Can the UAE do business with the president-elect of the United States? Judging by the signs since Donald Trump’s victory, business people in the region will be happy to let bygones be bygones once he takes up the job properly in January.
Mr Trump’s call at the end of last year – before he was even the nominee for the Republicans - for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” went down badly in this part of the world.
Back then, Khalaf Al Habtoor, grandee businessman of one of the UAE’s best-known conglomerates, hit back angrily at Mr Trump’s Islamophobia. He said that the candidate was “the biggest enemy of Islam” who was responsible for “downright lies, proven lies” and was a “bigoted big mouth” in contrast with Hillary Clinton, for whom he’d be “rooting” in the election.
But Mr Al Habtoor is obviously a pragmatist of the first order. After Mr Trump’s shock election win, he changed tack. “I don’t think Trump is an idiot; he’s a clever man and knows how to do things,” he said of the president-elect, whose anti-Islamic comments were “for the election only”.
Surely that’s the right stance for a business leader. It would be wrong to turn your back on the leader of the world’s most powerful country, who happens to share many of your interests, like hotels and leisure, over a simple policy difference.
Another important member of the UAE business elite seems to have adopted a similar pragmatic approach. Hussain Sajwani, founder and chairman of glitzy real estate developer Damac, came under pressure in the wake of Mr Trump’s anti-Muslin comments to ditch his business partner of some years.
The Trump organisation and Damac were – and still are – partners in two golf-related developments on the Akoya scheme in Dubai. There were a few days of uncertainty as to whether that partnership was still in existence after Mr Trump’s anti-Muslim outburst, with some Trump branding having been taken down for a time. In the end, contractual obligations won the day.
But Mr Sajwani took a more nuanced line than Mr Al Habtoor. A statement from Damac back then stressed that the deal with Mr Trump was a business relationship, and that it could not comment on the American political debate.
Mr Sajwani maintained that stance even when things were looking grim for Mr Trump’s election prospects. A couple of weeks before the vote on November 8, Mr Trump, languishing in the polls then, hosted a lavish reception at his new hotel development in Washington DC, and the Damac boss enthusiastically accepted an invitation to attend.
There is video footage of the event on YouTube showing Mr Sajwani being warmly embraced by Mr Trump, chatting amiably for a few minutes in the melee of people. Mr Sajwani was noticeable in the gathering as the only one wearing full Emirati national dress.
When I learnt of this, I wondered whether it might signal a change of business strategy by Damac, which at the moment has no business interests outside the Arabian Gulf and Britain. A spokesperson for Damac said that the meeting in Washington was purely private and I should not read anything else into it. Mr Sajwani might come out with a statement on the US election result, I was told, but there’s been no sign of anything from the company yet.
Yesterday Mr Sajwani was on CNN saying nice things about Mr Trump.
I cannot help but think that Mr Sajwani has played a very shrewd game here. He resisted the temptation to trash Mr Trump after the anti-Muslim comments, and is now sitting pretty as a loyal friend of the new president. Now that’s pragmatism.
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