The badass crown prince

The UAE's MBZ has NBA dreams, Apollo equity, and infinite ambition

The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (“MBZ”), leads a nation that has been called a “haven” for money laundering, yet enjoys warm relationships with most of the most powerful leaders on the planet. IVAN SEKRETAREV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Sheikh Zayed’s son Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (“MBZ”) was born in 1961, and leads the United Arab Emirates today. As we described earlier, his father founded the nation, reportedly at the suggestion of the the mastermind of BCCI. Father and son are both:

  • Worldly and wealthy enough to make the UAE an easy U.S. ally. The UAE is more open and welcoming than its neighbors to different religions, nationalities, and even—in limited cases—women in power. The UAE has long been one of the USA’s staunchest allies in regional military conflicts, since the 1991 Gulf War.

  • Ardent in keeping his family in control of a country where MBZ admits they would not fare well in an election. The Zayeds openly oppose democracy—with special urgency after the Arab Spring—and invest mightily in the tools of autocrats and dictators, from extraordinary weaponry, elite special forces, ubiquitous surveillance, and an extensive roster of heavy-hitting opinion leaders, which has included former defense secretary and United States Marine Corps four-star general James Mattis.

MBZ’s older brother Khalifa holds the title of president of the UAE, but even before Khalifa suffered a stroke in 2014. MBZ had become the center of UAE’s political world. Many outside experts have identified him as one of the strongest leaders in the region, if not the world.

He went to school in Morocco when he was 14, in Scotland with British royals, and then spent a year at Sandhurst, Britain’s equivalent of West Point. And he has always been something of a badass. In The New York Times Robert F. Worth tells a story about a diplomat who waited in his car to meet the UAE’s leader as arranged in Abu Dhabi, when a helicopter landed nearby, flown by MBZ:

The official complained that it was much too foggy for a safe flight. “Shut up and get in,” M.B.Z. said with a grin. They then flew to Dubai, staying just above the power lines. Another time, M.B.Z. was driving a former United States ambassador through town when the ambassador noted the absence of any security guards. “Don’t worry,” M.B.Z. said. “Look at the floor beneath your seat.” The ambassador was startled to discover an automatic weapon folded up under the carpet.

MBZ’s were majority owners of one of the most scandalous banks in history, BCCI, which was found to have been a major conduit to launder the proceeds of illicit drug and weapons sales. In a world where the Bush family had its own reported BCCI entanglements, over generations, it’s hard to say if that scandal was good, bad, or indifferent for the UAE’s relationship with the U.S. administration. 

Regardless, upon gaining power, MBZ almost instantly became a favorite U.S. ally. In The New York Times, Robert F. Worth notes that MBZ’s UAE was first in line to join George W. Bush’s coalition to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. 

Afterward, American military leaders began cultivating M.B.Z., who became a military officer and had begun to emerge as the most ambitious and competent of Zayed’s children. “He was a natural, up-and-coming,” I was told by Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer who is now an analyst at the Brookings Institution. “He was going to run the country. The U.S. set on a path of wooing and grooming him.” 

Worth writes:

In 1995, Riedel told me, Secretary of Defense William Perry invited M.B.Z. to the Pentagon. To make the experience more memorable, he also flew him down to Camp Lejeune and arranged for him to attend a military exercise in which Marines landed on the North Carolina shore — a simulation of an amphibious attack in Iran or Iraq. “We used to say in the Pentagon, the objective was to get M.B.Z. addicted to aerospace magazines so he’d buy everything we produced,” Riedel said.

It worked. David Kirkpatrick writes in the Times:

In 1991, in the months after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the young prince wanted to buy so much military hardware to protect his own oil-rich monarchy — from Hellfire missiles to Apache helicopters to F-16 jets — that Congress worried he might destabilize the region.

MBZ has become ubiquitous among the rich and powerful across the US and around the globe: 

  • The first installment of this series established that Apollo Global is the NBA’s most important source of cash.

  • We have since learned that Apollo Global’s Leon Black was long Jeffrey Epstein’s most important source of cash. 

  • Who is Apollo Global’s source of cash?

That’s a tough question to answer for a firm with a half-trillion or so under management. But when Apollo was up against it in the 2007 financial crisis, they turned to the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority—the very institution that owned a huge percentage of BCCI. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is reportedly controlled by the Zayed family.

The BCCI affair attracted bad press for the royal family of Abu Dhabi, but did they shift course, back away from BCCI? They did not. The UAE branch of BCCI remained open 22 years after BCCI was closed in the rest of the world. 

And at this very moment, decades later—despite a totalitarian government, with arguably the world’s most pervasive surveillance which would presumably make it easy to enforce the law—the UAE is reportedly a hotbed of the three main things BCCI was accused of: money laundering, the illicit arms trade, and sexual slavery.

