by Irina Tsukerman
All of these methods had been used with the clear aim of bringing down the downfall of the Crown Prince, or at least weakening his relationships with Western countries
With the latest spurious allegations concerning the alleged hack of his phone by the Saudis, Jeff Bezos brought himself back into an unwelcome and embarrassing spotlight involving nude pictures of himself cheating on his ex-wife, all seemingly for the sake of destroying the reputation of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
His claim that Mohammed bin Salman taunted him with photos of the supposedly “secret” affair and then somehow used his own phone’s Whatsapp account to hack Bezos’s phone and to expose the nudes which were then leaked to the public remains unsubtantiated despite the mention of undisclosed forensic investigators supposedly responsible for these latest disclosures to the soap opera.
These accusations raise a number of inconvenient questions which neither Bezos, nor the mainstream media which parroted his side of the story without doing the basics of any ethical journalist — which is to say, demanding evidence of these scandalous claim — bother to address.
For instance, why did Jeff Bezos keep silent about the Crown Prince’s alleged knowledge and “taunts”, allegedly made BEFORE the hack, all this time? Why did he not say anything even at the time when he first reported the incident?
Further, he does not explain how Mohammed bin Salman would even know about this clandestine liaison. Did he have a gaggle of spies follow the Amazon founder around? Or was Bezos always so careless with his online activity that the Saudis have hacked him long before and have been on his case for some time?
Which raises yet another natural question: how is that Jeff Bezos, the founder of a gigantic company with millions of accounts, has failed to secure his own personal data? And can any of his customers trust him with their own privacy? Supposedly bad blood between Bezos and the Saudis is related to a business dispute over his interest in building Amazon in KSA, but failing to address Saudi concerns over Amazon’s handling of Saudi customers’ data. If so, Bezos’ behavior is fraught with irony.
The next question any reasonable person could/should ask is why would the heir to the throne of a major Middle Eastern country use his own personal account to engage in any sort of illicit and unethical activity, much less something blatantly criminal as a hack of one of the wealthiest individuals in the world? Is there no one Mohammed bin Salman could hire even if that is something he was contemplating for unknowable reasons? Why would he make himself so vulnerable especially in light of the many other character attacks he’s been facing since early on in his tenure?
Finally, even IF there is technical evidence linking Mohammed bin Salman’s Whatsapp account to the hack, how do we know that the Crown Prince’s phone was not hacked or spoofed, which is more than likely? For all it’s worth, Bezos himself probably had interacted with the Crown Prince over that account, and could have easily leaked it elsewhere. But why would Bezos be involved in a set-up that discredited him in light of his own personal drama unfolding before the world’s eyes?
Rather than speculating on Bezos’ motivations, I invite the readers to examine his actions, which indicate that this story is about far more than just Bezos’ personal issues with the Saudis (if any of these rumors are even true).
Shortly following the break out of the media storm over the renewed allegations, Bezos tweeted a picture of himself from Jamal Khashoggi’s memoria with the hashtag “Jamal”. Who else attended that memorial? Jamal Khashoggi’s Turkish fiance, known for her support of Turkey’s authoritarian president Erdogan, and none other than the UN rapporteur Agnes Callamard, a fierce defender of Qassem Soleimani against US strikes, and the allegedly impartial UN official responsible for the UN investigation of Saudi role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, who nevertheless attended his funeral as a participant discrediting her claims to objectivity. The very same Callamard has now sided with Bezos, as a UN official, demanding an international investigation into the hacking allegations against Mohammed bin Salman, despite lack of evidence. What a coincidence!
By tweeting this image shortly after the renewed claims, Bezos admits the following:
- That he has a political agenda in going after the Saudi Crown Prince, beyond any business dispute.
- That Washington Post, which Bezos owns, is not objective but rather openly sides with the ex-Saudi cum Qatari agent Jamal Khashoggi — despite Washington Post’s own admission that Qatar Foundation International fed Khashoggi the articles he used to attack the Crown Princes in the pieces basically rewritten to the level of readability by his editor Karen Attiah. Washington Post, if it has benefited financially from this arrangement, may itself be implicated as an unregistered foreign agent in violation of US laws, and Bezos is openly hinting at that. Karen Attiah, after all, also took part in the memorial.
