Two of the world’s richest humans, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were allegedly having a nice chat on WhatsApp in 2018 when the latter sent Bezos an infected file that exfiltrated data from the CEO’s phone. That’s according to a new report in The Guardian, which detailed the exchange according to anonymous sources.
In the shadow of the new report, there is an indication of the murky reality of the network of the über-rich. The Bezos phone data may or may not have sparked the National Enquirer’s look at Bezos’s romantic life. Bezos may or may not have been targeted because he is the owner of The Washington Post, which had run critical editorials by the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was later murdered.
There is so much we don’t know about the facts of this case, but the idea that two of the world’s super-wealthy would just be chitchatting when one dropped a sophisticated hack on the other drew gasps and splutters. It felt like the setup to a joke: So the richest tech CEO in the world and a crown prince were texting one day ...
But beyond the specific nature of the exchange—neither Bezos nor the Saudi embassy has commented on the allegation—the new über-rich do know each other. These news stories can feel like billionaire Mad Libs, where you fill in an extractive industry, a man’s name, and a scandal type, but it’s the opposite of random. Few people have money at this scale, and the tentacles of that wealth are long. As the alleged Bezos-MbS conflict shows, many of these people are not working together, let alone toward one shadowy goal, as conspiracies tend to assert. But the story, like the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, hints at the reality of the dense connections that exist at the very tippy-top of the economic pyramid.
Just by chance, the new revelation came at the beginning of Davos, the shorthand for the World Economic Forum’s annual conference in Switzerland. Davos is famous for how it concentrates the globe’s private jets, which disgorge elites to listen to panels and hobnob. Davos is one of a bunch of institutions that serve to weave the wealthy together.
Soaring global inequality means that the power of the ultrarich is growing. While these calculations are complicated, the different stats all tell a story of the same shape. Globally, the 500 richest people added more than $1.2 trillion to their wealth just last year. Domestically, the 400 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million people. It’s not even the top 1 percent of Americans that has been making a killing since the Great Recession. No, it’s really the top 0.01 percent or even tinier percentages. At these levels, we’re not talking about some huge group of rich people—the so-called upper-middle class—but a tiny, knowable universe of some thousands of people. The fortunes are huge, but the networks are not.
As a result, the ultra-wealthy have detached from the rest of the planet. Their lives are not the lives of 99.999 percent of us. The flip side of their estrangement from nearly all of humanity is that they are connected to one other just as the royals of Europe were (and are), but through completely different means.
Their money ends up entangling seemingly disparate realms of human life. For example, when Jamal Khashoggi was murdered, reportedly on the order of Mohammed bin Salman, it touched off some panic in Silicon Valley. (MbS, as he is known, has taken “full responsibility” but denies giving the order.) Saudi capital had been flowing freely through Masayoshi Son’s unprecedentedly large SoftBank Vision Fund, and into technology companies like Uber that were trying to create defensible businesses through money-losing growth. What would happen to that funding? When a small number of people control so much wealth, their decisions can affect the lives of millions, even billions, of people.
Billionaires are still humans on Earth, of course. Jeff Bezos has been working out, but he is not Batman with his own secret technologies. He uses WhatsApp like 1.5 billion others. In this way, perhaps the new elites are as relatable online—tweeting dumb things, sexting—as they are inconceivably wealthy and powerful offline. You and I could chat on WhatsApp, but we would not have a cyberattack team able to craft us a virus for hacking each other’s phones, nor would our beef contribute to the collapse of certain Silicon Valley business models.
Messaging apps may work the same for everyone, but money works differently. The median American family’s net worth is about $100,000. Bezos’s net worth is about $115 billion. So one Bezos worth of money is what 1.15 million families have. Plus, his money has different features. A normal person has money tied up in a home, usually, and some retirement accounts, stuff that’s relatively illiquid. A Bezos can send money winging around the globe because he or she has substantial cash and stock that can be sold whenever.
It’s nice to think of the economy as a place where small businesses can flourish. But it takes a lot of tamales or plumbing services or Uber rides or freelance articles to make even $100,000. While it’s strangely familiar, almost comforting, to think of Jeff Bezos’s fingers tapping at glass, selecting the right GIF to send to the crown prince, the lesson is not that the super-rich use apps just like us. It’s that they are so different and so deeply connected.
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