With the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi still hovering over his head , Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, also known as MBS, has again caused outrage with allegations that he had tried to hack the phone of Mr Bezos.
Ironically, Mr Jeff Bezos is the owner of the Washington Post with which Khashoggi worked as a columnist until he was killed inside the Saudi Embassy in Turkey. According to the Guardian which first reported on the incident, the billionaire’s phone was hacked around May 2018, after the Crown Prince sent him a WhatsApp message. The encrypted message contained an infected video which exfiltrated large amounts of data within hours.
MBS has always been known for cracking down and silencing those he perceives as critics and business rivals. By 2017 the number of Saudi citizens fleeing to other countries because of his crackdown had increased from 575 to 1200. According to US intelligence sources, it was in the same year that he oversaw a clandestine operation that spied on, kidnapped, detained and tortured business rivals and Saudi citizens who held dissenting views. The intelligence further revealed how a number of women were detained and tortured for being vocal about women’s rights. They were detained in small dark rooms in an unused palace where they were tortured by beatings and electric shocks, and threatened with rape and murder.
The torture was so severe that one of the women tried to commit suicide. The Saudi Government claimed they were detained, “in connection with activities that threatened the kingdom’s national security.”
Confirming that MBS was behind this clandestine operation was a phone call which was intercepted by US intelligence. In November 2018 one Turkish online newspaper reported that the CIA had a phone recording in which the Crown Prince gave firm instructions for Khashoggi to be silenced.
“It is said that the Crown Prince gave an instruction to silence Jamal Khashoggi as soon as possible and this instruction was captured during the CIA wiretapping,” wrote Abdulkadir Selvi in the paper. According to Selvi, during the phone call with his brother Khalid, who is the Saudi ambassador to the US, MBS was heard expressing his discomfort with the way Khashoggi was portraying the Saudi administration in his writings for the Washington Post.
This history of silencing those perceived as critics of Saudi administration, therefore, leaves no doubt why Bezos’s phone was targeted.
In a statement released after the hacking allegations were made public, the United Nations Office for Human Rights expressed its concern for what it believed was the “contravention of fundamental international human rights standards.”
“The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in the surveillance of Mr Bezos’s phone in an effort to influence, if not silence, the Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia ,” said UN experts Agnes Callamard and David Kaye.
They added: “The allegations reinforce other reporting pointing to a pattern of targeted surveillance of perceived opponents and those of broader strategic importance to the Saudi authorities, including nationals and non-nationals.”
Just after his phone was hacked, Bezos was widely targeted by Saudi social media accounts as an alleged adversary of the kingdom. This was part of a clandestine online smear campaign orchestrated by those connected to the Crown Prince. According to UN experts, among those who were involved in carrying out the smear campaign was Mr Saud al-Qahtani who was greatly mentioned in the killing of Khashoggi.
The fact that the hacking of Bezos’ phone took place just five months before the murder of Khashoggi is enough to bring into focus the involvement of MBS in the killing of the Washington Post columnist.
“The circumstances and timing of the hacking and surveillance of Bezos also strengthen support for further investigations by the US and other relevant authorities of the allegations that the Crown Prince failed to stop the mission that fatally targeted Khashoggi,” noted Callamard and her colleague.
But will the US and her allies act this time round?
They’ll have to because the mere fact that the head of a top US company can be placed under Saudi surveillance should be enough to raise alarm. But in his characteristic style, President Trump will most likely choose to bury his head in the sand as he waits for things to cool down. Members of his government have been giving lacklustre responses to avoid antagonising Saudi Arabia which is a key market for US weapons.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said that the government was obviously taking the situation seriously but quickly added that: “Saudi Arabia is obviously an important ally.” Treasury Secretary Mr Steven Mnuchin refused to discuss the matter during an interview with CNBC and urged American companies to continue doing business with Saudi Arabia.
The downside of this is that the more countries like Britain and the US display their reluctance to call out MBS over his clandestine and brutal activities, the more he will be emboldened in his operations. At the moment the extent of his surveillance on world leaders and top businessmen is yet to be known. But it is suspected that more phones belonging to top government officials and leaders could have been compromised.
Among them is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who communicated with MBS on WhatsApp around the time, and White House senior advisor Jared Kushner. The latest revelations should be a wake up call to world leaders to put business interests aside and speak against human rights violations being perpetrated by MBS.
As Andrew Miller, a Middle East expert who served on the National Security Council under Obama said: “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.”