LONDON // Nobody is saying it publicly yet, but in the autumn, Donald Trump will win his battle to build the "greatest golf course in the world" on Scotland's east coast. Officially, ministers from the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) are still mulling over the weight of evidence put before a four-week planning inquiry, which ended last month.
Privately, however, sources indicated yesterday that the inevitable outcome would be victory for Mr Trump and defeat for environmentalists who say that the US$2 billion (Dh7.3bn) project in Aberdeenshire will destroy supposedly protected, 4,000-year-old sand dunes. It will not have been an easy ride for the American billionaire, however, since he began working on plans four years ago for a golf complex on the 566-hectare Menie estate at Balmedie, near Aberdeen, to include two championship golf courses, a hotel, a clubhouse, 500 private houses and almost a thousand timeshare holiday flats.
Last year, the proposals were turned down by the local planning committee on the casting vote of Martin Ford, its chairman. A few weeks later, Mr Ford was kicked out of his job by other Aberdeenshire councillors. Now another councillor, who accused the local authority of handing Mr Trump $10 million-worth of land as a "sweetener" to get him to proceed with the project, is facing disciplinary action that could lead to his sacking.
And Michael Forbes, a local farmer, sometime quarry worker and occasional fisherman, became a folk hero on both sides of the Atlantic last autumn when it was revealed that he was refusing to sell 9.3 hectares of land that he owned, which lay between the planned hotel and one of the proposed golf courses. This David and Goliath story somewhat faded away when Mr Trump said he did not need Mr Forbes's land and would simply build around it.
But because of the council committee's decision to reject the planning application, the quasi-independent Scottish government stepped in and ordered a planning inquiry. Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP and first minister in the Scottish assembly, was said to have been furious that the scheme had been rejected. He and fellow ministers - the same ones now considering the evidence presented to the inquiry - were said to be unhappy that the rejection gave would-be investors from abroad the impression that "Scotland is not interested in doing business".
Brian Adam, the Nationalist member of the Scottish parliament for Aberdeen North, actively encouraged Mr Trump to appeal against the committee's rejection. "I'm more than happy to put my head above the parapet because I feel this is the kind of development we want for Scotland," he said. Others, however, do not feel the same way, mainly because of the environmental impact on the sand dunes - which have protection as a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and are home to rare mosses and plants - but also because they say that the Trump organisation is overstating the benefits it would bring to the local economy.
Anne Johnstone, a columnist for the Glasgow Herald, said the project would create mansions for rich golfers, many of them from overseas, rather than affordable housing for first-time buyers. "Billionaires building homes for millionaires. Is this to be the future for Scotland?" she said. During the public inquiry, Scottish Natural Heritage described part of the SSSI as a "the jewel in the crown" of British sand dunes.
Anne McCall, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: "All we want now is for ministers to consider what is best for Scotland - not simply for [Mr Trump] - and to stand by their repeatedly stated strategic goals of delivering sustainable economic growth that puts this country's environment at its core." However, Mr Trump's spokesmen are adamant that the golf complex would create at least 1,200 jobs in the area and generate $100m-plus for the local economy annually.
Colin Boyd QC, a barrister who headed up Mr Trump's legal team at the inquiry said it "would be a tragedy for Scotland" if the scheme did not go ahead. While he acknowledged that the project would have "significant adverse effects" on the environment, he said these would be outweighed by economic benefits. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "We will not see its like again. If the applicants are to realise the vision of an exceptional, world class course underpinning £1bn [Dh7bn] of investment, then the championship course needs to use the SSSI."
Mr Trump said he wants to build the course in Scotland because his mother was Scottish. But he said he will go elsewhere - perhaps to Ireland - if too many more stumbling blocks are put in his way. "This has not been an easy development for me and there have been times when it has been frustrating and I wondered if it was worth it," he said. By year's end, after Scottish ministers have surprised nobody by giving their wholehearted approval to the project, Mr Trump will undoubtedly believe it has been worth it.