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A Kuwaiti royal sank millions into redeveloping Baltimore’s Howard Street. What happened to her money?

A member of the Kuwaiti royal family walked into this small restaurant at 306-310 N Howard Street one summer day, looking to donate meals for the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. Six years later, Nailah's Kitchen is closed, nearly $7 million has vanished and an elaborate and unlikely partnership between a Middle Eastern elite and a Baltimore man has crumbled.
A member of the Kuwaiti royal family walked into this small restaurant at 306-310 N Howard Street one summer day, looking to donate meals for the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. Six years later, Nailah's Kitchen is closed, nearly $7 million has vanished and an elaborate and unlikely partnership between a Middle Eastern elite and a Baltimore man has crumbled.(Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

When a Middle Eastern royal stepped into his little restaurant in a rundown stretch of Baltimore, Jean Agbodjogbe felt touched by fortune.

The West African immigrant had worked his way from a job at KFC to opening a small eatery on Howard Street. Now a woman from the Kuwaiti ruling family wanted to buy dinner. Lots of dinner.

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Agbodjogbe had never seen a $10,000 order.

The chance encounter in June 2014 brought him a millionaire benefactor, transformed him into a restaurateur featured in newspapers and magazines, even renewed hope of a second act for the ruins of Baltimore’s famed shopping corridor.

Six years later, the money’s gone. The original restaurant is shuttered. And Agbodjogbe, once hailed as a poster child for the American dream, sits in federal court in downtown Baltimore, defending himself against civil allegations that he fleeced the Kuwaiti royal for nearly $7 million.

Dueling lawsuits over the money went to trial this month in U.S. District Court. Jurors will try to sort out the mess. Did Agbodjogbe dupe a noble out of a fortune? Who is Alia Salem Al-Sabah?

“I’m not a princess. I’m a member of the royal family,” she told the jury. “We don’t have princesses.”

A trained doctor, Al-Sabah studied at Catholic University in D.C. in the 1970s before she married. She travels widely on a diplomatic passport. And her family, the House of Al Sabah, ranks among the world’s richest dynasties.

How a Baltimore man wound up with a chunk of her fortune lies at the heart of the fight. The lawsuits deal with million-dollar purchases, overseas wire transfers, portfolios of business entities and bank accounts. But it all comes down to one point of contention.

She says her money was intended for her own real estate investments. He says she gifted him the money to benefit himself. Even the $2 million Manhattan condo bought with Al-Sabah’s money — and occupied by her daughter — belonged to him, he says.

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“I’m not a princess. I’m a member of the royal family. We don’t have princesses."


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The trial is expected to conclude Friday.

The House of Al-Sabah has ruled Kuwait for more than 200 years. Her uncle serves as head of state; her father, president of the national guard; and her husband, the former minister of the interior. During her testimony, she put her personal fortune at $24 million.

Wearing a headscarf and long dress, she testified over two days, telling the jury that one of her daughters — she has nine of them — studied public health at the Johns Hopkins University in June 2014. Al-Sabah flew in to visit.

It was Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. So she stopped at a mosque on Howard Street to pray. She offered to buy the worshipers the daily meal taken each day at sunset, breaking their fast. They led her to the small restaurant across the street, one specializing in halal dishes, or kosher for Muslims.

The owner, Jean “Mohammad” Agbodjogbe, immigrated from the West African country of Senegal in the 1990s. A big, friendly man and devout Muslim, he kept an apartment in Reisterstown and named his restaurant for his daughter: Nailah’s Kitchen. Al-Sabah paid him $2,000 cash and put down her credit card for $8,000.

“I told him, ‘No, it’s not going to be for one night, but for the whole of Ramadan,’” she told the jury.

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Agbodjogbe was floored.

“[She] made a purchase I’ve never seen in my life," he told jurors.

Al-Sabah flew home that same day. Each evening of Ramadan, Agbodjogbe texted her photos and videos of the meals he prepared for the mosque. Within a month, they were practically email pen pals.

Her attorneys showed the emails at trial. He told her his family in Senegal disowned him when he became Muslim, but he felt devoted to the faith. He converted his young wife, too.

“We are an honest Muslim family who invest all our life savings trying to better our children’s lives and help others,” he wrote her.

Al-Sabah trusted him when he asked her to invest in Nailah’s Kitchen. Together, they might expand his business with new locations, even fund charity work for Muslims across Baltimore. They partnered as N&A Kitchen LLC.

Agbodjogbe put the assets of his restaurant into the corporation; Al-Sabah contributed $150,000. She told the jury she believed they were equal partners. When he sent her the papers, however, some tax documents showed only his name.

“I have to apply for it under my Social Security number since you are not a U.S. citizen,” he explained.

In fact, Agbodjogbe did not yet have citizenship, her attorneys say. By September 2014, their new corporation was established.

“May Allah make this very successful so we may have a chain of halal restaurants all over the world," he wrote her.

