Erik Prince is a powerful man who has spent much of his influential career behind the scenes.
It wasn’t until revelations about his private armed forces company, Blackwater, began to surface during the US war in Iraq that his name gained notoriety.
Today, Prince has a new reason for public scrutiny: suspicions of being the link between US President Donald Trump’s team, the United Arab Emirates, and a Russian financier.
The controversy surrounds Prince’s alleged attempts to initiate backchannel communications between the Trump administration and the Russian government at a meeting attended by the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) in January 2017.
Move to the UAE
Prince has a long history with the UAE that is firmly planted in his private military business and the needs of the oil-rich Emirates.
After the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Blackwater became a go-to company for private soldiers to bolster American forces on the ground.
These mercenaries, contracted by the US government, were implicated in the fatal shootingsof dozens of Iraqi civilians.
The US Congress held hearings on the company’s conduct in 2007 and recommended that Xe – one of the many names Blackwater has held since the controversies began – be dropped as the US’ main private security firm.
Following the move, lawsuits and indictments of high-level Blackwater commanders continued.
In a suit brought against Prince by Iraqi civilians, former Blackwater employees and US military personnel alleged that Prince viewed himself as a “Christian crusader” and that he may have had a source planning to reveal Blackwater abuses killed.
Prince moved to the UAE in 2010. Reports from the time said he made the move to escape possible criminal charges from the US government. The US and UAE have no extradition treaty.
Prince was awarded a $529m contract by the UAE in 2011 to assemble an 800-man private military force to quash possible pro-democracy revolts that were sweeping the Middle East during the Arab Spring, as well as the execution of external “special operations”, the New York Times reported.
Although the UAE contracts many security firms for domestic use and continues its military operations in Yemen, it seems that Prince has received special distinction.
Reports show UAE officials took steps to hide his identity in 2011, while providing vast sums of money for the billionaire to tweak operation plan and continue training for his private battalion, the New York Times reported.
Prince hired dozens of Colombian mercenaries, reports say, as he did not trust Muslims to kill other Muslims.
An Australian was killed fighting alongside hundreds of Colombian mercenaries in Yemen in 2015. It’s assumed these foreign combatants are employed by Prince-linked companies.
In a November 2017 hearing related to Prince’s suspected role as a facilitator for meetings between the Trump team, a Russian banker and UAE officials, Prince told members of the US Congress he had known former White House adviser Stephen Bannon – a far-right ideologue widely seen as the architect of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim policies – since 2013.
During the 2016 election, Prince said he supported Trump “momentarily” (PDF) by providing the campaign with documents on foreign policy positions and “what should be done on Middle Eastern or African counterterrorism issues”.
These papers were sent to Bannon, the “only guy” Prince “knew pretty well”.
“I think I remember Steve Bannon saying they had met with either Mohammed bin Zayed or someone like that and he was a great guy,” Prince told US legislators.
While Prince left the United States in 2010, he never stopped being a generous donor to conservative political movements. Filings from the US Federal Elections Commission show Prince donated roughly $150,000 to pro-Trump political groups during the 2016 election cycle.
One of the organisations, Make America Number 1, received the bulk of his funding.
The group is a Super Political Action Committee, a controversial type of modern political advocacy organisation that can raise unlimited amounts of money from people, unions and corporations.
Make America Number 1, in turn, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to two companies linked to Bannon.
Cambridge Analytica, a voter-profiling company cofounded by Bannon and conservative mega-donor Robert Mercer, received more of the funding from Make America Number 1, filings with the Federal Elections Commission show.
Another company Bannon cofounded with Mercer, Glittering Steel, focused on video production and received tens of thousands of dollars from the Super PAC.
UAE, Russia and Trump
Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos was named the US secretary of education by Trump in November 2016. She was confirmed by Congress in February 2017.
In spite of this familial connection to the Trump cabinet, Prince denied to Congress that the UAE viewed him as a gateway to the US president, saying he never “purported or positioned to having any great access to the Trump administration”.
Prince said his meeting in Seychelles in January 2017 with the UAE officials – which included MBZ and some of his brothers, although they did not discuss anything specific – ended with an Emirati recommendation to meet Kirill Dmitriev at the hotel bar.
Dmitriev is head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund founded by the Russian government to attract investment to its economy.
Prince said he met with Dmitriev for roughly 20 minutes. Dmitriev did not express interest in working with the Trump administration, nor did the two men discuss sanctions relief.
The only US-Russia cooperation the men discussed was shared interest in defeating “Islamic fascism”.
“If Franklin Roosevelt could work with Josef Stalin to defeat Nazi fascism, then certainly Donald Trump could work with Vladimir Putin to defeat Islamic fascism,” Prince recalled telling Dmitriev.
Still, reports suggest that George Nader – a former adviser to MBZ, the de facto leader of the UAE – has testified that the Prince-Dmitriev meeting was arranged so members of the Trump team could meet a Russian emissary to discuss future relations.
Nader was also at the Seychelles meeting. He and Prince have business connections, including the fact that Nader was hired as a business development consultant with Blackwater during its time in Iraq.
Prince maintains his role in the Seychelles meetings, both with the UAE and Dmitriev, was purely in his own private interest.
Other articles in this series
Mueller’s Web: The UAE-Trump Connection, an Al Jazeera interactive displaying connections between major players related to Trump and the UAE.