In January 2017, three days before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, a businessman from the United Arab Emirates was invited to a lavish dinner planned by Trump’s longtime ally Thomas J. Barrack Jr., who was chair of the president’s inaugural committee. The guest list placed Rashid al-Malik, a onetime business associate of Barrack’s, amid more than 100 foreign diplomats and top members of the incoming administration. The president-elect himself made a surprise appearance at the gathering.
Al-Malik’s name later surfaced in connection with a federal probe into potential illegal donations to Trump’s inaugural fund and a pro-Trump Super PAC by Middle Eastern donors. Al-Malik was interviewed by members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team and was “cooperating” with prosecutors, his lawyer told The Intercept last year. The New York Times recently reported that investigators are looking into “whether Mr. al-Malik was part of an illegal influence scheme,” although no details of that potential scheme have been made public.
In fact, the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that al-Malik served as a paid intelligence source for the UAE throughout 2017, The Intercept has learned.
Al-Malik reported to UAE intelligence about aspects of the Trump administration’s Middle East policy, according to a former U.S. official and documents viewed by The Intercept. The National Intelligence Service of the UAE gave al-Malik a code name and paid him tens of thousands of dollars a month to gather information, a role for which his investment business would have provided a convenient cover.
After he was interviewed as part of the Mueller investigation, al-Malik left Los Angeles, where he’d been based for several years, and went back to the UAE.
A former Dubai aerospace executive and chair of the investment firm Hayah Holdings, al-Malik was tasked to report to his Emirati intelligence handlers on topics of consequence to the UAE, such as attitudes within the Trump administration toward the Muslim Brotherhood; U.S. efforts to mediate the ongoing feud between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar; and meetings between senior U.S. officials and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose rise to power has been loudly championed by the UAE and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed.
Al-Malik also told his handlers that he had approached unnamed U.S. individuals about a possible business venture that was indirectly associated with Trump. It is not clear what the undertaking was, who al-Malik was talking to, or whether any deal was made.
Al-Malik “is not an intelligence operative,” his attorney, Bill Coffield, of Berliner Corcoran & Rowe, told The Intercept. “Mr. al-Malik is a businessman involved in many business projects, and he is regularly paid for business consulting,” Coffield wrote in an email. “He has NEVER been paid to report on the Trump Administration. He has never been ‘tasked’ to deliver information about the inner workings of the Trump administration.”
U.S. counterintelligence officials regularly monitor foreign governments’ efforts to influence U.S. policy, but an operation by the UAE would be particularly sensitive for the Trump administration, and would underscore the hazards posed by a president whose ongoing business ties expose him to potential conflicts of interest. The Trump Organization has made millions per year off a Trump-branded golf course in Dubai. Shortly after he was elected, Trump bragged that he turned down a $2 billion deal from his Dubai-based business partner, Hussain Sajwani.
It is against the law for anyone other than a diplomatic or consular official to operate inside the United States on behalf of a foreign government without first notifying the Justice Department, though the law includes exceptions for “officially and publicly acknowledged and sponsored” foreign government representatives and those “engaged in a legal commercial transaction.” Earlier this year, Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring to form “backchannel” connections between conservative U.S. officials and the Kremlin as an undisclosed agent of the Russian government. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison and will be deported when she has completed her sentence.
The White House declined to comment, referring questions to the CIA and the Justice Department, both of which also declined to comment. The UAE Embassy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Among the Emirati government officials overseeing al-Malik was Ali al-Shamsi, director of the Emirati National Intelligence Service, according to The Intercept’s sources. A source who knows al-Shamsi described him as “more than just a spy. He’s also a discreet messenger” for Mohammed bin Zayed, known as MBZ, and his brother Tahnoun bin Zayed, the UAE’s national security adviser.
“Al-Shamsi and the Emirati government clearly think they can influence Trump by doing business with him,” said a person with direct knowledge of UAE intelligence operations who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
Al-Malik, “to his knowledge, has never discussed any business deal with ‘UAE intelligence,’” Coffield wrote in his email to The Intercept, noting that al-Malik’s “thoughts about U.S. policy and relations with the UAE are broadly shared with all his contacts.” Coffield declined to respond to questions about whether al-Malik has communicated with al-Shamsi or other UAE intelligence officials or whether he was paid a monthly stipend by Emirati intelligence.
“Mr. al-Malik is a businessman who loves the UAE and the U.S.,” Coffield wrote. “He is always looking to build a stronger relationship between the two. He has openly shared his beliefs that the best way to forge a stronger bond is through economic prosperity.”
Al-Malik “has, on numerous occasions, discussed various business ideas for UAE projects in the U.S.,” Coffield continued. “He has consistently discussed highlighting the economic benefits of UAE investment in the U.S., with an emphasis on job creation, as a way to foster a better relationship between the citizens of both countries. His discussions also included the benefits for both countries’ leadership.”
A tiny country of fewer than 10 million people, the UAE does not have a robust intelligence service, but has used businesspeople and wealthy citizens with personal relationships with its royal families as assets to carry out secret intelligence-gathering missions for the government, according to former U.S. intelligence officials.
Al-Malik was likely enlisted as a spy “because he has pre-existing access, a natural role,” said the person with knowledge of UAE intelligence operations.
Coffield did not respond to The Intercept’s request to interview al-Malik.
