If Mohammed bin Salman or figures close to him really did hack the phone of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, it would be another nail in the coffin of the crown prince’s attempt to rebrand Saudi Arabia’s global image under his de facto leadership. It would also raise further serious questions over the relationship between western powers and the Saudi kingdom.
Experts working for Bezos – who also owns the Washington Post – have concluded with “medium to high confidence” that a WhatsApp account used by Bin Salman was directly involved in the hacking of the billionaire’s phone in May 2018. The two had met earlier in the spring of that year during the crown prince’s extended tour of the UK and US, as he met a plethora of politicians and business leaders in an effort to shore up geopolitical support for his regime and secure much-needed inward investment – in an era of decarbonisation and lower oil prices.
At the time, Bin Salman was particularly preoccupied with the writings of one of the Post’s columnists, Jamal Khashoggi, a former court insider who had moved to the US and was now using his platform to directly contradict the monarchy’s claims that the kingdom was undergoing a meaningful process of liberalisation. A few months earlier, in September 2017, Bin Salman had reportedly spoken of silencing Khashoggi “with a bullet”. In October 2018 Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, a crime in which both the CIA and the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions subsequently implicated the crown prince (who denies the allegations).
If one were to speculate about the reasons Bin Salman or people around him might have had for their alleged hacking of Bezos, then silencing Khashoggi seems an obvious motivation. The fruits of the hacking could have been used in an initial attempt to blackmail Bezos into firing Khashoggi, with the killing of the journalist perhaps coming only after such attempts failed.
What we know is that the paper took up its columnist’s case with gusto after his disappearance in Istanbul, subjecting the Saudi regime to fierce criticism, and that details of Bezo’s extramarital affair were then published by the National Enquirer in January 2019, triggering the end of his marriage and a costly divorce. If the Enquirer’s information originated in the alleged Saudi hack, this would also fit a wider pattern of gangsterish behaviour, including the November 2017 incarceration of a large section of the Saudi elite in a crude shakedown netting the crown prince’s regime billions of dollars, and the thuggish attempt to force the visiting Lebanese prime minister to resign in 2017. Both Saudi Arabia and AMI, owner of the National Enquirer, have denied that the kingdom was involved in the publication of the Bezos story.
So if the latest allegations about the behaviour of the crown prince and his entourage turn out to be correct, they add to an already disturbing picture, and prompt yet more disturbing questions. Which other significant figures does Bin Salman correspond with via WhatsApp? Which of them might have had their data extracted, to be used against them at a later date? Might this include figures in politics and government, as well as business, including senior figures in Washington and London? Would the crown prince be reckless or stupid enough to take such measures against states that his regime has long relied upon for its very survival?
Since he first rose to power, Bin Salman’s key enablers have been the US and UK governments. The 2018 propaganda campaign around his supposed “reform” programme was enthusiastically amplified by Washington and London, with the then British foreign secretary Boris Johnson praising the crown prince as a liberalising reformer ahead of his UK visit in February 2018. Human rights NGOs directly contradict this picture, describing a harsh crackdown on dissidence within the kingdom, including the mass arrests of women’s rights activists, a number of whom have allegedly been sexually assaulted and suffered torture, including whipping and electric shocks.
Bin Salman’s brutal war in Yemen, which has killed thousands and starved tens of thousands more , could not have been fought without the active support provided by the British and the Americans. His rule might not have survived the fallout from the Khashoggi killing in late 2018 had his Anglo-American allies dismissed the Saudi investigation into the killing as lacking credibility, and instead insisted on an international criminal inquiry. But with these latest revelations, wiser heads in Washington and London must be increasingly in despair at the prospect of dealing with this dangerous and erratic figure for years, perhaps decades, to come.
• David Wearing is a teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain