The NBA goes to Abu Dhabi

The league says it's about globalizing the game. An investigation.

TrueHoop has been delving into the relationship between Abu Dhabi, Apollo Global, Jeffrey Epstein, and the NBA. Start here, and find discussion of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi’s interest in the NBA, which came before news the NBA has new multi-year with Abu Dhabi:

In 2013, writer Edward Jay Epstein visited Jeffrey Epstein’s (no relation) Upper East Side mansion. I find this passage of his Air Mail column incredible:

In the anteroom, I had seen photos of Epstein with Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emirate prince Mohammed bin Zayed, some in beachwear and with snorkel gear. I asked, “Are these clients in the Middle East?”

He answered that some were, and that he was planning to buy a house in Riyadh, since that was becoming the new center of international finance.

“What about Russia? Any clients there?” I asked.

He shrugged and answered that he often flew to Moscow to see Vladimir Putin.

I found this hard to swallow. He was, after all, a fabulist, as I had learned from the Kroll report. Nor did it make any sense to me that powerful financiers would trust someone like Epstein to secure or hide their money. After all, they knew that he had made a deal with the Department of Justice to avoid federal charges. How could they be sure he wouldn’t make another deal to reveal their secret funds?

At five o’clock, Leslie opened the door a crack and announced, “Leon is here.” Svetlana rose to her feet. Epstein seemed in no rush to end our chat, but I decided it was my signal to leave. On the way out, he introduced me to a man patiently waiting in the anteroom with Jennifer. It was Leon Black, the billionaire head of Apollo Global Management. His presence there made me wonder whether I had underestimated Epstein’s continued connections with the rich and powerful.

Besides the feeling that Leon Black was a regular at the mansion, the story also provides a timeline of Epstein’s connections to the current leader of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS. This was early.

Frontline made a timeline of how MBS came to run Saudi Arabia. It begins in January 2015. And yet Epstein had framed photos with him in early 2013, back when MBS was one of many heirs to the Saudi throne, entering a Succession-like period of jockeying. In his book American Kompromat, Craig Unger writes that “MBS was not just an acquaintance, but a real friend of Epstein’s.” If you’re in framed photos in scuba gear in a Manhattan anteroom in 2013, when did you wear that scuba gear? 2012? Earlier? When did they become real friends?

Epstein was a world leader in collecting kompromat that gave him leverage over some of the most powerful people on earth … is there any chance Epstein played a role in MBS’s incredibly controversial ascension? 

Epstein’s friend MBZ certainly did. Before MBS took over the kingdom, the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins received a copy of a letter written by MBS’s uncle Mohammed bin Nayef, warning the king that MBZ’s UAE was leading a conspiracy to enlist Trump to meddle in Saudi Arabia’s succession:

Bin Nayef, alarmed by what he saw as foreign interference, wrote to King Salman to warn him. (The letter was given to me by the former American official.) “We are facing a dangerous conspiracy,” he wrote. “An Emirati plot has been exposed to help aggravate the differences within the royal court.” He added, “Bin Zayed is currently planning to use his strong relationship with the United States President to achieve his intentions.”

With the benefit of hindsight, it appears the letter was prescient. MBS took over Saudi Arabia after a rough sequence of maneuvers. Trump did have his back, even after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Who knows what motivated Trump, but he was close to Epstein for years; Unger reports in American Kompromat that Epstein showed an associate two compromising photos he had of Trump.

And MBZ and MBS are close; Richard Clarke, a counterterrorism adviser to Presidents Obama and George W. Bush tells Filkins “they talk on the phone all day to each other.” MBZ leveraged his Washington connections on behalf of MBS as bin Nayef suggested he would. The Emirates’ ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, is described as one of the most successful operators in all of global diplomacy. Rather than lobbying for his own nation, he reportedly spent significant time promoting MBS as someone who would be king for fifty years, to the likes of former general David Petraeus and Obama security adviser Thomas Donilon. A former Bush counterterrorism adviser Frances Townsend wrote to MBZ’s ambassador asking for talking points.

There has been plenty of reporting about Epstein arranging large donations to institutions like Harvard or MIT which, on paper, came from Epstein’s wealthy associates instead. Axios has reported on an instance when, to avoid Epstein’s name being involved, donations to Harvard were simply made in Leon Black’s name

Here’s a fascinating Harvard document, with full-page celebrations of a particular collection of donors: Leon Black and his family, the Glenn and Eva Dubin, Lesley Wexner and his family. They are among the very closest of known Epstein associates. Also in the same presentation as a major donor: UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba. And, interestingly, the children of people Otaiba lobbied; the Harvard students celebrated in the publication include the son of former general Petraeus and daughter of George W. Bush. 

Agent Ari Emanuel, the real-life inspiration of Entourage, at a 2015 Clippers game with then-Apollo Global board member Robert Kraft. KEVORK S. DJANSEZIAN/GETTY IMAGES ENTERTAINMENT

As discussed in detail earlier, Connie Bruck’s New Yorker story on agent Ari Emanuel describes his many deep connections with figures from the NBA, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, some of whom have titles in defense and intelligence. 

Emanuel was interviewed onstage by the CNBC reporter Hadley Gamble. She asked about the challenges M.B.S. would face in building an entertainment industry from scratch. “I don’t know if it’s going to be a challenge.”

What Emanuel didn’t know was that the new leader of Saudi Arabia, MBZ’s close friend MBS, was about to round up all of his political rivals at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh. Bruck writes:

Nine days later, M.B.S. launched a vicious purge of his rivals. In what his government described as an “anti-corruption” campaign, his security forces arrested more than three hundred and fifty people, including princes, government officials, and influential businessmen, and put them under guard at the Ritz. (“They locked them all up in the Ritz—probably in my room!” Emanuel said.) 