- Finally, that Bezos’ accusations against Mohammed bin Salman are directly tied to Qatar and Khashoggi matter. This thinly veiled message affirms that Bezos, Callamard, and others are deeply involved with state actors who are fueling the ongoing political campaign to discredit, smear, and ultimately oust the Crown Prince.
What could be Bezos’ political calculus in this unseemly scenario, where he is publicly making himself into a laughingstock at least as much as he is turning Mohammed bin Salman into fodder for cheap gossip rags like the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal (who published all of this uncritically)?
There is no mystery. The strategy by Mohammed bin Salman’s enemies, from the very beginning of the Khashoggi affair has been to make it appear that the Khashoggi death is not an isolated incident; rather, the claim has been that Mohammed bin Salman has a strategy of surveilling, hacking, physically intimidating, and even trying to abduct dissidents, critics, and opponents of his policies. Since Khashoggi death, both the NY Times and WaPo, known for taking conspiracy theories and baseless allegations from the Qatar-funded Arabic and English language media and giving them legitimacy without ever providing counterpoints or raising doubt about these claims, have printed numerous articles giving space to known leftist, pan-Arabist and pro-Muslim Brotherhood critics of the Crown Prince and his Vision2030 reform plan, who reside in Canada, the UK, and the US and who have all claimed that they had been threatened, harassed, or surveilled by Saudi intelligence in the wake of Khashoggi.
Prior to Khashoggi’s death, however, these individuals resorted to broader statements claiming that Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for a crackdown on dissent (read: antagonistic activism) inside the Kingdom. The Khashoggi affair gave an opportunity to opportunist to push for creating an image of Mohammed bin Salman as an irredeemable villain who will never stop shutting down anyone who stands up to him. Bezos has clearly aligned himself with other agents of this strategy, and despite past evidence showing that other parties were responsible for the embarrassing leak of his “dick pics” (technical term), jumped in full throttle into this morass.
The calculus here is not so much to “prove” that Mohammed bin Salman is personally guilty of this cyberattack, which may ultimately prove impossible even if any evidence existed, but to embarrass him (again) to such an extent that his own family will decide that he deserves no more chances to fix his reputation in light of this ongoing PR/information warfare nightmare, and should be removed from a public role or at least from his current position.
Why are the campaigners against the Crown Prince so relentless in their hounding?
David Reaboi outlines some of the ignoble role the media has played in this gruesome saga, not an impartial arbiter of some moral standards, nor as an objective pursuer of truths, but rather as nothing more as crude tools employed by various autocratic foreign regimes in pursuit of their anti-Saudi foreign policy.
However, there is more to the story (and a long litany of Mohammed bin Salman’s enemies) than just the media.
No sooner has Mohammed bin Salman, burst into the political scene after assuming that role, as controversy and media speculation about the heir to the throne began. That event coincided with the announcement of the boycott against Qatar following Doha’s rejection of the thirteen demands put forth by the members of the Anti-Terrorism Quartet (KSA, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain) and which included the calls to shut down Al Jazeera, an appeal to move away from Iran, the push to drop support for various terrorist groups and the funding of Muslim Brotherhood, and a warning against further meddling in the politics of various MENA states. Simultaneously dealing with the Qatar crisis, the Crown Prince was also handling the ongoing war in Yemen, an aggressive push for domestic reform, and the necessary move to consolidate power, which included a corruption probe against some Royal Family members and their associates with a reputation for involvement in dubious financial and political schemes.
Not too long after, the rumors began.
Some were focused on Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged personal hypocrisy, including, the supposedly shocking allegations that the Prince who went after some people for corruption himself had purchased an expensive yacht, chateaux, and a painting. Some of these rumors were so poorly sourced that even such giants of US media as NY Times and the Wall Street Journal were forced to withdraw these stories.
No sooner the corruption probe began than new rumors started flying, each more incredible than the next. The rumors began with a story in an obscure Arabic language Qatari-backed publication in London, quickly moved to the known pro-Qatar vehicle the Middle East Eye, and from there, in various forms and with details increasingly vague and unverifiable, migrated to The Guardian, The New York Times, and other major publication.
The story, which sounded from the beginning and its all variations concerned some corrupt official allegedly tortured to death during the corruption probe. His alleged personal details and circumstances of his supposed demise increasingly disappeared as the story moved up in ranks. No New York Times or other journalist ever bothered following up on the story and either collaborating or dismissing these allegations, and nothing ever came of it due to the lack of detail. However, the story circulated for months firmly embedding itself in the public mind even as details faded over time, perhaps deliberately so.
