When Erik Prince, a private military entrepreneur, appears before the House Intelligence Committee Thursday, he will certainly be asked about a mysterious meeting last January in the Seychelles between him and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Its purpose was reportedly to create a back channel between Donald Trump and Putin.
The United Arab Emirates served as the go-between; the Gulf State monarchy secretly arranged the meeting with Prince — founder of Blackwater, a now-defunct security and paramilitary firm and brother of Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — and a Russian official who heads the state’s $10 billion sovereign wealth fund.
But other events during the presidential transition involving the UAE — a small, oil-rich Middle Eastern nation that experts say exerts an outsized influence on foreign policy in Washington — may raise further questions.
Carter Page, a Trump foreign policy adviser, told the House Intelligence Committee earlier this month that he was in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, in mid-January.
Page, who is under investigation by Congress, has a history of Russian connections. He was vice president of the Merrill Lynch office in Moscow for three years. He also told the House Intelligence committee that he had met with Russian officials during a trip to Moscow in 2016, during the presidential campaign.
Page told McClatchy via e-mail that his trip had no connection "whatsoever" to the reported Seychelles meeting and that he was in Abu Dhabi to attend the Altantic Council Global Energy Forum.
In addition, the UAE ambassador, Yousef Al Otaiba, met with Trump-son-in law — now senior White House aide — Jared Kushner in New York in early December, according to a cache of leaked emails obtained by McClatchy.
“Just met with Jared in New York and mentioned your name,” Otaiba wrote to Frances Townsend, a White House Homeland Security adviser during the George W. Bush administration. Townsend was one of several people being considered at the time to be Trump’s secretary of Homeland Security and had days earlier been interviewed for the job at Trump Tower.
The meeting between Otaiba and Kushner has not previously been reported.
Two weeks later, Kushner, future – and short-lived – Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and top Trump aide Steve Bannon met at Trump Tower with Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, known popularly as MbZ.
The Washington Post reported last spring that the crown prince and his brother, the UAE’s national security adviser, arranged the Seychelles meeting to set up a back channel between Trump and Putin.
“It was somewhat unusual to have those kinds of meetings,” a former Obama administration national security official said. “That raised some eyebrows, the MbZ meeting in particular.”
Kushner served as the Trump campaign’s interlocutor with various foreign emissaries during the transition. Part of the application process for obtaining a security clearance involved reporting all contacts with foreign officials on a form called the SF-86.
While there's no indication that Kushner didn't report the early December meeting with Otaiba, the New York Times reported in July that Kushner had updated his form three times, adding more than 100 names of foreign officials.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform asked the White House in June for information about what Kushner disclosed on his security clearance forms because of his history of failing to disclose contacts with various Russian officials. The White House never responded.
A representative for Kushner declined to comment on the record.
The Prince meeting in the Seychelles prior to Trump’s inauguration has been known for some time. The identity of his Russian companion, Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, was disclosed this week by The Intercept.
Prince told CNN in August that the suggestion that he was involved in arranging a back channel between Trump and Putin was “complete hogwash.” He said he met in the Indian Ocean archipelago off the coast of East Africa purely for business purposes: “The Russian was someone that the Emiratis had done business with and said maybe someone useful for you to know.”
A former Navy SEAL who now lives in the UAE, Prince is a close ally of Bannon, who served as CEO of the Trump campaign and went onto become a top White House adviser. He left in August to return to Breitbart News, a right wing website.
The UAE’s ties to Bannon, Kushner and others in the Trump administration appear to have paid off earlier this year when several Gulf nations, including UAE and Saudi Arabia, attacked their neighboring country, Qatar, for allegedly supporting terrorism.
With a series of tweets in June, Trump seemed to offer support for a recently announced blockade against Qatar, home to the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East, al-Udeid, by its neighbors.
As McClatchy previously reported, a company with ties to Bannon was hired by the UAE to launch a social media campaign against Qatar, in part directed at attendees of the United Nations General Assembly in September.
Bannon also took a trip to the UAE after leaving the White House in August, and he spoke forcefully against Qatar at a Washington event in October.
Prince formerly headed Blackwater, which ran some security operations during the Iraq war. An incident in 2007 involving the death of Iraqi civilians led to the criminal conviction of several Blackwater guards.
Prince later was hired by Abu Dhabi’s crown prince to organize a mercenary force on behalf of UAE, according to the New York Times. He now runs Frontier Services Group, a Hong Kong-based private equity fund.
He has pushed the Trump administration repeatedly to consider a plan to privatize U.S. counter-terrorism forces in Afghanistan and is considering a bid to challenge Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), at the urging of Bannon.
The Seychelles meeting added one more in a host of connections between the Trump campaign and Russian interests. The intelligence community has concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, Trump and his allies have denied that any collusion between his campaign and Kremlin occurred.
But the links between the two are focus of the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team of prosecutors and investigators, as well as several congressional committees.
Mueller last month indicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates. George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser for the campaign, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with "foreign nationals" who promised to connect him with Russian government officials.
Kevin G. Hall contributed to this report.