Chicago billionaire Sam Zell, 81, had a close relationship with the UAE’s royal family

Sam Zell’s death last week capped a legendary career as a successful risk-loving investor who cultivated warm ties with both Israel and the Gulf


Sam Zell appears on Fox Business program "Maria Bartiromo's Wall Street"  in 2019

Sam Zell, the blunt-talking, motorcycle-riding Chicago tycoon who sold his real estate business for $39 billion and invested disastrously in newspapers, died last week at 81.

Zell made his fortune buying and selling distressed properties, and delighted at being known as “the grave dancer.” His 2007 acquisition for $8.2 billion of the Tribune Co. collapsed a year later when the media giant that owned the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times filed for bankruptcy.

Born to an Orthodox Jewish family that fled Poland months before he was born, Zell was a firm supporter of Israel and also developed a close relationship with the royal family in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. In a 2007 profile for The New Yorker, writer Connie Bruck described how Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, now president of the United Arab Emirates and known as MBZ, was intrigued by the Chicago investor’s love of risk.

During a visit to the palace, Bruck wrote, “Zell described annual motorcycle trips that he takes with an eclectic group of friends he calls “Zell’s Angels,” to Italy, Switzerland, Corsica, Sardinia — wherever the scenery is breathtaking and the roads vertiginous. “I understand that you ride motorcycles,” he told the Sheikh. “I’d love to go for a ride with you.”

“‘How about tomorrow night?’ the Sheikh replied.”

“At eleven o’clock the next evening, the men, wearing jeans and helmets, mounted a pair of motorcycles and raced along Abu Dhabi’s tree-lined boulevards,” Bruck wrote.

The New Yorker article further described how MBZ’s younger brother, Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, who was chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority at the time and is now the UAE national security adviser among other prominent positions, had invited Zell to see a model of a planned development of an island being created just off the coast, in the Gulf.

“Sheikh Tahnoon was eager to hear what Zell thought of his development plans,” Bruck wrote. “Accompanied by a small entourage, the two men drove to a hotel and entered a conference room dominated by a model so vast that it nearly filled the space. Sheikh Tahnoon led Zell around the structure, pointing to office towers, malls, hotels, schools, hospitals, apartment buildings, and houses. The towers would be built first, he explained. Zell listened intently, scrutinizing the model. Finally, he spoke. “Pardon me, Your Highness, but I have a reputation for being direct,” he said. `This makes no sense!’”

“Zell told the Sheikh that his planners had it all wrong,” Bruck wrote. “They should start by building the kind of housing, schools, and shopping centers that would make people want to live on the island. Office towers should be built only after it had been populated. Zell warned the Sheikh not to be influenced by the grand ambitions of his architect – not to build a skyline in advance of demand. Sheikh Tahnoon said that he thought Zell might be right. At Zell’s direction, a construction manager began to move pieces of the model around, and an assistant to the Sheikh took notes.”

Zell returned to Abu Dhabi many times after that trip, Bruck wrote. “We’ve invited the ruling family to be investors in our portfolio of companies, and they’ve invited us to explore homebuilding with them in Abu Dhabi and neighboring countries,” she quotes Gary Garrabrant as saying. Garrabrant was CEO of Equity International, a private-equity company owned by Zell which invested in real estate-related businesses outside the United States. “They are taken with Sam because, I think, he speaks candidly to them and doesn’t necessarily affirm their view,” Garrabrant told Bruck.

Just three weeks ago, Abu Dhabi-based Pure Health, the UAE’s largest health care group, completed its agreement to invest $500 million in Ardent Health Services, the fourth-largest privately held acute care hospital operator in the U.S., which is owned by Zell’s Equity Group Investments.