DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—Donald Trump’s call to keep Muslims from traveling to the United States is causing dismay among business leaders in the Middle East, a region where the billionaire presidential candidate has done business for years, viewed as well-suited for his brand of over-the-top luxury.
Emirati business magnate Khalaf al-Habtoor only months ago proclaimed his support for the Republican presidential candidate, but that’s all changed in the wake of Trump’s increasingly incendiary comments about Islam.
“If he comes to my office, I will not let him in. I reject him,” al-Habtoor told The Associated Press. “Maybe we can meet somewhere where I can debate with him in a very civilized way, not in the way he approaches people.”
Trump has for years looked to do business in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf and the emirate of Dubai. Trump has lent his name to two high-profile Dubai golf course projects and an ongoing real estate development, and sought for years to expand his hotel chain into the region.
But some of his rhetoric about Islam on the campaign trail — including his call to monitor mosques and his proposal this week to temporarily bar Muslims from traveling to the U.S. — has led to increased wariness in the Arab world. Trump’s campaign did not respond to questions about his reputation and business dealings in the Middle East.
In a column published Aug. 9 in the state-owned The National newspaper of Abu Dhabi, al-Habtoor praised Trump for believing “in bringing back his country’s superpower status.”
But late last month, al-Habtoor wrote a follow-up column on Trump that began with: “I was wrong and I do not mind admitting it.”
“When strength is partnered with ignorance and deceit, it produces a toxic mix threatening the United States and our world,” he wrote, ending his column by endorsing Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
In a way, Trump’s oversized personality, on display for years in syndication on Arab satellite networks, matches the aspirations of the construction boom in the oil-rich Gulf.
Star-studded galas in 2008 heralded the launch of the planned Trump International Hotel and Tower Dubai. The 62-story skyscraper of glass and stainless steel would have towered over the man-made Palm Jumeirah island jutting into the Persian Gulf.
A construction company al-Habtoor was involved in, Habtoor Leighton Group, was part of a joint venture awarded a 2.9 billion dirham ($790 million) construction contract for the project in 2008.
Dubai’s property bubble burst before the project could really get off the ground, and in 2011 The National reported that debt-laden developer Nakheel had canceled the project altogether. Nakheel says it no longer has any business association with Trump.
By 2013, Trump’s hotel group announced the hiring of a Dubai-based executive to expand the brand throughout the Middle East, with an aim of having 30 hotels in the region by 2020, though so far none has emerged.
In 2014, Trump and his daughter Ivanka arrived in Dubai to promote the Trump International Golf Course-Dubai, being built along with some Trump-brand real estate in Damac Properties’ Akoya development. Dressed in a black suit and red tie, a driver-wielding Trump smacked a golf ball out onto a green at the development.
“I just want to congratulate everybody in Dubai. The job that Dubai has done is amazing worldwide,” Trump said at the time. Trump spoke on stage with Damac founder and CEO Hussain Sajwani, an Emirati businessman whom he described as a “great man.”
In small print, brochures for the development note the course and the properties being developed are “not owned, developed or sold” by Trump himself, but rather as under a license.
Trump has increasingly used such a licensing model in recent years, lending out his name to others around the world rather than developing big real estate projects himself. Fellow developers have praised Trump as a pioneer of what they call a nearly risk-free business.
He has made another deal for a second planned Damac golf course, called the Trump World Golf Club Dubai. Financial terms were not announced for either.
Reached by the AP, officials with Damac declined to discuss whether the company was reconsidering its venture with Trump.
“We would like to stress that our agreement is with the Trump Organization as one of the premium golf course operators in the world and as such we would not comment further on Mr. Trump’s personal or political agenda, nor comment on the internal American political debate scene,” Niall McLoughlin, a senior vice president at Damac, said in a statement.
Another Mideast company, Dubai-based Landmark Group, said it would pull all Trump home decor products at its 180 Lifestyle stores in the region as it “values and respects the sentiments of its customers.”
Trump has made other comments at times praising or ridiculing countries in the Middle East. At a recent campaign rally, Trump applauded Qatar’s new, at least $15 billion airport, while calling U.S. airports “third-world.” He traveled to the Qatari capital, Doha, in April 2008 to see developments there.
Trump also made comments in 2011, as well as this year, falsely saying that Kuwait paid nothing to the U.S. for driving out occupying Iraqi forces during the 1991 Gulf War. U.S. congressional records show Kuwait contributed $16.1 billion for the war.
Those Gulf War comments recently drew boos on a comedy talk show in Kuwait, which still holds the U.S. in high regard for coming to its aid in the war.
Hamad al-Ali, the comedian who poked fun at them, was critical of Trump’s latest comments on barring Muslims.
“He shouldn’t promote these types of ideas. These kinds of ideas are from some sort of person who is not educated,” he told the AP.
Newspapers in the Emirates also criticized Trump in their Wednesday editions, with the Gulf News saying his “extremism is no different than that of Daesh,” referring to the Islamic State group. The paper offered him this advice: “Zip it, Donald. Just zip it.”