Mohammed bin Salman personally attempted to “intimidate” Jeff Bezos with a WhatsApp message implying he had incriminating information about the Amazon chief’s extramarital affair in the weeks after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, UN investigators claimed to The Daily Telegraph.
UN officials said the Saudi crown prince appears to have sent a suggestive message to Mr Bezos’ personal iPhone in November 2018 in an effort to make the Washington Post owner tone down his paper’s critical coverage of Khashoggi’s killing several weeks earlier. When the message was sent, Mr Bezos' affair had yet to be publicly exposed.
The explosive allegation suggests that the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia was using private messages to not only hack the world’s wealthiest man but also intimidate him as part of an attempt to cover up the truth of Khashoggi’s murder.
“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,” said UN officials Agnes Callamard and David Kaye.
Saudi Arabia adamantly denied the claims. “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. The government did not respond to a request for comment on the UN investigators' intimidation allegation.
However, Saudi officials close to Prince Mohammed were aware of the attempt to hack Mr Bezos but not of a plan to blackmail him, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Mr Bezos made no public statement but simply tweeted a photograph of himself at a memorial service for Khashoggi, with the one-word caption “#Jamal”.
Meanwhile, it emerged Boris Johnson may have been vulnerable to a similar hack as multiple former UK government figures told The Telegraph that he had communicated with Prince Mohammed over WhatsApp.
One ex-Foreign Office source said they were “99 per cent sure” Mr Johnson had done so, adding: “He certainly had his number and would ping him the occasional message.” Downing Street declined to comment. Other Western officials who could have been vulnerable because of their Whatsapp conversations with the prince include Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s advisor and son-in-law, and Simon Collis, the UK ambassador in Saudi Arabia.
Mr Bezos and Prince Mohammed exchanged numbers on April 4, 2018 while the Saudi leader was on a tour of the US and the Amazon founder soon joined the ranks of a number of global figures who kept in touch with the prince by WhatsApp message.
On May 1, the prince sent Mr Bezos an innocuous seeming video about about internet costs in Saudi Arabia. The video allegedly contained spyware which infiltrated his iPhone and pilfered his private information, including texts and photographs of his affair with Lauren Sanchez, a US news anchor.
Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, allegedly on Prince Mohammed’s orders. The Washington Post, where Khashoggi wrote a column critical of the prince, immediately began intensive news coverage of the story. Saudi Arabia has always denied the prince was involved in the killing.
On November 8, the prince texted Mr Bezos on WhatsApp with an unusual internet meme of a woman resembling Ms Sanchez. “Arguing with a woman is like reading the software license agreement. In the end you have to ignore everything and click I agree,” the meme read.
Ms Callamard said the content’s message and the fact that it came so soon after Khashoggi’s death indicated it was meant to unnerve Mr Bezos into tamping down the Washington Post’s coverage.
“I would say it was designed to unsettle, to intimidate… to convey or imply that they had access to personal, private or confidential information,” she told the Telegraph.
Mr Kaye, the second UN official, said: “It points toward an interest of the Saudi government or the Crown Prince in influencing the kind of control that Jeff Bezos would have over the Washington Post.”
The alleged effort to intimidate Mr Bezos appears to have failed. After growing suspicious that his phone had been hacked, he hired a team of private experts who concluded with “medium to high confidence” that Prince Mohammed was personally involved in sending the spyware.
The findings of Mr Bezos’ team formed the basis of the UN statement on Wednesday which has further battered the public image of Prince Mohammed and will likely undermine his hopes of repairing the damage to his reputation caused by the Khashoggi murder.
The prince was widely lauded in the West after coming to power in 2017 for his vision of widespread economic and social reforms in Saudi Arabia. But many leaders have pulled away from him over Khashoggi and the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led military coalition has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes, according to human rights groups.