The heir to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known widely as MBS – has been accused by Jeff Bezos of hacking his phone by sending spyware via a video sent on WhatsApp. The allegations were made after Bezos, the world’s richest man, hired a team of technical analysts to discover who sent private information about an extramarital affair to a US tabloid. They found a tiny line of code hidden in a video sent by MBS in 2018 that could have infected Bezos’s iPhone X with malware, allowing complete access to the device, and explaining how nude photos and private messages were supplied to the National Enquirer.
Yesterday afternoon, Bezos tweeted an image of him attending a memorial to the slain Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with the caption “#Jamal”. This simple, yet highly calculated, statement reveals the apparent motivation for the hack, and indicates that the gloves are officially off between these two powerful men. Bezos is the owner of the Washington Post, a publication that led the way in criticising the Saudi regime for its vicious war in Yemen and numerous human rights violations, such as torturing dissidents. Khashoggi was a key critic of MBS’s rule, and disappeared whilst visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, presumed to have been assassinated on the orders of MBS.
By expressing support for Khashoggi, Bezos has made it clear that he wants nothing more to do with the Crown Prince, but this has not always been the case. In 2016, MBS announced “Vision 2030”, an ambitious programme of economic, social and cultural overhaul, intending to lessen the Kingdom’s dependency on oil, and improve tourism by liberalising the conservative state. This move was hailed internationally as a turning point, and MBS subsequently embarked on a global tour to promote Vision 2030, meeting a dazzling array of celebrities and politicians, including the Queen, Donald Trump, Richard Branson, both George W and George HW Bush, Oprah Winfrey and Jeff Bezos himself.
The optimism surrounding the apparently modernising Saudis quickly soured, however, after the Khashoggi affair came to light, and the latest development with Jeff Bezos has further jeopardised any hope of a positive international perception of the Arab Kingdom. It is unknown how many of the celebrities MBS fraternised with also exchanged messages with him, but there are numerous rumours that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was in frequent contact with MBS and other Saudi Princes, the former even allegedly boasting of having Kushner “in his pocket”. Even if Bezos is the only victim, the notion of a head of state personally engaging in espionage is utterly extraordinary, and seems to show an autocrat who will go to outrageous extents to silence even his most powerful critics.
Written by POI Correspondent Max Ingleby