The spread of similarly emotionally appealing but vague and unsupported stories attacking Mohammed bin Salman’s character were published with increased frequency as his first visit to the United States drew closer. By the time he arrived for a three week series of meetings, the media war, mostly consisting of subtle attacks on his image of a reformer popular with young people and with a mindset for a blossoming relationship with the West, appeared to be at its apogee. Most of these allegations smacked of an old Soviet-style smear campaign. Thanks to the widespread network of Qatari and Qatar-funded media, the character assassination was back in vogue.
Character assassination can be broadly defined as the “malicious and unjustified harming of a person’s good reputation”. It can, but not always does fall under the legal category of “defamation of character”; however, the smear techniques used to destroy one’s reputation are not always false, nor necessarily carry legal culpability.
In international relations, various forms of character assassination have been used as part of information warfare strategy to smear, demoralize, and ultimately, to disarm their opponents. Information warfare is not a simple concept to define. According to some sources, information warfare involves information collection, transport, protection, and manipulation with the aim of gaining a competitive advantage over one’s adversary, whether in the military, intelligence, political, or business context. Other elements may include information disturbance, degradation, and denial. Another way of looking at it is as a combination of electronic warfare, cyberwarfare, and psy-ops (psychological operations).
Information warfare utilizes cyberspace, advanced computing, mobile networks, unmanned systems, and social media to gather intelligence, disrupt the operational capabilities of the other adversary, and to engage in a variety of tasks to advance the mission of the governmental or non-state actors.
Character assassination is an element of information warfare that can be pursued through a variety of disinformation tactics and is generally considered a type of psy-ops.
However, as this paper will show, more recently, traditional means of character assassination, has also relied on various types of cyberwarfare, such as hacking to advance the agenda of destroying the reputation of the target. In the course of the past two years, all of these methods had been used with the clear aim of bringing down the downfall of the Crown Prince, or at least weakening his relationships with Western countries and even with portions of the Arab world.
The death of the former Saudi government spokesman and intelligence officer Jamal Khashoggi sparked a spike in attacks on the Crown Prince which bordered on obsessive. For months, not a day passed without some supposedly objective Western outlet characterizing him in highly negative terms and by contrast, falsely painting Khashoggi to be an innocent journalist, whose only crime was his criticism of the monarchy and who met his end at Mohammed bin Salman’s hands for that reason.
The attacks were soon interspersed with negative publicity related to a group of women’s rights activists, both men and women, who were detained and eventually put on trial after being accused of working with foreign entities against Saudi Arabia. Indeed, journalism and political operations seemed to merge into one as increasingly, not a day passed without some negative story about Saudi Arabia, regardless of how irrelevant, superficial, or one-sided. Most journalists somehow managed to tie in literally anything that happened in US politics or in the region to Jamal Khashoggi and to the Crown Prince — whether it was the war in Yemen or the story of run away Saudi girls who have had conflicts with their strict families.
Mohammed bin Salman’s face was brought to every publication and was made to embody some abstract evil, while the incorrect narrative about Khashoggi’s death, often based entirely on leaks from Turkish newspapers affiliated with the local intelligence agencies, took on increasingly gruesome and often contradictory iterations.
The result of this coordinated series of attacks included the withdrawal of various lobbyists and business partners from work with Saudi Arabia, two Congressional resolutions holding Mohammed bin Salman personally responsible for Khashoggi’s death, a joint Congressional resolution pushing for US withdrawal from Yemen (which was vetoed by President Trump), and negative coverage of Saudi Arabia even following terrorist attacks and acts of war on its territory by Iran and its proxies.
The character assassins who went after the Crown Prince were successful in creating negative impressions of his person because in part, they took advantage of the bitter political climate in the US, in part, they took advantage of the information vacuum by the Saudis themselves, and in part they overwhelmed the unsuspecting Western audiences with one-sided stories from a multitude of seemingly respectable outlets. The non-stop coverage permeated every conceivable type of institutions, and while the Khashoggi-related discussions waxed and waned, the attacks on the Crown Prince himself never fully abated.
The media played a significant role in facilitating these attacks.
They have allowed Turkish leaks to drive the narrative, showing little concern for truth or justice, and willingly publishing even the wildest stories, taking little responsibility when these tidbits from Erdogan’s table changed momentarily.