Part of The Journal podcast on Facebook is about human trafficking that happens on Facebook. A whole network, luring women from Thailand and Morocco, forcing them into prostitution, keeping their passports and much of their money, in some cases, reportedly all of the communications happen on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp (which Facebook owns). The Wall Street Journal’s reporting tells of victims who were taken to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

In 2020, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published a white paper on the UAE’s role in global illicit financial flows. Reportedly the billions of drug and arms dealers remain welcome. Matthew T. Page and Jodi Vittori write:

With approximately thirty free trade zones, Dubai is a haven for trade-based money laundering. Operating with minimal regulatory oversight or customs enforcement, these zones allow businesses to disguise the proceeds of crime via the over- and under-invoicing of goods, multiple invoicing, and falsifying of other trade documentation. Many migrant workers are also treated as commodities in Dubai through the kafala system, an exploitative migrant labor scheme that shares some characteristics with human trafficking. … Many of the illicit activities outlined in this report have strategic consequences for the United States and UK insofar as they exacerbate conflict, transnational organized crime, terrorism, and poor governance in countries all around the world.

It’s incredible how often the UAE figures in stories of illicit billions. 

  • One of the most successful businesses in post-war Afghanistan proved to be a bank very much in the BCCI mold. The story of Kabul Bank is one of bribing government officials, suitcases of drug money, and quite likely collusion with American private security contractors. What’s incredible is that the big threat to the bank wasn’t law enforcement, but falling real estate prices in the UAE, where all of the bank’s ill-gotten gains were stashed. 

  • The U.S. shipped hundreds of billions in aid to rebuild Afghanistan. The well connected Afghans who ran the process sent much of it straight to the United Arab Emirates, where many of them live in luxury to this day. 

  • Goldman Sachs was wrapped up in a scheme to defraud Malaysian taxpayers out of billions in what has come to be known as the 1MDB scandal. In the fallout, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission released tapes of phone calls in which the former prime minister of Malaysia appeared to personally scheme with MBZ and his wife. 

  • Transparency International: “In 2014, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) broke the story of the Russian Laundromat: a system to move over US$20 billion out of Russia, legitimising the funds by putting them in the hands of shell companies, then moving the money to 5,140 other companies in 96 countries. At least 150 companies in the UAE received funds from the Laundromat.”

  • In 2019, France’s Channel 2 investigated where the proceeds of France’s drug trade go. They found that after a tour of other nations, that money ends up in the UAE, which is where the funds take the key step of entering the global financial system. 

  • Presidents and prime ministers who have been accused of unethical dealings or embezzlement often end up living in the United Arab Emirates.

Whatever BCCI did for criminals—whatever facilitating of illicit money movement, and currying favor with powerbrokers in the name of protection—has that stopped?

In 2020, The New York Times described MBZ’s “immensely ambitious plan to reshape the region’s future.” MBZ has been using his weapons and dollars to influence and overthrow governments around the globe. 

  • Crucially, MBZ played a key role in selecting who would lead Saudi Arabia—first settling on Mohammed bin Salman, then using his significant influence in Washington and elsewhere to make it so.

  • Robert F. Worth writes that MBZ quite probably overthrew the government of Egypt. “Emirati officials have maintained a discreet silence about their role, but all the diplomats I spoke with believe the U.A.E. approached [Abdel Fattah Al] Sisi and outlined the terms of their financial support before Morsi’s overthrow. ‘I think there’s every reason to believe he staged a coup,’ I was told by one former diplomat. ‘For a tiny country in the Persian Gulf to overthrow the ruler of Egypt and put their guy in, that’s a big achievement.’” Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is the President of Egypt right now.

  • In Le Monde, Eva Thiébaud writes that the UAE has become “Little Sparta”: “In the Arab Spring in 2011, the UAE and Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in Bahrain to quell a popular uprising against the Al-Khalifa monarchy. In Yemen, where the two nations have jointly led an anti-Houthi coalition since 2015, they have been accused of violating international law and trying to engineer the partition of the country. In Libya, the UAE ignored an arms embargo and supported Marshal Khalifa Haftar against the rival Government of National Accord.”

  • In 2017, MBZ touched off an aggressive international embargo against neighboring Qatar. 

