Second time lucky for Donald Trump in Dubai?

Five years after pulling out of a project on The Palm Jumeirah, the bouffanted billionaire is back in Dubai promoting a massive golf course and villa project he’s building in association with developer Damac
Donald Trump, the flamboyant chairman and president of the Trump Organisation, is building his first ever luxury golf course in Dubai.
By Courtney Trenwith
Fri 30 May 2014 09:49 AM

Donald Trump loosens his suit-clad shoulders, grips the driver he’s pulled from a top-class selection of golf clubs and swings it back and forth. Feeling adequately warmed up he lines up the club with the tee and in less than a second a powerful shot sees the dimpled white ball fly about 260 yards straight down the middle of the fairway. That’s almost as good as a professional, according to Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) averages.

“Did you get that?” Trump eagerly inquires of the dozen or so photographers hustled a few metres out of the way.

A short time later the US businessman tells Arabian Business during our one-on-one interview: “I don’t think I’m going to top my drive like I did... that ball was 260 down the middle. It’s very hard to do that; you’re in a suit, you’re playing with a club and you don’t even know what the shaft is and you hit it down the sprinkler heads, you go right down... the middle of the fairway. I won’t be able to better that drive.”

Trump has ordered his men to collect the golf ball and frame it with the club he used. It will go on display in the clubhouse of the new Trump International golf course he’s building as part of Akoya by Damac, a 29 million sq ft master development in Dubai.

The 18-hole PGA Championship golf course will be surrounded by luxurious mansions, villas, townhouses and apartments, including a hundred Trump Estate villas designed by Trump’s daughter Ivanka.

Five years after his first proposed project in Dubai — the Trump International Tower & Hotel on Nakheel’s The Palm Jumeirah — was axed amid the global financial crisis, The Donald is back and this time he’s confident of making an impact.

“We’re going to have one of the truly incredible golf courses in the world and I would expect it will have the biggest tournaments and the great players coming here often,” Trump declares, with his usual air of confidence-cum-arrogance, depending on your opinion of the guy.

Indeed, the course has been designed by renowned golf course architect Gil Hanse, who Trump says he insisted be brought into the project once his company became involved.

According to him, Damac’s original plan involved a below-par designer, a far lower budget and a smaller course.

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“Gil didn’t like certain areas, so we said ‘can we move the buildings back a couple of hundred yards’ and they did,” Trump says. “So that shows the priority as to building the golf course.”

He is also sure the course will attract a professional tournament. After all, he knows the men in charge of such events as the Ryder Cup — the biennial competition that pits US golfers against a team from Europe.

“I’m not saying we’ll get the Ryder Cup but I think we’ll have a great chance; [Ryder Cup boss] Sandy Jones respects me and I respect Sandy,” Trump says.

“For the people doing the tournaments — all of whom I know — the most important thing is they have to have the best location and they have to have the right region... and then they really have to have the best course. We are going to have the best course, and that won’t even be close.”

Even without a pro tournament, Trump is touting the biggest names as future players.

“I think you’ll have Michael Jordan coming, I think you’ll have President Clinton coming, I think you’ll have the biggest celebrities in the world coming, because this is going to be a truly great course,” Trump tells Arabian Business.

But it won’t only be the course that does well. The sandy-haired personality is predicting his name will add 50 percent to the price of surrounding property, and not just those within the Trump Estate or the rest of Akoya by Damac.

It has apparently been done in Scotland, where he built a course in Aberdeen. It’s called the “Trump Factor”, he says.

“I built the course in Aberdeen and because of what I did people are coming from all over the world,” Trump boasts. “It’s doing record business, it’s packed from morning to night and what happens is the overflow of that business is going to hotels, it’s going to other courses. They had an article last week in the main paper in Scotland calling it the “Trump Factor”. Because of the tremendous success of this course other prices are up 50 and 60 percent and they’ve never seen anything like it.

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“I think you’re going to see the same thing here. I think you’re going to have a huge Trump factor here.”

Estimated by Forbes to be worth $3.9bn, Trump is putting his own money into the project, but he won’t say how much.

Dubai will be his 16th golf course worldwide, including one in Ireland and several in the US. Last month he purchased the Turnberry golf resort in Scotland from Leisurecorp, a unit of the Dubai government, for an undisclosed sum.