Essentially, the leading Western Press, as Lee Smith writes, has become a tool of political operatives and foreign and domestic intelligence agencies with an agenda — to take down Mohammed bin Salman, and to replace him with members of the reactionary faction that was at the helm prior to his surprising rise to power.
Ironically, the same people who blame the Saudi government for the alleged support for the Saudi Al-Qaeda members who perpetrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks are gunning to remove the very person who pushed the faction in power at the time out. Is their agenda modernization and, however gradual, liberalization and reform of Saudi Arabia, or are they merely concerned with access to their old and well known players?
The Old Guard, with its connections to the Western intelligence agencies was at the forefront of assorted leaks and fabrications which plagued the early months of investigations into Khashoggi’s death and subverted the assessment of the security situation. Turkish President Erdogan immediately took advantage of the events to push his own narrative, claiming to have a secret tape tying the Crown Prince to the murder; however, the tape itself was never fully released and to this day, nothing concrete is known about what actually happened. However, it was obvious that at the time, Turkey, which was pushing for a pathway into Syria and which was enduring increasing tensions with the United States, was using this opportunity to extort Saudi Arabia and the United States, with bad optics if nothing else in exchange for significant leeway into its own agenda.
Qatar and Muslim Brotherhood activists had a ball with their own media in smearing the Crown Prince who stood in the way of Qatar’s sponsorship of terrorist groups and Islamists in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and even in the United States, and who expelled Muslim Brotherhood ideologues from their positions in the mosques inside KSA. Iran lobbyists and former Obama officials, who were threatened by Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and assorted regional proxies, too, had a hand in promoting the anti-Crown Prince narrative, which soon became an expertly organized and coordinated media and political campaign, with the same type of language describing Mohammed bin Salman appearing in multiple otherwise divergent outlets and channels.
It helped that the PR campaign concerning his role was superficial and it took only a rumor to besmirch a pristine image. The media was a willing partner to all of these interest in part and parcel because they, too, viewed the Crown Prince as a disruptive force that threatened a comfortable status quo. Many of the media were connect to the “Old Guard” and benefited both financially and in terms of social status from those relationships. Mohammed bin Salman’s focus on internal reforms and cut down on media related expenditures upstage their access, their influence, and supposed expertise on Saudi Arabia, which consisted ultimately of the leaked crumbs of information from the country’s intelligence officials.
Ultimately, none of the smear attacks against Mohammed bin Salman were about human rights, Saudi Arabia’s role, or anything other than bringing down a political leader that stood in the way power and influence.
Qatar’s economic and political interests in distancing US from KSA and becoming the primary investor and counterpart played their part, for sure. Muslim Brotherhood saw this as an opportunity to promote their own ideology, particularly if their adversary was weakened and his credibility suffered. The lack of interest in the human side of the Saudi story was transparent and obvious: there was no real attempt by the Western scolds to engage with the Saudis and provide opportunities for professional network or to volunteer their skills in a variety of productive ways, any of which could have had practical utility towards making Vision 2030 easier to achieve.
The reality, however, is that even many those of the Westerners who did not necessarily show in all of Qatar’s, Turkey’s, the Old Guard’s or Obama’s political agendas, were threatened by the possibility of Saudi Arabia rising, developing its own industries, including defense, and assuming independent leadership in the region.
For that reason, even the defense sector that benefited the most from deals with Saudi Arabia, did not lean on Congress particularly hard to ensure that the relationship endured, but just enough to get these deals pass and earn their cut. Furthermore, universities, tech companies, and assorted would be cultural and business counterparts that ultimately abandoned Saudi Arabia, while may not have had a specific anti-Saudi agenda to begin with, ultimately yielded to the increasingly radical left movement in the US institutions and an increasing lean towards partnership of the left with both Sunni and Shi’a Islamists.
At the end of the day, Mohammed bin Salman found himself isolated not because he did anything worse than any other leader in the region, or the world, but because he is not a convenient presence for anyone who does not wish to see Saudi Arabia to become a powerful and modern country, or who is opposed to the reforms — cultural, and religious, as much as political and economics. Thus assorted radicals, Islamists, leftists, and self-interested Iran stooges, and corrupt media and institutional apparatchiks made a strange alliance, all focused not on building bridges or overcoming any specific issues or making either Saudi Arabia or the West better places, but rather, on bringing down the one person who stood in their way to full control of institutions, narratives, minds, and self-enrichment. Islamists, in the past, had colluded with the media and assorted social institutions and felt comfortable in that alliance.
