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Hussain Sajwani: The Donald of the desert

Master marketer Hussain Sajwani is betting he can still sell Trump in Dubai

Published: Apr 5, 2017 04:00:55 PM IST
Updated: Apr 5, 2017 05:35:19 PM IST

Hussain Sajwani: The Donald of the desert
Hussain Sajwani hasn’t had any contact with Donald Trump since seeing him on the day of his inauguration
Image: Philip Cheung for Forbes

Two weeks after Donald Trump announced a travel ban on seven ­Muslim nations, his billionaire real estate ­partner in the United Arab Emirates, Hussain ­Sajwani, is a picture of serenity. Sitting in a room near the top of his 25-storey Dubai skyscraper, he calmly explains how he’ll handle being a Muslim in a Muslim nation while doing business with a man perceived as fiercely anti-Muslim.

He’s changing nothing. In fact, he’s doubling down on his Trump relationship. Saj­wani has already built one community with a Trump golf course, and he’s at work on another. “For the people who play golf, they understand that Trump delivers the highest quality of golf courses,” says Sajwani, clad in traditional flowing, white Emirati robes and headdress.
Sajwani understands what the Trump brand connotes—wealth, power, opulence—and he often partners with brands like that to burnish the projects built by his $1.9 billion-in-sales Damac Properties. (And truthfully, he has a total Trump-like comfort with extravagant marketing.) Now he’s betting the Trump brand can withstand any smudge of Islamophobia.

Sajwani’s start came when he built his first real estate project in the early 2000s, putting up a 38-storey residential tower that sold out in less than six weeks. He went on to erect Bugatti-, Fendi- and Versace-branded residences and became known for promotional stunts like handing out a free Lamborghini to apartment buyers. At his new Aykon City development in Dubai, he has created an attraction, the Aykon Dare: You put on a harness and walk along the edge of the building... 80 storeys up.

In 2011, Sajwani started planning a 42-million-square-foot community outside Dubai called Damac Hills, which he describes as “the Beverly Hills of the Middle East”. The Trump name is front and centre there, thanks to its 500-acre Trump golf course and a section of Trump-branded villas starting at $1.5 million. The course opened last month, and Trump’s sons Donald Jr and Eric attended the 1,000-person event, which featured fireworks and three magicians, who delighted the audience by turning grains of sand into a pearl.

Not even the cleverest magician can make Trump’s travel ban disappear from global conversation, and Sajwani draws many of his customers from the ­Middle East, Pakistan and India. He won’t discuss Trump’s politics, but he clearly expects the Trump brand to retain its aura without any taint. He has announced a second Trump course designed by Tiger Woods in a bigger Damac community opening in two years. In a subtle marker of the Trump courses’ impact on his life and business, he has started taking golf lessons.

As his latest Trump partnership unfolds, Sajwani says he hasn’t had any contact with Trump since seeing him on the day of his inauguration. (He and at least 13 other Trump partners attended.) Saj­wani isn’t eager to bring up the fact that he went to a New Year’s Eve party at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort or the $2 billion deal with Damac that Trump turned down around the same time. He won’t share any details on the failed offer.

Even if there aren’t any more Trump deals, Sajwani is increasingly interested in expanding into America. He passed on projects in New York and another in Los Angeles back in 2015 when the market looked overbought—and US taxes made it a pricey proposition. “Now if the new administration [fulfils] its promise of bringing the taxes down, that would be a big encouragement,” he says. If only he had a way to emphasise that point directly to the president.

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(This story appears in the 28 April, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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