The United Arab Emirates arranged a secret meeting in January between Erik Prince, the founder of a private security company, and a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin. The meeting was first reported by the Washington Post, which said that Prince met with an unnamed Russian emissary close to Putin, and that the meeting was an effort to convince Russia to stop backing Iran.
According to US, European and Arab officials, the clandestine meeting was part of moves to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and the then President-elect Donald Trump. The meeting organised by the UAE was said to have taken place around 11 January — nine days before Trump’s inauguration — in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. The UAE apparently agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including its involvement in Syria.
US officials said that the FBI has been scrutinising the Seychelles meeting as part of a broader probe of Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential election and alleged contacts between associates of Putin and Trump.
Prince is best known as the founder of Blackwater, a security firm that became a symbol of US abuses in Iraq after a series of incidents in which civilians were alleged to have been killed by Blackwater “contractors” in a crowded Iraqi square. He sold the company, which was subsequently re-branded, but has continued to build a private paramilitary empire with contracts across the Middle East and Asia.
As an avid supporter of Trump, after the Republican convention Prince contributed $250,000 to his presidential campaign. He has ties to people in Trump’s circle, including Stephen K. Bannon, now serving as the president’s chief strategist and senior counsellor. His sister Betsy DeVos serves as education secretary in the Trump administration, and Prince himself was spotted in the Trump transition offices in New York in December.
It is thought that these ties to Trump advisers, his experience with clandestine work and relationship with the leaders of the UAE put Prince in a perfect position to be a go-between.
The Washington Post said that Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and his brother, the UAE’s national security adviser, coordinated the Seychelles meeting with Russian government officials. At the time of the meeting and for weeks afterward, the UAE believed that Prince had the blessing of the new administration to act as its unofficial representative.
Less than a week before the Seychelles meeting, US intelligence agencies released a report accusing Russia of intervening clandestinely during the 2016 election to help Trump enter the White House.