Mohammed bin Salman ruined the party — and what better way to pay him back for these political operatives who imagined themselves to be central to journalism and the gatekeepers of truth and morality than by humiliating him where he should have been reaping success and destroying every potential for anything positive? They took advantage of existing vulnerabilities in Arab culture & media and in Western polarization and increasing lack of critical thinking and sold everyone a dark fairy tale that too many people with too many interests were all too ready to swallow.
Ultimately, the only way to overcome these issues, to repair the Crown Prince’s reputation in the West, and to expose this unholy alliance is by working to shift the perspective of the West towards KSA from viewing it as a “necessary evil” or an inconvenient ally to understanding that there is a lot of good will, and genuine interest in deepening cooperation and collaboration.
Eventually, even the internally focused Crown Prince started to wise up and take measures to protect his own reputation from these attacks.
As Dr. Najat Al Saeed explains, in his recent visit to the UAE, Mohammed bin Salman inaugurated a joint KSA-UAE Committee to Combat Character Assassination. The idea is to combat psychological/information warfare against the leaders of these countries by the various forces. However, so far, there is no evidence that the Committee has been able to produce anything of value.
The response from the Embassy to this latest attack has been extremely mild and did not yet shut down this meritless discussion. If anything, it invited further leaks by Bezos. For now, Bezos is acting like he has nothing to fear. He has calculated the risk of engaging in likely defamatory tactics, and having seen how paralyzed the Saudis get in the wake of such extremely bad publicity, decided that he is better off taking his chances.
However, if Mohammed bin Salman wishes to put an end to this resource-draining, distracting, and needless damaging bullying smear campaign, he should pursue an active, forward-looking strategy aimed at both preventing and shutting down these disinformation campaigns at the root, before they take on a life of their own. The strategy should include at least four major prongs:
- Legal — it should be legally costly to engage in any sort of deliberate defamation, especially where the allegations are likely to be proven false. Bezos’ ill intent and the extent of reputational damage may be the easiest elements to prove here; even if there is ultimately a settlement of some sort, KSA should make it clear that there will be a legal pushback and that Bezos himself will embarrass himself and lose credibility in the process.
- PR — Saudis should not be waiting for the events to resolve themselves. Left to their own devices, the Crown Prince’s enemies will continue searching for new additional angles of attack. Saudis should identify strong spokespeople not afraid of engaging in deliberative and strategic confrontations, and have them respond to these attacks, attend panel discussions, make frequent appearances on TV, and be fairly assertive in combating these allegations before the public. Such spokepeople should be well prepared to keep calm, and to understand the Western mentality. At the same time, they should not forget about the positive aspects of public outreach and communication, and be able to engage with the public itself, to explain the situation, to introduce the people to the country in a positive way that makes it easy to wish to at least examine its position, and to focus on relevant issues, not just what feels like “fun” to the insiders (i.e. talk about Saudi accomplishments in hosting Western-style events, which have no bearing on these attacks or most Westerners’ interests).
- Cybersecurity — Saudis should invest into this sector, first by hiring the best in business from the West, and second by having them train the young Saudis (including the top echelons of the governmet) in secure communications and cyberpractics. For the instant crisis, they should hire independent forensics to examine the accounts in question and not rely on Bezos to make their case for them. As far as Bezos is concerned, truth doesn’t matter. The Saudis are already a step behind, but finding out exactly what happened will help them immensely.
- Information Warfare — the Saudis should understand that they cannot ignore the crisis into dissolving as after over two years of the tensions with Qatar, Turkey, Muslim Brotherhood, assorted infiltrators of the Western intelligence agencies, and others, it is obvious that they are invested in having the Saudis in general, and Mohammed bin Salman specifically, fail. They should, therefore, invest into media mechanisms that could win public hearts and minds, as well as identify the vulnerabilities of their enemies’ and hit at them.
For instance, the Amazon’s poor information security is an opportunity for some great billboards in Times Square outlining how Bezos’ poor practices endanger millions of users, and also to develop Saudi or Saudi & Western joint ventures, alternatives to Amazon that are better, more responsive to individual needs, and are more secure. Amazon is a great service, but is not beyond competition and is certainly not too big to fail if its founder is more invested in fighting wars on behalf of foreign regimes than in insuring the best possible quality for his customers.