Mohammed bin Salman could be forgiven for thinking there was no one who could touch him.
It was May 1, 2018 and the world was beating a path to the gilded doors of the 32-year-old’s palace in Riyadh.
A year earlier his father had abruptly promoted him to crown prince and heir to the throne. He had just returned from a much-heralded trip to America where he was fêted by Hollywood stars, US politicians, and Silicon Valley leaders.
His Vision 2030, imagining an economically dynamic Saudi Arabia guided by a tolerant form of Islam, was being praised as a blueprint for a new Middle East.
It was in this spirit of confidence that Prince Mohammed pressed send on WhatsApp, delivering a video on Saudi internet usage allegedly encrypted with spyware to the personal iPhone X of Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest person.
But the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia would soon find he had met his match in a man whose corporate empire stretches to almost every corner of the planet and is prepared to use his unimaginable fortune to stand up to even the most powerful of rulers.
Nearly two years later, Prince Mohammed’s global reputation is in tatters thanks largely to Mr Bezos’ forces which have marshaled against him.
A team of digital forensic experts hired by Mr Bezos claimed last year that Saudi Arabia appeared to have hacked the Amazon founder’s phone and ransacked it apparently for evidence that he was having an extramarital affair.
MBS’s clumsy hack
This week the United Nations investigators, working on evidence gathered by Mr Bezos’ team of cyber experts, made an even more explosive allegation likely to tear at the last shreds of Prince Mohammed’s international credibility.
They assessed that the prince was not only directly involved in hacking Mr Bezos’ phone, but that he appeared to have personally attempted a clumsy effort to threaten the billionaire.
On November 8, 2018 – a month after Saudi agents cut Khashoggi’s body to pieces with a bone saw and sent Riyadh into a spasm of false denials – Prince Mohammed texted Mr Bezos a picture of a woman on WhatsApp.
The woman in the photograph closely resembled Lauren Sanchez, the US news anchor with whom Mr Bezos was having an affair.
The message arrived as the Amazon executive was secretly discussing a divorce with his wife, MacKenzie, and how they would split his $100 billion (£76 billion) fortune.
A clear threat to Bezos
Both the private experts and the UN investigators interpreted the 23 words in the same way: that Prince Mohammed was signaling he knew about Mr Bezos’ affair and divorce and perhaps intimating he would make the knowledge public if the Washington Post did not tone down its criticism over Khashoggi.
“The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Mr Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia,” the UN experts Agnes Callamard and David Kaye said.
Saudi Arabia strongly denied that Prince Mohammed played any role. “The idea that the Crown Prince would hack Jeff Bezos’ phone is absolutely silly,” said Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, the Saudi foreign minister.
For Prince Mohammed to allow himself to be personally implicated in the hacking would indeed seem to be an act of unfathomable recklessness. But it is also in character for a young prince known for impetuosity, aggression, and a willingness to take risks.
When a Saudi official tried to stop a young Prince Mohammed from appropriating a property, the prince reportedly sent him a bullet in an envelope, earning himself the nickname “Father of the Bullet”.
On a whim, he paid $550m for a yacht that he liked the look of after spotting it off the coast of southern France in 2015.
Such behaviour might seem like the typical extravagance of a young royal raised in vast wealth, but Prince Mohammed has brought the same style to his decision-making as Saudi’s de facto ruler, often with calamitous results.
In 2015 he ordered his military into neighbouring Yemen to put down an insurrection by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Five years later, they remain bogged down in the country, unable to defeat the Houthis or withdraw. More than 100,000 people have died in the fighting and ensuing famine, including 8,000 civilians killed by Saudi Arabia and its allies, according the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project.
How the hack was carried out
The technology used to hack Mr Bezos’ phone is nearly as complicated as the Saudi motivations for doing so.
Mr Bezos and Prince Mohammed first met at a small dinner in Los Angeles on March 21, 2018 but did not exchange WhatsApp numbers until a second meeting on April 4, according to the UN. “Hello MBS,” Mr Bezos wrote in his first message. “Hello, i saved the number,” the prince replied.
The two men stayed in touch primarily about a proposal for Amazon to build three data centres in Saudi Arabia, a project that would help fulfill Prince Mohammed’s desire to attract international investment to his country.
On May 1, Prince Mohammed sent Mr Bezos what appeared to be an innocuous video promoting the low cost of internet data in Saudi Arabia. But hidden inside the file appears to have been spyware code that quickly spread through the iPhone.
A report by FTI Consulting alleged that within hours of Mr Bezos receiving the video “a massive and unauthorised exfiltration of data from Bezos’s phone began, continuing and escalating for months”. He would not even have needed to click the file for the spyware to gain access to his private information.
Data began pouring out of the mobile to an unknown location without Mr Bezos realising. At one stage the data output from the phone was 106,032,045 per cent higher than usual.
Among the files that were allegedly sucked from the phone onto Saudi-controlled data servers were naked selfies that Mr Bezos had sent to his lover, Ms Sanchez. Those photographs later found their way into the hands of the National Enquirer, a US tabloid.
The National Enquirer insists that it got the photographs from Ms Sanchez’s brother, a conservative Donald Trump supporter who shares the President’s hostility towards the liberal Washington Post. Mr Trump regularly rages against the paper on Twitter and denounces it as “the Amazon Washington Post”.
But Mr Bezos and his team have always suspected that the lurid pictures were given to the tabloid by Saudi intelligence officers in the hope that they would weaponise them against the Washington Post and its owner.
A critical question remains outstanding: which of the constellation of spyware firms provided the technology used for the hack?
NSO, a Tel Aviv firm founded by Israeli military and intelligence veterans that has provided tens of millions of dollars in services to Riyadh in recent years, “unequivocally” denied that its technology was used in the hack.
Ms Callamard, one of the UN officials, said the Bezos case only underscored the need for a moratorium on the export of spyware technology until the international community can come up with an effective system of regulation.
“It is totally uncontrollable and very difficult to trace,” she told the Daily Telegraph. “The international community must come together to think of a moratorium on the production and export of surveillance and hacking technology.”
Crown prince goes into hiding
Mohammed bin Salman has spent the last few weeks holed up in his palaces in Saudi Arabia and making almost no public appearances. The days when he would be welcomed by American tech executives or celebrities must seem like a distant dream to a man now widely seen as a global pariah and accused of having Khashoggi’s blood on his hands.
Mr Bezos has also maintained a relatively low-profile, issuing no lengthy statement. Instead he tweeted a photograph of himself at a memorial service for Mr Khashoggi, writing simply “#Jamal”.
Last Friday a dip in Amazon shares meant he briefly slipped from his position as the richest person on earth and saw the title go to Bernard Arnault, a luxury goods mogul. But this week his shares shot back up again, restoring his net worth to $116 billion – $3 billion more than Mr Arnault. Mr Bezos, in many ways, was once again on top of the world.
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