Whether or not al-Malik’s efforts succeeded, the small, oil-rich Gulf nation has indisputably triumphed during the Trump presidency, as its top foreign policy goals have repeatedly won Trump’s personal backing. In 2017, Trump tweeted in support of Saudi and UAE efforts to isolate their Gulf rival Qatar, publicly contradicting his own cabinet. With Congressional opposition holding up arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE after Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered by a hit team in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Trump administration invoked an obscure emergency provision to allow the deals to go forward. Trump also vetoed a resolution that would have ended U.S. military support for the Saudi- and UAE-led intervention in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians; his White House has pushed to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization, a move that has long been sought by the UAE and its Gulf allies.
Little is publicly known about al-Malik, who began his career as a pilot for Emirates, Dubai’s government-owned airline. He came to the U.S. in 1998 to study aviation at Western Michigan University and was honored by the UAE Embassy in Washington for scholastic achievement in the program, according to a profile on an industry website. But he left the university in 2000 without receiving a degree, according to the Western Michigan registrar’s office.
Al-Malik worked as an Emirates pilot from 2000 to 2006, according to his LinkedIn page, before becoming an executive at Dubai Aerospace Enterprise, a government-funded company that leases aircraft. Al-Malik left that job in 2008, and now runs Hayah Holdings.
It is unclear when and how al-Malik met Barrack, a billionaire investor who was one of Trump’s top fundraisers during the 2016 campaign. But in 2013, al-Malik and Barrack, who is executive chair of Colony Capital, Inc., tried to partner on a real estate deal to revitalize downtown Oakland and possibly build new sports stadiums and hotels. Colony Capital and Hayah Holdings formed a joint investment venture called Bay Investment Group LLC, but the deal ultimately fell through.
The grandson of an immigrant from what is now Lebanon, Barrack speaks Arabic and is known for his extensive business ties to Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE. The Times reported last summer that Barrack’s company has raised more than $7 billion in new investments since Trump won the Republican nomination, with roughly a quarter of the money coming from Gulf states.
Barrack has also cultivated a friendly relationship with Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s powerful ambassador to the United States. In April 2016, months after then-candidate Trump proposed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” al-Otaiba wrote to Barrack saying that “confusion about your friend Donald Trump is VERY high” and “has many people extremely worried,” according to email correspondence published by the Times and other outlets.
Barrack sought to reassure al-Otaiba, saying that Trump “also has joint ventures in the U.A.E.!” He added, “We can turn him to prudence – he needs a few really smart Arab minds to whom he can confer – u r at the top of that list!”
Al-Otaiba was also on the guest list for the Chairman’s Global Dinner, the extravagant inaugural event to which al-Malik was invited. The dinner was unusual not just because of its opulence but because it seated so many foreign businesspeople and diplomats alongside future cabinet-level officials, providing direct access to members of the incoming administration.
A week after Trump won the election, al-Otaiba sought insider information from Barrack. “If you have any insights about postings to places like state, DOD, CIA and national security adviser, I would be grateful,” al-Otaiba emailed Barrack on November 16, 2016, according to Middle East Eye. “I would only brief my bosses. Any indicators would be highly appreciated.”
Barrack responded, “I do, and we’re working through them in real time and I have our regional interest in high profile. When you get a chance let’s talk by phone.”
Barrack told the Washington Post that he was offered a job in the Trump administration. Instead, he stayed with his investment firm, which contemplated a plan to channel his foreign connections into lucrative deals that would support Trump administration policy.
Earlier this year, ProPublica published a February 2017 memo from Barrack’s firm, Colony Capital, then known as Colony Northstar, outlining the scheme to leverage connections to the Trump administration and foreign VIPs for profit. The plan was reportedly written by Rick Gates, Paul Manafort’s longtime associate, who served as deputy chair of the inaugural committee and then as a Colony consultant. Gates was fired by Colony after being indicted in the Mueller probe; he ultimately pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI.
“The purpose of the Washington DC office is to expand Colony Northstar’s global footprint and build a bridge to where government and business intersect globally,” the memo says. “The key is to strategically cultivate domestic and international relations while avoiding any appearance of lobbying.” The memo notes that no other company “can currently match the relationships and resources that we possess.” A Colony spokesperson told ProPublica that the plan was “never acted upon or implemented.”
A source close to Barrack told The Intercept that al-Malik and Barrack spoke several times in 2018, but that Barrack did not have any current business deals with al-Malik.
There is no indication that Barrack knew about al-Malik’s intelligence role. But Tommy Davis, a former chief of staff to Barrack who represents him as a spokesperson, was aware that al-Malik had connections to the UAE government.
“I know for a fact that Rashid has been on retainer since the day I met him, and he’s always been clear about that,” Davis told The Intercept. “That’s who pays for his car, that’s who pays for where he lives. And his job is to be on retainer and to find and consummate real estate deals in the United States.”
Hayah Holdings does not appear to have a website or a physical address in Dubai, but documents from the city of Oakland described it as a “a private investment company based in Dubai with strong financial ties in the Gulf region.”
“Mr. Malik formed Hayah Holdings to help identify investment and development opportunities in established markets such as the United States and Europe,” according to a 2013 document from the Oakland city administrator’s office. “Their focus has primarily been on large mixed-use real estate developments, especially those of a transformational nature and with a significant sport, entertainment content and infrastructure related opportunities [sic].”
Jean Quan, who was mayor of Oakland when the deal was being considered, said she was told that the financing came from Emirati royals. “What was conveyed to me at the time was that the money for the deal was going to come from the Dubai royal family,” Quan told The Intercept.