Some of the tactics have been alarming. Writing in the New Yorker, Dexter Filkins describes how MBZ reacted when Egypt elected a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the royal families of the Middle East found threatening:

“When Morsi got elected, the Saudis and the Emiratis went into overdrive,” a former senior American diplomat told me. According to several former American officials, M.B.Z. and Bandar bin Sultan, the director of Saudi intelligence, began plotting with others in their governments to remove Morsi from power. Egypt’s generals were already organizing against him. Bandar and M.B.Z. reached out to the Egyptian defense minister, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and promised twenty billion dollars in economic aid if Morsi were deposed. (The Emirati Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.) They also began financing an anti-government movement in Cairo, built around an ostensibly independent youth group called Tamarod. As the coup took shape, Bandar and Sisi used Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian confidant, to carry messages and money to collaborators in the Egyptian military. The former diplomat said that the foreign support was crucial to the coup: “For Sisi to move like that, he needed a promise that he would succeed.” In July, 2013, the Egyptian military forced Morsi from power, and soon afterward it orchestrated a crackdown on suspected Brotherhood supporters, detaining at least forty thousand people. “It was terrible, terrible,” the diplomat told me. “What the Saudis and the Emiratis did was unforgivable.”

Deep investment in sports, including across the front of the Arsenal jersey, have helped to make the term “Emirates” familiar and friendly to global sports fans. The UAE reportedly has NBA dreams, too. ALEX BURSTOW/GETTY IMAGES

MBZ has sports dreams. It’s no coincidence that Arsenal plays in Emirates Stadium or that Thierry Henry played with the word “Emirates” across his chest. The UFC’s fight island is in the UAE. The winner of the last two Tours de France, Tadej Pogacar, competes on a team called UAE, a country which now hosts regular Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. (Formula One, which just announced a new partnership with the NBA, is owned by what’s left of Drexel’s favorite cable company, TCI.)

An incredible in-depth Connie Bruck story in The New Yorker notes MBZ’s vast sports and entertainment business, and focuses on the Emirates’ deep-pocketed influence over super agent Ari Emanuel (the real-life inspiration for Entourage’s Ari Gold) who has emerged as the key liaison between MBZ and the entertainment world.

Emanuel met one of MBZ’s most trusted deputies, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, in 2009, and they soon became neighbors in Los Angeles’ Brentwood neighborhood. Al Mubarak runs one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds on earth, and is the chairman of Manchester City football club.

Soon the UAE had bankrolled Emanuel’s dreams to expand his operations, and made a $100 million investment in his friend Joe Ravitch’s new private equity fund. Ravitch has such close ties to the NBA that he authored the NBA’s original China strategy.

Emanuel’s most often connected to UFC, the NFL, and Hollywood, but he’s deeply connected in NBA circles:

  • LeBron’s televised “Decision” was reportedly his idea.

  • It’s a cinch to find photos of Emanuel sitting courtside at Clippers games with Rihanna, Steve Ballmer, or Patriots owner and longtime Apollo board member Robert Kraft.

  • NBA agent Bill Duffy, who represents Luka Doncic and Sabrina Ionescu, cut a deal last year with Emanuel’s talent agency William Morris Endeavor.

  • Bruck’s story uses the word “Fertitta” several times—Rockets owner Tilman’s relatives did a big deal with the UAE. 

Bruck writes that the rulers of the UAE have NBA dreams: “Al Mubarak and M.B.Z., hoping to raise Abu Dhabi’s profile, had long wanted to attract the N.B.A. and other sports leagues.” 

It might be because they love sports. But it might also be because sports are a great way to influence how global audiences think about the UAE. 

Apollo Global isn’t just the source of the riches that fund the current owners of the 76ers and Hawks. It’s also a place with investments from the UAE and in the UAE. Apollo’s founder, Leon Black, was also was a frequent guest at Jeffrey Epstein’s Upper East Side mansion, where there was reportedly a framed photo of the Crown Prince.

Thank you for reading TrueHoop! Dig into this whole series:

  • PART 1: Apollo Global, deep pockets with ties to the NBA, Jeffrey Epstein, and Buzzy

  • PART 2: The earliest days of Sears Roebuck, the CIA, and United Fruit

  • PART 3: 1950s and 60s: Buzzy at Princeton, the CIA messes with mind control, Leon Black’s dad

  • PART 4: Beverly Hills in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s

  • PART 5: Buzzy the banker.

  • PART 6: In business with criminals

  • PART 7: Everyone in this story owns planes

  • PART 8: “The biggest crime in American history”

  • PART 9: “A stealth invasion of the U.S. banking industry”

  • PART 10: Jeffrey Epstein’s tutor

  • PART 11: Richard Nixon and Adnan Khashoggi

  • PART 12: The Dechert Report

  • PART 13: Nazis at the Waldorf Astoria

  • PART 14: Hitler’s American business friends

  • PART 15: Epstein teaches at private school

  • PART 16: The Emirates and the NBA

  • PART 17: Pablo Escobar in a Celtics hat

  • PART 18: A new kind of superrich

  • PART 19: The NBA goes to Abu Dhabi