Why Saudi heir ‘hacked’ world’s richest man’s phone?
The Saudi Crown Prince and his inner circle have often been slammed for their attempts to put down “real and perceived critics” of his regime all over the world.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon boss and world’s richest man, had his mobile phone “hacked” in 2018 after receiving a WhatsApp message that had apparently been sent from the personal account of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman aka MBS.
The Crown Prince has been previously blamed for his apparent involvement in the brutal killing of the Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Jeff Bezos is also the owner of The Washington Post.
A UN investigation into the “hacking” is supposed to be released on Wednesday. It is expected to say that the encrypted message from the number used by MBS is believed to have included a malicious file that let a massive amount of data to be stolen from Bezos’ phone, the Guardian reported.
According to the results of a digital forensic analysis, it is “highly probable” that the intrusion into the phone was triggered by an infected video link sent from the account of the Saudi heir to Bezos.
Bezos and MBS were engaged in a friendly chat on WhatsApp on May 1, 2018, when the Crown Prince sent the billionaire an apparently infected video file, reported the Guardian.
Then, large amounts of data were exfiltrated from Bezos’s phone within hours. But it is not known what was taken from the mobile phone or how it was used.
Bezos has alleged through his security consultant, Gavin de Becker, that the Saudi government had “access” to his phone and “gained private information”.
De Becker had written in the Daily Beast, an American news website, that the Saudis were “intent on harming Jeff Bezos since . . . the Post began its relentless coverage” of the murder of Khashoggi.
After he was murdered in Istanbul, Bezos became the target of criticism from Saudi-based trolls. But the alleged hacking of his phone took place five months earlier – before the dissident’s assassination.
Relations between Bezos and the Saudi government seemed to go from “promising to poisoned” over the past two years. After Donald Trump visited the kingdom for his first foreign trip as US President, and MBS visited the US in early 2018, Bezos’ company continued its efforts to make a $1 billion deal to build three data centres for Amazon Web Services in Saudi.
The project seemed to correspond with the Saudi Crown Prince’s desire to expand his country’s participation in the global economy.
Bezos and MBS reportedly exchanged phone numbers at a dinner in Los Angeles during the Prince’s trip to the US.
But Bezos’ Washington Post proved to be what the billionaire later called, “a complexifier” in his relationship with the Saudi regime as the daily’s editorial department had given Khashoggi a contract to write columns.
After the dissident was murdered, a wave of anti-Bezos tweets originating in Saudi Arabia appeared, bashing Amazon and The Post.
Then, in January 2019, the National Enquirer, a longtime defender of Trump, published a cover story exposing an extramarital affair between Bezos and Lauren Sanchez, a pilot and former TV host.
During MBS’ visit to the US, the Enquirer’s parent company published a glossy magazine titled “The New Kingdom” extolling the prince’s reign as a golden era.
Immediately after the article was published, Saudi accounts launched fresh Twitter attacks on Bezos.
Bezos did not deny the affair but wrote an online essay in which he said he was investigating how the Enquirer had obtained his texts with his girlfriend.
Why Bezos was targeted by Saudi?
According to Saudi experts, dissidents and analysts, Bezos was probably targeted because of his ownership of the Post and its coverage of Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi’s critical columns about MBS policies and his campaign of repression against activists and intellectuals irked the Crown Prince and his inner circle.
Andrew Miller, a Middle East expert, says if Bezos had been targeted by the Crown Prince, it reflected the “personality-based” environment in which MBS operates.
“He probably believed that if he got something on Bezos it could shape coverage of Saudi Arabia in the Post. It is clear that the Saudis have no real boundaries or limits in terms of what they are prepared to do in order to protect and advance MBS...”
A dilemma for White House?
The possibility that the head of one of America’s leading companies was targeted by Saudi Arabia could pose a dilemma for the White House.
Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner have maintained close ties with MBS despite a US intelligence finding that the Crown Prince ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
The extraordinary revelation can also undermine efforts by the Crown Prince to lure more western investors to Saudi Arabia amid his efforts to economically transform the kingdom.
The revealation is also likely to raise difficult questions for the kingdom about the circumstances around how US tabloid the National Enquirer came to publish intimate details about Bezos’ private life.
It may also lead to renewed scrutiny about what MBS and his inner circle were doing in the months prior to the murder of Khashoggi.