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Feature Article
2020-01-26

Phone Hacks And Hangers-On: Change Of Course Or Character In Action?

Tech experts have agreed with "high certainty" that the phone of billionaire Jeff Bezos was compromised, and personal data stolen, by the crown prince through messaging app trickery; there is now concern that British PM Boris Johnson may have been been similarly hacked. Does this campaign represent an intensification of Muhammad bin Salman's ongoing efforts at repression and control, or are the revelations merely an accidental glimpse into his character?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Reports that the phone of tech mogul Jeff Bezos was personally hacked by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) surprised no one, considering that the prince is now under such widespread suspicion that the allegation alone was enough to be treated as established fact by the mainstream media. Bezos, the Amazon founder and owner of the Washington Post, had been friendly with MbS until their falling out over the murder of Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi - he visited Riyadh and met with the crown prince in 2016, and the two exchanged phone numbers in the spring of 2018. MbS seems to have been fond of WhatsApp, apparently sending video containing images of Swedish and Saudi Arabian flags draped over one another with Arabic lettering written across them. This WhatsApp video is thought to be the source of the 'Trojan horse' virus that compromised the billionaire's phone, and Bezos later suffered embarrassment when details of his extramarital affair leaked to an American magazine.

More seriously, there are now fears that the phone of British PM Boris Johnson has been similarly hacked by MbS. He is said to have been 'bombarded' with 'emoji-laden' messages on the messaging app since the two exchanged numbers while Johnson was serving as Foreign Secretary, and the level of contact was (and is) alarming, according to his security team. MbS is also known to correspond through WhatsApp with US President Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner. In the case of Bezos, the Post had become a thorn in the side of the Kingdom with the paper's unrelenting criticism in the wake of Khashoggi's murder in 2018, one of the reasons the allegations of a phone hack hardly need proof. If MbS is in regular contact with foreign leaders, with a familiar and casual manner and the resulting potential for damaging leaks, it shines a light on the character of the crown prince - how constrained is he by normative conventions and unwritten rules of behavior? Like Trump, he is considered a disruptor, with little regard for the way things have been done previously, but is he also reckless in the sense of failing to take account of the longer-term consequences of his actions?

The increasing tendency towards authoritarianism and a form of one-man rule, unique until now in the Kingdom despite its history as an absolute monarchy, is apparent, and MbS looks set to take over at the helm for a rule potentially spanning decades. Since being appointed crown prince by his father Salman, who is still nominally in charge, he has taken on too much too fast, to the extent that everyone else has, by necessity, been forced to the sidelines. With all the major portfolios falling under his control, there remains very little to aspire to but scraps for the other princes, many of whom can claim equal seniority and right. Traditionally, governance was shared among the royals - in large measure this was due to the fact that no one, even as king, was powerful enough to impose limits on his brothers, who would have had leverage by virtue of their control over institutions such as Defense or Interior. As a result, inherent to the makeup of the Saudi state was a kind of part-sibling rivalry, part-Mexican standoff, where the brothers respected one another, and were duty-bound to uphold the structure they were born into, but were constantly jockeying for position and would have uprooted the entire, inherited system in the blink of an eye is the opportunity had presented itself. Constant vigilance and a knack for family diplomacy were key to survival. MbS has simply taken advantage of a situation in which few senior royals are in a position to pose any challenge - Salman, the king, was himself a sort of 'primus inter pares', having served not only in government but as unofficial family arbiter (as head of the Royal Family Council) for decades, and he has by now no surviving brothers of his stature. His decision to elevate his son Muhammad was not open to question.

Related articles: Hitmen and Masterminds: Drawing a Line or Trouble Ahead?
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Past Feature Articles
Hitmen and Masterminds: Drawing a Line or Trouble Ahead?

News that eight defendants had been found guilty by a Saudi court of participating in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappointed those who had been hoping for closure, since the alleged architects of the killing at the consulate in Turkey were not even put on trial. Does the Kingdom's willingness to defy American demands for accountability reflect a broader desire to move out of Washington's orbit, or is Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman betting on his personal relationship with U.S. President Trump to ride out the storm?

Disappearance of a Princess: Private Dispute or Royal Affair?

Princess Basma bint Saud, along with one of her daughters, is said to be under house arrest in the capital, Riyadh. Was she detained for clashing with the crown prince, or are his critics too quick to assign blame?

The Evolving Foreign Policy Of MbS: Pragmatism Or Chaos?

The elevation of Prince Faysal bin Farhan to Foreign Minister, one among many young, Western-educated careerists to rise to prominence under the de facto governance of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), underscores the rapidity of change within Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, secretive talks with Israel, and an official visit by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, complicate the narrative of the Kingdom reaching out to the West in the face of an Iranian threat. Is a co-ordinated strategy in place, or is the confusion a hint of disfunction within the royal family?

New Face At The Top: Cleanup Or Counterweight?

Unprecedented attacks on the Kingdom's oil infrastructure have focussed attention on the leadership's failure to defend even the most critical facilities, despite overseeing the third-largest military budget in the world. Will royal patience finally wear out with crown prince and Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman?

Royal Dalliance and Soft Power: Changing Mores or Sidelined Princes?

With the crown prince rumored to be dating American actress Lindsay Lohan, a similar affair from the past comes to mind, involving his predecessor and uncle, the late King Fahd. At the time, royal family opposition destroyed any chance of an enduring relationship; given Muhammad bin Salman's pre-eminent position within the family today, would the same dynamic hold?

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