“I’ve been told I’ve got the greatest collection of golf courses ever assembled by one person,” Trump says.

But according to the National Golf Foundation in the US, the popularity of golf is dramatically declining everywhere but Asia. The number of players in the US has fallen by 5 million in the past decade and another 20 percent of the current 25 million golfers now active in the country are likely to quit in the next few years, Reuters reported last month.

American golfing company Dick’s Sporting Goods, which owns 79 Golf Galaxy stores reported two weeks ago that its sales dropped 10 percent in the first quarter, while golf revenue had continued to drop “in the low teens”.

CEO Edward Stack said the sport was “unpredictable”. “We really don’t know what the bottom is in golf,” Stack was quoted by American media as saying.

“The industry has a real issue.”

But Trump is adamant that the figures are wrong.

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“Worldwide, golf is the hottest thing there is and in the US it’s doing really, really well,” he says. “Nothing is really even close to it. You go to China, all over Asia, South America, golf is just booming. It’s just gone into the Olympics — there’s really been nothing like it.

“In the US, they did have a fall out because after [world golfing champion] Tiger [Woods], so many people built courses [but] they built them in the wrong locations. Now... it’s very hard to buy a course; they’ve doubled and tripled in value.”

The game also is particularly popular in Dubai, where players often have to tee off in groups of eight — a figure Trump says is unheard of elsewhere.

So hot is the sport, Trump says his Blue Monster course in Miami — where a round costs $475 — is so popular he could charge whatever he wanted and it would still be full.

He expects few problems with pricing  in Dubai, too.

“I don’t think you’ll have any price resistance. When you do something that’s great, people want to be there, they want to be a part of it,” he says.

For Trump, golf is as much a hobby as it is a business. As we saw earlier in the day, he’s a good driver, but “chipping is my weakness”.

“I’ve played with the greatest athletes; I’ve played with the greatest golfers. I’ve played with Tiger Woods’ father, I’ve played with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, they’re all great, it’s great to play with them,” Trump says.

“I play with many, many very famous people, not necessarily good golfers but very famous people.”

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And he’s often used the sport to his deal-making advantage.

“You get to know people on a golf course,” he explains. “If we have lunch together, that’s better than playing golf together. I would get to know you much better on a golf course and that’s in a business sense and in a personal sense.

“So many deals that I’ve made have been made because of the fact that I play golf and I play golf well.

“I’ve made so many deals that I wouldn’t have made, with people that I didn’t even get along with and all of a sudden I play golf and they become my best friend. So it’s an amazing business tool. There are some business schools that are teaching golf [because] golf is an amazing business tool.”

He managed to buy the site for his 58-storey Trump Tower in New York on the fairway. It is now one of the city’s tallest buildings and home to celebrities including Beyonce and Jay Z, Bruce Willis, Janet Jackson and a Saudi prince. Qatar Airways also has an office there.

“[With] the people who had the site in the first place, I could not get to first base, and then they wanted to play golf at a certain course that I was a member of and they asked me about it and I said ‘come on let’s play’ and I became best friends with these people and I bought the site,” Trump says.

“That happens many times; I’ve had so many deals [because] I’ve become friendly with people on the golf course. It’s great.”

The real estate mogul had been planning to build another Trump tower in Dubai, on the man-made island The Palm Jumeirah. The Trump International Hotel & Tower had been promoted by The Palm master developer Nakheel as “the striking centrepiece of the island”, with the mixed-use luxury hotel and residential building destined to become “a landmark icon in Dubai’s skyline”.

The project was first suspended in 2009 as Dubai property prices began to plummet, eventually tumbling an average 60 percent.

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Neither company publicly confirmed the project’s cancellation but in November 2012, Nakheel, which subsequently fell into so much debt it had to be bailed out by the government, opened Al Ittihad Park on what had been the site proposed for the Trump project.

Trump tells Arabian Business he was “smart” to cancel the project before construction started. While he didn’t lose any money, Nakheel did, although Trump says “they didn’t lose much”.

“The world collapsed and we were really lucky because we didn’t start that project,” he says.

“Many of the projects that started, you see some of them sitting around all over the world. We were smart and we got a little bit lucky [that] we never started that job.

