The most astonishing revelation in reports about the hacking of Jeff Bezos’s cellphone is that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have played a direct, personal role. Bloomberg News reports that two people familiar with the breach say Saudi Arabia’s de-facto ruler, known as MBS, started the process by sending the Amazon.com Inc. chief a WhatsApp message containing hidden malware, which gave the Saudis access to the billionaire’s phone.
More damning still, independent United Nations experts say they have information suggesting MBS's involvement in the hack. “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,” wrote independent experts Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on summary executions and extrajudicial killings, and David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, in a statement Wednesday.
How the prince responds will reveal whether he has learned any lessons from the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and its fallout.
The message to Bezos preceded the grisly murder of the journalist, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, by five months. The UN investigation into the killing said MBS “has a responsibility in relationship to the killing” and the CIA believes he gave the order. The Saudi government denies this, and went through a form of judicial proceedings to affix blame on people it claims were involved.
This saga has done little to dispel the cloud over MBS’s reputation. As I wrote on the anniversary of the murder, the ghost of Khashoggi haunts the prince’s every step. It even attended, Banquo-like, the banquet for bankers that was the Aramco IPO.
The story about the hacking of the Washington Post’s owner has the potential to attract as much attention as the killing of the newspaper’s columnist.
The allegation that the prince was personally involved is especially damaging, and will lower even further his international standing. In the U.S., it will harden the resolve of many in Congress to hold MBS to account for the murder, despite President Trump’s best efforts to shield him.
It won’t end there. That the target was one of the world’s richest men will invite closer scrutiny of other incidents involving less prominent figures — such as the reported hacking of phones belonging to Saudi dissidents, threats against other critics, and the charge that Twitter employees spied for the kingdom.
The first response from the Saudis was true to form. The Saudi embassy in Washington has characterized the reports of the Bezos hack as “absurd,” reprising the posture it adopted in dismissing first reports that Khashoggi was murdered on orders from Riyadh.
The wiser course would be to allow a transparent investigation into the hack with a broader mandate than the UN probe — to find out who ordered it as well as who executed it. After the opaque process surrounding the Khashoggi killing, any investigation by Saudi authorities will inevitably give the impression of a cover-up. The best way to avert that reasonable suspicion would be to allow international supervision of the process.
If such a probe concludes that the first breach of Bezos’s phone came from MBS’s WhatsApp message, then the prince must make a clear breast of it: a real mea culpa, and not the caveat-laden acknowledgment he belatedly allowed in the Khashoggi affair. Better still, he should forswear the use of such tactics against critics.
MBS’s admirers and defenders often point out that the prince has a long reign ahead of him: He could be king for 50 years. That era will go easier without more ghosts and scandals dogging him.
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Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.