Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, seemingly knows no limits in his quest to quash critical media coverage of the kingdom.
Most famously (infamously, really) was the brazen, brutal kidnapping, killing and dismemberment of dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was a U.S. resident writing for the Washington Post at the time of his murder. Five Saudis were sentenced to death (likely by beheading) and three to prison, while the man most experts, including the CIA and a U.N. panel, believe was behind the killing rules with impunity.
Now comes the news that even before the Khashoggi killing the crown prince may have been directly involved in hacking the cellphone of Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post and the founder of Amazon, with the intent to “influence, if not silence” criticism, according to two U.N. human-rights experts. The allegations are relevant to the “ongoing evaluation of claims about the crown prince’s involvement” in the Khashoggi case, Agnes Callamard, who led the U.N. analysis of the journalist’s killing, said in a statement.
Media freedom organizations have similarly sounded the alarm. The Committee to Protect Journalists, pointing out that Saudi Arabia is the world’s third-worst jailer of journalists, echoed the U.N. experts’ call for an investigation. And Dokhi Fassihian, executive director of Reporters Without Borders USA, told an editorial writer in an e-mail exchange that her organization is “deeply disturbed” by the hacking allegations. “This, along with the unresolved murder of Jamal Khashoggi, underscores the urgent responsibility of U.S. lawmakers and the international community to rein in the Saudi crown prince and to establish controls over the sale and transfer of surveillance technologies to states that target journalists and dissidents,” Fassihian said.
Others, including U.S. business and government officials, are at risk of similar digital intrusions. And that in turn exposes Saudi Arabia to economic and geopolitical risk that might undermine the kingdom’s quest to modernize its economy — although not necessarily its society.
If the allegations, which Riyadh denies, prove true, “the crown prince has put at risk his relationships with foreign business, which may well be more cautious, or not want to do business with him,” Simon Henderson, director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told an editorial writer.
Disappointingly, President Donald Trump has not agreed with the bipartisan congressional consensus condemning Saudi Arabia for the Khashoggi killing and for its complicity in the war in Yemen, which has devolved into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
A new administration, Congress or both may challenge that dynamic, however. A Democratic White House “would still probably need and want to work with Saudi Arabia, but it would really be tougher,” Henderson said.
It shouldn’t take a new president to press the kingdom. Trump should reassess the relationship with the crown prince and join Congress in a concerted effort to hold him accountable.