen, who served as President Barack Obama's lead ethics attorney and who now is a part of a watchdog group suing Trump for his alleged violations of a clause of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits foreign gifts and payments.

If Sajwani "is featuring the Trump name in his marketing materials and if, as one can fairly assume, that's being furnished to government officials and others, then that would be a not-very-subtle attempt to trade on his business partner's presence in the White House," Eisen said.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap . His work can be found at http://apne.ws/2galNpz .