In the New Yorker, Dexter Filkins has insight into what happened in the hotel. 

Then the interrogations began, with police and investigators presenting the detained Saudis with purported evidence of their misdeeds. A figure was usually arrived at—under coercion—and, once the detainees paid up and signed a nondisclosure agreement, they were free to leave. “There was no due process of any sort, no courts, no judges, no warrants—none of that,” a Western diplomat told me.  … Some of those who had been inside the Ritz-Carlton reported that the captors spoke English to one another, which raised the possibility that M.B.S. had recruited foreigners to help him. 

Maj. Gen. Ali al-Qahtani—a military official and key deputy of an MBS rival—died in custody. The New York Times quotes a source who saw his corpse saying his neck was twisted “as though it had been broken,” and cited sources saying “it had burn marks that appeared to be from electric shocks.” Ben Hubbard, David D. Kirkpatrick, Kate Kelly, and Mark Mazzetti quote some of those who were detained. There is mention of tracking devices like ankle bracelets, and concern they may be stripped of all assets, including the title to their homes. ​​“No one can talk about what happened in the Ritz,” said one associate of a former detainee. “In the end, they all have to live in Saudi Arabia.”

Emanuel, Bruck writes, was helpful in shifting the narrative, especially when MBS next visited the US on a trip that included face-to-face meetings with a who’s who of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

Emanuel persuaded Brian Grazer to host a celebratory dinner. (“M.B.S. will love your house!”) At the party, the crown prince sat with Bob Iger, the Disney C.E.O., and got to discuss sports with Kobe Bryant.

The implications of MBS’s power consolidating move were best summarized by Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who told Filkins: “He can do whatever he wants now. All the checks and balances are gone.”

Then Khashoggi was assassinated in 2018, by a team that had been trained by the firm of a former Drexel employee. After that, Emanuel says he returned his firm’s Saudi investments at a markup.

BCCI in the past, and more recently the UAE and Epstein, attempted to overthrow and influence governments around the globe. And just as sure as Jimmy Carter flew around with the head of BCCI and Bill Clinton stepped onto Epstein’s plane, attempts have been made to sway American leaders.

The United Arab Emirates is often described as a staunch American ally, but:

Emanuel’s UAE-backed firm plays a role to this day in suppressing material that would likely be damaging to Donald Trump. Bruck writes that Mark Cuban got involved, and ran up against a firm backed by a massive investment from the UAE that would not play along:

A few weeks before the election, according to the Daily Beast, Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, heard that there were recordings from the Miss Universe Organization that could be damaging to Trump. As it happened, Emanuel had control of the tapes. In 2015, after Trump called Mexicans “rapists” who brought drugs and crime into the country, NBC had cut ties with him; Trump bought out NBC’s interest in Miss Universe and sold the company to Emanuel’s firm. Cuban and other Clinton allies urged Emanuel to release the recordings, but he refused. Responding to critics, he said, “My brother is in politics, I’m not.”

Through the UAE, Emanuel also got into business with Vladimir Putin. The agent and president cut a deal face to face in 2017, for the Russia Direct Investment Fund to invest in UFC. Apollo’s Leon Black was on the board of the RDIF for a time.

Decades later I look back at everything BCCI did and wonder: Who was that really for? Regular people banked with BCCI, it was one of the world’s biggest banks at one point, with more than $20 billion in deposits. But small businesses and salaried employees didn’t have much need for a place in the middle of the globe’s most secretive underground money networks. Regular working people around the world weren’t desperate for a shadow invasion of the American banking system. Those are moves BCCI evidently made under the cover of the Zayed family, on behalf of … who?

When Casey Michel writes in Foreign Policy that “the kleptocratic tools BCCI utilized are all still firmly in place,” it’s hard to argue. Of course the mother of all banking scandals has children.

Earlier in this series, we discussed how Adnan Khashoggi, in part of his role introducing the Saudi royal family to powerbrokers around the world, reportedly directed cash to Richard Nixon’s associates. It was a case of people in the upper reaches of American power secretly doing Saudi Arabia’s bidding. In one case, actual bags of cash went to Nixon’s “plumbers,” fixers who broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate. Nixon’s personal attorney Herbert Kalmbach played a role in many such shenanigans and ended up in prison.

Donald Trump’s longtime friend Thomas Barrack worked for Kalmbach, as his first job after law school in 1972. Barrack’s next few jobs were in Saudi Arabia, where he grew close to the royal family. He went on to become a big name in private equity, with ties to all kinds of NBA billionaires.

Barrack is out on bail right now, having been charged with secretly working for the UAE while lobbying the White House.

The particular project of Barrack’s that roused suspicion was literally nuclear.

The agendas of MBZ and MBS are multi-faceted and complex, and usually centered around maintaining power. They are both Sunni elites in nations with huge Shia populations. Frightening, in that regard, is Shia-led Iran. It has about double the population of Saudi Arabia and the UAE combined and an active nuclear program. Iran’s so close that on a clear day you can see it across the Persian Gulf from the top of Dubai’s tallest building. Containing Iran is paramount to the princes.

A plan emerged to build 30 nuclear facilities, based on American technology, in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. However, there are strict laws against selling nuclear technology to overseas firms, so Barrack put together a consortium where on paper it would be an American project, because most of the money would technically come from American private equity firms. 

The 76ers have two equal lead investors. David Blitzer of Blackstone and Josh Harris of Apollo. Blackstone and Apollo were the two firms Barrack approached. Both private equity firms do a lot of business with the UAE. At Apollo, the point person was Josh Harris himself. Around that time, Harris began making regular visits to the White House.

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