“[Nakheel] were very nice people, we had a great relationship, we still do. [But] the world crashed. This was not Dubai’s fault, or it was not Nakheel’s fault.”

While he says Nakheel “were wonderful people”, he hasn’t returned to the project, instead taking up the Damac offer. Trump and Damac executive chairman Hussain Sajwani have denied the American was effectively stolen from Nakheel; he just liked their project better.

“Damac is an incredible organisation,” Trump says. “I’m very impressed by Hussain. I’m very impressed by the company he’s built; it’s a great company and that’s one of the reasons I did it.

“We may very well do another project [with Nakheel] but this [the Damac golf course] was just one that I thought was going to be so important for Dubai, so big.

“When you have a top-line important course like we’re building ... in a way [it’s] more important than doing something else.”

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The Apprentice host has long dreamed of bringing his name to Dubai — a city he describes as “bold, beautiful, vibrant”.

“I always wanted to come back and I think it’s a great tribute to Dubai that we’re here,” he says. “We just never forgot Dubai, it was just always some place that we wanted to be and now we’re here in a big way.”

Dubai suffered one of the worse property market crashes in the world on the back of the global financial crisis. Scores of partly completed high rises were abandoned, some with cranes still dangling onsite, while many investors either fled or are still chasing down their money from developers sent bankrupt or on the brink.

The market clearly began to recover last year, with an average 20 percent price rise. But analysts and developers such as Emaar have predicted a stabilisation this year. Jones Lang LaSalle has warned that 2014 prices are heading for a correction, while Better Homes boss Ryan Mahoney said in April rental yields were falling, making property purchases less attractive for investors.

But The Donald sees nothing of the sort. “I think the real estate in Dubai is only going to go up,” he insists. “These numbers are much lower than years ago ... [and] have a long way to go before they catch [up]. And now they have tremendous controls and tremendous checks and balances and the people doing them put their own checks and balances in.

“I think Dubai has a tremendous upsell. All you have to do is look at the prices prior to the world going down and then look at them now; there’s a tremendous gap.”

Regulations also are far stronger, he says.

“Dubai has become actually very conservative from a financial standpoint. There is a tremendous upside to buying in Dubai. I would not have said that years ago, in fact nobody could have understood what was happening. It’s a much different time and I think a much smarter time.”

So much so, Trump would consider another project in the emirate. He has already been propositioned, he says.

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“People have called us and they want to do jobs,” Trump says. “Somebody called us, they heard we were here but I’m really interested in [the Damac golf course], I don’t like to do too many. I always say quality over quantity.”

He has ruled out a second golf course anywhere in the region: “I only do something if I can top it and I’m not going to be able to top this golf course in the Middle East, you just can’t do it.”

But a hotel, on the other hand?

“I’d like to build a hotel in Dubai someday; I think building a hotel in Dubai would be a great honour,” Trump says.

“I would like to do a true luxury Trump International hotel in Dubai at some point. I don’t know [when]. We’ve discussed this with a number of people and they would love us to come and do a hotel.”

He has also “briefly” discussed bringing the Miss Universe beauty pageant to Dubai.

“I would say it absolutely could come here sometime in the future. I think it would be a great success for Dubai,” Trump says.

The 67-year-old, who has previously declared one of his businesses bankrupt and sat on both sides of civil court actions, puts his success down to “never quitting”.

“Assuming you have the right concept, never, ever quit, never give up,” he says. “I’ve seen so many guys give up; they never made it and somebody else would take their idea and go with it.”

Perhaps that’s why he hasn’t yet quashed his vocal political ambitions. Trump — who claimed US President Barrack Obama’s birth certificate was fake — has been touting himself as a Republican candidate since the late 1980s, later suggesting he might run for president, and most recently toiling with the idea of New York governor.

But he’s never actually put his hat in the ring — or his money where his mouth is. And the taunting doesn’t seem likely to stop anytime soon; he’s still flirting with the idea, just not this time round — again.

“I will see after the November elections,” he says. “I will consider it. I’m going to see how the country is doing and I’m going to see how the world is doing, but it’s certainly something that I’m going to consider.”

One can only wonder what having the president of the world’s largest economy would do to membership sales at the Trump International golf course in Dubai.

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