For years, Qatar Airways has run its U.S. business operations out of a rented "corporate campus" at Trump Tower. But Trump Tower is no longer just another New York high-rise. Since November 8, the Trump Organization's flagship building is also where President-elect Donald Trump has held court as he builds his new administration team and deals with the running conflict-of-interest issues dogging his transition. Case in point: how Trump might handle a dispute involving three U.S. airlines and the Qatar tenant that leases from him. In a year-old claim, American, Delta and United airlines assert that billions of dollars in subsidies flowing from Persian Gulf governments to Qatar Airways, Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways allow the carriers to undercut the American airline industry, threatening 300,000 aviation jobs. After unsuccessfully lobbying the Obama administration to intercede on their behalf, the airlines are now urging the incoming Trump team to take up their cause. The goal is to get concessions that will limit access to U.S. airports by the rapidly growing Persian Gulf carriers. 'Total' disengagement To quell the furor over potential conflicts, Trump this week said he planned a "total" disengagement from his global business operations. Although he promised details at a December 15 news conference, watchdogs and ethics experts remain skeptical. "We are in the process of vetting various structures with the goal of the immediate transfer of management of the Trump Organization and its portfolio of businesses to Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric Trump, along with a team of highly skilled executives," the Trump Organization told VOA. WATCH: VOA's Carolyn Presutti on potential business conflicts In his most recent disclosure, filed in May, Trump lists a stake in more than 100 business entities located in 21 countries. The overwhelming number are in the United States. The lion's share of Trump's income comes from these domestic properties, but he has arrangements to manage or allow his name to be used on numerous luxury properties around the globe. In Asia, for example, Trump has reported getting management fees and/or royalties from two resorts in Indonesia; office towers in Mumbai and Pune in India; a 250-unit Trump Tower in the Philippines; and a licensing agreement with an Azerbaijani tycoon for a 33-story hotel and residence in Baku that has yet to open. Five licensing deals in India, Indonesia and the Philippines each generated from $1 million to $5 million in royalties and management fees for Trump. Income from Azerbaijan in 2014 and 2015 totaled $2.8 million. In the Middle East, Trump's business interests include Trump Towers in Istanbul, Trump International Golf Club, Dubai, and Trump World Golf Club, Dubai (expected to open in 2017), as well as plans to develop a line of luxury hotels in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Business interests vs. policy The Qatar Airways dispute highlights the kind of bind that can arise when Trump's business interests rub up against his domestic and foreign policy goals. Can he slap tariffs on Chinese imports without considering his future business expansion there? In Muslim countries, could his hard line on immigration and pledge to restore waterboarding backfire? And how far will he go to protect U.S. business interests and jobs when his commercial interests could be harmed? The three Persian Gulf airlines say the open-skies agreements between the United States and the Persian Gulf countries guarantee them unfettered access to American airports. But the three American airlines allege that the large subsidies the Gulf carriers receive violate the agreements. Qatar and the UAE also are members of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State campaign in the Gulf. "With more than $50 billion in foreign government subsidies to Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, the UAE and Qatar are violating their open-skies agreements with the United States," said Jill Zuckman, chief spokeswoman for the three U.S. carriers. "We are optimistic that President-elect Trump will enforce our agreements by ending the subsidies, stand up for American workers and ensure competition is fair." Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the United States poses another conflict. After he proposed the ban in the wake of the San Bernardino, California, shootings last December, Trump's partner on the Dubai golf courses stripped the property of his name and image. A retailer suspended the sale of Trump-branded home decor products, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for the removal of Trump's name from Istanbul's towers. Trump subsequently toned down his immigration rhetoric. No one has alleged the change was motivated by business considerations. International backlash possible As Trump mulls over candidates for secretary of state, some analysts warn that restricting Muslim immigration or restoring a registry for Muslim-American immigrants could trigger an international backlash. "I think implementing any kind of a policy along those lines — banning Muslims from the United States — would and probably should generate a whole lot of concerns among countries and peoples that are a friend of America's all over the world," said Ross Wilson, a former ambassador to Azerbaijan and Turkey. China presents another test. On the campaign trail, Trump accused China of stealing American jobs, vowed to slap tariffs on Chinese imports and declared the country a currency manipulator. The Trump Organization, however, has eyed China, the world's second-largest economy, as a place of opportunity. Last year, Trump Hotel Collection CEO Eric Danziger told a Hong Kong newspaper that Trump planned 20 to 30 hotels in Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen within four years. The state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China is Trump Tower's largest tenant, paying more than $2 million a year for office space. The Bank of China was among a consortium of lenders that provided a $950 million loan for another New York office building in which the Trump Organization has a 30 percent stake, The New York Times reported. Perceived conflicts Without divesting, critics say, Trump won't escape perceived conflicts. "Short of him selling off all his assets and beginning to put them in a blind trust, nothing would go far enough," said Aaron Scherb, legislative director for Common Cause, a Washington nonprofit. "Presidents through the last four decades have put their assets either in a blind trust or an equivalent entity, and so we think President Trump should follow that precedent." China and the Persian Gulf countries have state-run economies where business and politics routinely mix. There, the controversy over Trump's holdings is hardly making ripples. "I think at this point it's primarily a United Sates issue," said Wilson, the former ambassador. "That perception could change to the extent that Mr. Trump is seen and talked about as pursuing more personal commercial interests over policy interests." Karen Young of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington said the conflicts brouhaha is not "a salient issue" for the Persian Gulf region. "It's very common inside the [Persian Gulf countries] for the state to also have business interests; in fact, it's expected," she said. "So people, and especially ruling elites, will not see that and certainly would not want to be the first to point out that as a problem in an American administration." One such person: the chief executive of Qatar Airways, Akbar al-Baker. "Our relationship goes way back," al-Baker told Reuters, "and I was one of the first to commend Donald on his well-deserved new leadership position." VOA's Carolyn Presutti and Svetlana Cunningham contributed to this report.
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January 14, 2021