The President helped build a hotel in Azerbaijan that appears to be a corrupt operation engineered by oligarchs tied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Heydar Aliyev Prospekti, a broad avenue in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, connects the airport to the city. The road is meant to highlight Baku’s recent modernization, and it is lined with sleek new buildings. The Heydar Aliyev Center, an undulating wave of concrete and glass, was designed by Zaha Hadid. The state oil company is housed in a twisting glass tower, and the headquarters of the state water company looks like a giant water droplet. “It’s like Potemkin,” my translator told me. “It’s only the buildings right next to the road.” Behind the gleaming structures stand decaying Soviet-era apartment blocks, with clothes hanging out of windows and wallboards exposed by fallen brickwork.
As you approach the city center, a tower at the end of the avenue looms in front of you. Thirty-three stories high and curved to resemble a sail, the building was clearly inspired by the Burj Al Arab Hotel, in Dubai, but it is boxier and less elegant. When I visited Baku, in December, five enormous white letters glowed at the top of the tower: T-R-U-M-P.
The building, a five-star hotel and residence called the Trump International Hotel & Tower Baku, has never opened, though from the road it looks ready to welcome the public. Reaching the property is surprisingly difficult; the tower stands amid a welter of on-ramps, off-ramps, and overpasses. During the nine days I was in town, I went to the site half a dozen times, and on each occasion I had a comical exchange with a taxi-driver who had no idea which combination of turns would lead to the building’s entrance.
The more time I spent in the neighborhood, the more I wondered how the hotel could have been imagined as a viable business. The development was conceived, in 2008, as a high-end apartment building. In 2012, after Donald Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, signed multiple contracts with the Azerbaijani developers behind the project, plans were made to transform the tower into an “ultra-luxury property.” According to a Trump Organization press release, a hotel with “expansive guest rooms” would occupy the first thirteen floors; higher stories would feature residences with “spectacular views of the city and Caspian Sea.” For an expensive hotel, the Trump Tower Baku is in an oddly unglamorous location: the underdeveloped eastern end of downtown, which is dominated by train tracks and is miles from the main business district, on the west side of the city. Across the street from the hotel is a discount shopping center; the area is filled with narrow, dingy shops and hookah bars. Other hotels nearby are low-budget options: at the AYF Palace, most rooms are forty-two dollars a night. There are no upscale restaurants or shops. Any guests of the Trump Tower Baku would likely feel marooned.
The timing of the project was also curious. By 2014, when the Trump Organization publicly announced that it was helping to turn the tower into a hotel, a construction boom in Baku had ended, and the occupancy rate for luxury hotels in the city hovered around thirty-five per cent. Jan deRoos, of Cornell University, who is an expert in hotel finance, told me that the developer of a five-star hotel typically must demonstrate that the project will maintain an average occupancy rate of at least sixty per cent for ten years. There is a long-term master plan to develop the area around the Trump Tower Baku, but if it is implemented the hotel will be surrounded for years by noisy construction projects, making it even less appealing to travellers desiring a luxurious experience—especially considering that there are many established hotels on the city’s seaside promenade. There, an executive from ExxonMobil or the Israeli cell-phone industry can stay at the Four Seasons, which occupies a limestone building that evokes a French colonial palace, or at the J. W. Marriott Abershon Baku, which has an outdoor terrace overlooking the water. Tiffany, Ralph Lauren, and Armani are among the dozens of companies that have boutiques along the promenade.
A former top official in Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Tourism says that, when he learned of the Trump hotel project, he asked himself, “Why would someone put a luxury hotel there? Nobody who can afford to stay there would want to be in that neighborhood.”
The Azerbaijanis behind the project were close relatives of Ziya Mammadov, the Transportation Minister and one of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful oligarchs. According to the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, Azerbaijan is among the most corrupt nations in the world. Its President, Ilham Aliyev, the son of the former President Heydar Aliyev, recently appointed his wife to be Vice-President. Ziya Mammadov became the Transportation Minister in 2002, around the time that the regime began receiving enormous profits from government-owned oil reserves in the Caspian Sea. At the time of the hotel deal, Mammadov, a career government official, had a salary of about twelve thousand dollars, but he was a billionaire.
The Trump Tower Baku originally had a construction budget of a hundred and ninety-five million dollars, but it went through multiple revisions, and the cost ended up being much higher. The tower was designed by a local architect, and in its original incarnation it had an ungainly roof that suggested the spikes of a crown. A London-based architecture firm, Mixity, redesigned the building, softening its edges and eliminating the ornamental roof. By the time the Trump team officially joined the project, in May, 2012, many condominium residences had already been completed; at the insistence of Trump Organization staffers, most of the building’s interior was gutted and rebuilt, and several elevators were added.
After Donald Trump became a candidate for President, in 2015, Mother Jones, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and other publications ran articles that raised questions about his involvement in the Baku project. These reports cited a series of cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan in 2009 and 2010, which were made public by WikiLeaks. In one of the cables, a U.S. diplomat described Ziya Mammadov as “notoriously corrupt even for Azerbaijan.” The Trump Organization’s chief legal officer, Alan Garten, told reporters that the Baku hotel project raised no ethical issues for Donald Trump, because his company had never engaged directly with Mammadov.