The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, has been accused of a massive breach of etiquette and U.S. law: hacking the cellphone of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post. Bezos’s newspaper has criticized the crown prince relentlessly after his henchmen dismembered one of its columnists. According to Bezos’s security team, Mohammed bin Salman—widely known as MbS—sent Bezos a WhatsApp message with an infected file. That file initiated a massive data transfer from Bezos’s phone, perhaps including compromising pictures that could be used to lean on Bezos and affect the coverage of the crown prince.
This allegation, that a personal chat corrupted a personal device and stole private messages and photographs, triggers specific and horrifying insecurities in all of us. Our cellphones are now the most intimate parts of our bodies. To infect another’s phone on purpose is the digital equivalent of intentionally passing along a venereal disease. Advice to active WhatsApp users in Saudi Arabia: Get tested.
But we can separate the details of the allegation—how they make us squirm and feel violated—from its substance: A state actor is said to have spied on one of its perceived enemies. MbS plainly does not share sanctified American notions of journalism, democracy, or human rights. An attack on Bezos would, from the crown prince’s perspective, feel like an attack by one absolute ruler against another.
That Bezos’s net worth is comparable to the GDP of a state (such as Kuwait or Morocco, two fellow Arab monarchies that Saudi Arabia has almost surely tried to bug) does not reduce the hideousness of the accusation. Yet Bezos’s wealth and global influence put the alleged phone hack in a different context, as an act of espionage akin to what developed nations have done for a long time, and without apology.
The fury at the current accusation resembles in some ways the anger at the United States after allegations by Edward Snowden that it had tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone. Merkel told the Americans that “spying between friends just isn’t on.” Yet in fact, a certain amount of espionage is not only “on” but standard and responsible practice, and when done between friends, it does not entirely unravel the friendship. What is not standard practice is to be caught and exposed—as the United States was then, and as Israel was, most dramatically, in the case of Jonathan Pollard.
The key question for MbS is whether he stands in the same category as Israel and Germany, and whether offenses taken and given will sever affections forever. It sometimes appears that MbS is doing everything he can to encourage his own vilification, in the confidence that Saudi Arabia is as close a friend to the United States as Israel and Germany are. His strategy appears to be to wait for America to forget the state-sponsored murder of the Post’s Jamal Khashoggi. For him to be personally involved in the sordid targeting of a private citizen, due to his ownership of a critical newspaper—and then get caught—would be an enormous gift to MbS’s enemies, and it would further test the U.S.-Saudi relationship’s capacity for forgiveness.
The current administration in Washington dislikes Bezos and will not alter its policies over his exposure. But MbS is 34 years old, and he is seeking allies for a reign that may last the next half century, long past the second Kushner administration. And the disappearance of trust and goodwill between him and his various American counterparts is a setback from which he will not easily recover, as Israel and Germany have. (Indeed, the Bezos hack is both a symptom and a cause of that disappearance of trust: Many news sources have reported the hack as fact, even though the best technical analysis of the device has failed, as of this writing, to show more than circumstantial evidence that MbS infected his phone.)
MbS should be asking what marks an ally as one capable of receiving the benefit of the doubt and, finally, pardon. What Israel and Germany share with the United States is a commitment (sometimes honored in the breach) to basic liberal democratic values, rule of law, and the unalienable rights of their citizens. This commitment is a salve that Saudi Arabia will have great difficulty whipping up, given that democracy and liberalism are utterly foreign to it. Saudi Arabia has liberalized dramatically since MbS’s de facto rule began three years ago, but it is still an absolute monarchy and will probably remain one. Those who wish it would democratize will find that they have to decide between political and social liberalization, at least in the short term, because MbS has promoted the latter at the expense of the former.
Saudis often wonder why America hates them so. The hatred probably has something to do with the spectacular acts of mass murder committed by Saudi citizens on American soil, on 9/11 and again just last year. But Saudis point, with some justification, to the long alliance between Saudi Arabia and America; Saudi Arabia’s relatively responsible stewardship of its oil reserves; and MbS’s reforms, which have replaced Wahhabi sermons and vehicular manslaughter with Pitbull concerts as the most prominent entertainment in the kingdom.
Saudi leaders will ask: Are these improvements, and these demonstrations of decades-long loyalty, worth nothing? If they conclude that the answer is yes, and that nothing short of their form of government’s destruction will land them in the elite circle of American trust, the next step will be to look elsewhere for friends. The list of illiberal suitors, such as India, Russia, and China, is growing.