In October 2014, four months after they met, he pitched her a plan: Buy Howard Street.

Once famous for upscale shopping, Howard Street had the entrances to Baltimore’s big four department stores: Hutzler’s, Hochschild Kohn, Hecht’s and Stewart’s. The art deco Hutzler’s building, known as “The Palace,” closed last, in 1989. Today, vacant storefronts pockmark the street. Visitors witness grand architecture and urban blight. Decorative cornices crown boarded-up windows.

These buildings, he told her, are cheap.

“Why not? I like the idea. I saw a really historic, nice place,” Al-Sabah told the jury. “He was always telling me, I’m your brother here in Baltimore. Anything you need.”

City officials have tried for years to redevelop the corridor. Backed by a millionaire in the Middle East, Agbodjogbe saw his chance.

“I wanted to buy the whole Howard Street," he testified.

“She wants to invest in Baltimore. She doesn’t go to T. Rowe Price. She finds a guy on Howard Street. Would that make sense?”


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Al-Sabah didn’t want attention, though. Agbodjogbe warned her sellers would hike their prices if they discover her royal lineage, she told the jury. So they formed 9 Jewels LLC, she says. He signed the papers.

“Be assured, they don’t know who you are,” he wrote. “I have only mention to the city that a good friend from France is my investor.”

That October, she wired him $825,000.

Agbodjogbe had his eye on 400 N. Howard St., the old Isaac Benesch and Sons department store. He imagined offices and apartments. In March 2015, N&A Kitchen LLC bought the building for $139,000, state tax records show.

So began their real estate deals, her attorneys say. Agbodjogbe selected the buildings; Al-Sabah wired him money. They added 327 Eutaw St., once a women’s hat shop, and the building housing Nailah’s Kitchen at 306-310 Howard St., once an Oriole Cafeteria, to the growing collection.

Through 2015, her money poured in. Her attorneys showed jurors statements of the wire transfers. The money is undisputed. In January, she wired him $306,000; in July, $200,000; in August, $450,000.

This vacant building at 400 N. Howard St. was part of a multimillion shopping spree of Baltimore properties, financed by a Kuwaiti millionaire and bought by a local man.
This vacant building at 400 N. Howard St. was part of a multimillion shopping spree of Baltimore properties, financed by a Kuwaiti millionaire and bought by a local man. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Al-Sabah told the jury she believed she owned 9 Jewels, saying she named the corporation for her nine daughters.

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She saw a distinction between N&A Kitchen LLC, her partnership with Agbodjogbe, and 9 Jewels LLC, her investment firm. On paper, however, Agbodjogbe owned 9 Jewels.

He told jurors that he came up with a name, a reference to Muslim teachings. In his own lawsuit, he calls her wire transfers “gifts.”

“She wants to invest in Baltimore. She doesn’t go to T. Rowe Price,” his attorney, James Sweeting III, told the jury. “She finds a guy on Howard Street. Would that make sense?”

In four months, she wired him $3 million to redevelop the two buildings on Howard Street, the storefront on Eutaw, even a second site for Nailah’s Kitchen that remains open today. Agbodjogbe attracted attention.

Meanwhile, he would email her about meetings with architects, developers, even the mayor’s office. He made no mention, however, that he bought his family a $470,000 house in Pikesville with her money.

Al-Sabah wanted to establish a nonprofit on Howard Street. Agbodjogbe told her Baltimore’s children need mentors and after-school lessons. She wired more money. She wanted to build an Islamic cemetery in Baltimore. Agbodjogbe told her Baltimore’s Muslims need a proper place for burial. She wired him $665,000.

When her daughter moved to New York City, Agbodjogbe found the real estate agent and, using her money, bought the condo for $2 million.

By spring of 2016, two years had passed since they met. Al-Sabah had wired him nearly $6 million. She believed she owned the investment properties, nonprofit, cemetery and Manhattan condo.

In fact, Agbodjogbe owned it all, her attorneys say. Worse yet, they say, he borrowed nearly $2 million and used the property as collateral. Creditors have sued him in state court.

The New York condo — bought in cash — has been repossessed to reclaim more than $1.5 million Agbodjogbe borrowed against the home.

His troubles came from bad business deals, not greed, says Sweeting, his attorney.

“You’re not going to see Rolexes or Porsches. What you’re going to see are a couple rundown buildings that Mr. Agbodjogbe tried to flip, but didn’t have the expertise," Sweeting told jurors. “It was a stupid investment; we can acknowledge that. But you can’t sue and get your money back.”

Al-Sabah sued him in federal court in March 2017, seeking to recover whatever might be left. He sued her back, demanding money for services to her.

Meanwhile, Nailah’s Kitchen remains shuttered on Howard Street. Up the street, the old Isaac Benesch store worsens. A hole in the brick wall shows rubble inside, and inspectors cited it as abandoned.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the status of the second Nailah’s Kitchen location. That location on York Road remains open.

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