Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s candidate for president, has taken an inflexible and harsh tone towards Saudi Arabia. This comes after years of strained relations stemming from the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Iran. However, last night, at the conclusion of the Republican National Convention, longtime Trump friend, Tom Barrack Jr., took center stage. Could he bring better relations with Saudi Arabia?
Many Saudis are nervous about a potential Trump administration. While Trump opposes Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, he is skeptical of Saudi Arabia’s value as a U.S. ally. He said he believes that the Saudi government played a role in supporting the 9/11 hijackers – something the available evidence does not support – and that Saudi Arabia should pay for the support America provides. Maybe Trump is serious; maybe he is just driving a hard bargain?
Trump Friend Takes the Stage
But then there was the surprise on Thursday. (For Saudi readers – every four years, before the presidential election both the Republican and Democrat parties host packed four-day conventions filled with speeches that culminate with a celebratory selection of the nominee. This year’s Republican convention concluded last Thursday). Just before Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, introduced her father, Barrack addressed the delegates and the country on national television.
Barrack is a longtime Trump friend, and the Trump campaign’s primary fundraiser. He also has deep and longstanding business ties to Saudi Arabia. Barrack, whose grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon, lived and worked in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. As a young associate at the law firm representing the construction company Fluor Co., he volunteered to go to Saudi Arabia and negotiate a gas liquefaction contract with oil company, Aramco.
Tom Barrack in Saudi Arabia
In an interview with Fortune Magazine in 2005, he described his accommodations as primitive – “a filthy cot in a Riyadh dormitory without indoor plumbing.” He quickly moved to Dhahran, where Aramco is headquartered, and found western-style accommodations. While working in Dhahran, he befriended a young Saudi prince over a game of squash. According to Barrack, “That afternoon I meet a nice Saudi kid. He introduces himself and we play. Well, when we’re done he says, ‘This is great. Do you want to play tomorrow?’ I said yes. It ends up that he was one of the sons of the king. And, after about three weeks he tells my boss he wants me to work for him. Why? Was I the most brilliant? For sure not. Was I the most capable? For sure not. But I could play squash and he and I became pals.”
After that, he quit his job at the law firm, relocated to Saudi Arabia, and worked exclusively for two sons of the Saudi king. By his accounting, he made “tens of millions in deals” for the princes, though his pay only came to $200,000. His big break came in 1976, when Texas businessman, Lonnie Dunn, tapped Barrack to serve as the middleman to negotiate a “most favored nation” status deal between Saudi Arabia and Haiti. Dunn wanted his new refinery to purchase Saudi oil at a discounted price after the recent oil shocks had significantly raised global prices. Barrack himself took the two Saudi princes to Haiti and even sold Baby Doc (Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier) on the deal himself.
Although Barrack left Saudi Arabia shortly thereafter (to work primarily for Lonnie Dunn), his interest and ties in the Middle East continued. In 2006, he and Saudi prince Walid bin Talal purchased the hotel chains Fairmont and Raffles. In 2011, his private equity group, Colony Capital, invested over $200 million in the Arab Middle East. He purchased hotels in Bahrain and arranged for Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund to purchase Miramax Films.
A well-known man like Donald Trump is likely to have friends with all sorts of background. This does not mean Barrack’s connections will influence a future Trump administration’s foreign policy. However, for those Saudis looking for hope of a return to the close ties of old, this Trump friend might be a positive sign.