Amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, this article seeks to engage the reader in thoughtful discourse over the current state of U.S.- Middle East affairs, particularly as they pertain to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Falling oil prices, recent reports of several additional senior members of the Saudi royal family being detained, and other concerns over Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s (MbS) ruthless rise to power provided the impetus for this article. With Amazon CEO’s Jeff Bezos’s phone hack as our framing event, let’s take stock of what we know:
It was reported earlier this year that Israeli spyware from infamous firm NSO Group was likely used by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to hack Jeff Bezos’s phone in response to the Washington Post’s coverage of the kingdom’s grisly murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. The Post, which Bezos owns, was understandably upset one of its journalists was targeted and assassinated. It was thus that Jeff Bezos became a high value target for Saudi malign influence.
As details regarding the Bezos hack emerged, we also learned that US-based media publisher American Media Inc. (AMI) initially attempted to blackmail Bezos using personal and sensitive photos yielded from the hack in a failed attempt to stop the latter’s investigation into the matter, specifically to conceal details of the cell phone hack, and subsequently, the now-identified connection to MbS. Bezos retained security consultant Gavin de Becker to investigate the matter, which de Becker summarized in a revealing piece to the Daily Beast in March 2019.
While details of the relationship between AMI and the Saudis remain forthcoming, questions remain regarding other similar abuses of power, misallocation of nation-state resources, and how men in power will do what they can to retain it. It is likely the very same spyware used by MbS to infect Bezos’ phone was implanted on the device of the Post’s Khashoggi, who was an outspoken critic of the repressive Saudi regime.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS).
What we have are the power and resources of a nation-state being ruthlessly wielded against enemies of an authoritative regime, but the story does not end here. Enter President Trump’s publicly and previously reported feud with Jeff Bezos over the Post’s research into Trump’s past, a reportedly close relationship between Trump’s son-in-law and senior aide Jared Kushner with MbS, and a 2017 White House dinner attended by AMI CEO David Pecker (a long-time friend of Trump’s) and a French businessman close to MbS who acts as an intermediary between the Saudis and western businesses.
Not unlike Trump’s purported involvement in Ukraine with recent impeachment efforts, the reader gets a similar sense of wheeling-dealing power plays not known to the public. While details and full understanding of this situation remain forthcoming, similar inferences are available to the observer.
It is paramount here to identify that Israeli spyware firm NSO Group has close ties to the Israeli defense and security establishment, and that several claims of questionable use of NSO Group spyware by foreign regimes have been noted. The Saudi’s use of NSO Group software to target and eventually murder a Washington Post columnist is a prime misuse example, to say the least. MbS’ use of the same spyware to hack Bezos’ phone in response to the Post’s criticism of the Kingdom in a revenge plot is yet another move from the same playbook.
It must also be noted the KSA and Israel share a secret and often publicly downplayed relationship – a marriage of necessity that binds their realpolitik interests of preventing Iranian attempts at regional hegemony. The author would be remiss to neglect mentioning the United States has been bitterly embroiled in a seemingly never-ending conflict against a distinctly Saudi-branded version of fundamentalist Islamic ideology, Wahhabism. This brand was the same espoused by Al Qaeda and the current offshoots that demand continuous US Counter-terrorism attention across the globe. It has been made clear the Counterterrorism fight is here to stay, although the US has been doggedly combatting it for decades.
It is not often an ugly truth surfaces so strongly it cannot be ignored. The truth is that the United States has sold its soul to a cruel mistress, one that masks its malicious intent under the guise of economic necessity and modernization reforms — one that demands complete devotion to an uncomfortable and ideologically afflicted brand of realpolitik. The devil of which we speak is the United States’ toxic relationship with the oppressive Saudi regime under Crown Prince MbS.
Questioning US reliance on oil imports from the Kingdom, or US efforts to meddle in Middle Eastern affairs in order to secure geopolitical gains that guarantee access to natural resources is nothing new. Profit and wealth drive decisive wedges between the espoused ideological pillars that form the foundation of United States foreign policy. And those wedges currently present such a dissonance between the ideal and the reality that they must be addressed here.
President Trump has the mind of a businessman. He has been conditioned by a career-long desire to accumulate wealth and power. The American people elected him largely due to his image as a Beltway outsider and decisive businessman. President Trump recognizes the value of pure profit – simple cost-benefit analysis in any transaction. Current US foreign policy in support of the Kingdom mirrors this practical, transaction-oriented relationship.
In exchange for favorable economic conditions that further US dependence on Saudi natural resources, the US has supported the royal family in their violent agenda to retain relative regional hegemony in the Arabian Peninsula. From providing military and intelligence support to the Saudi-led Coalition conducting operations to keep Iranian-backed Huthi rebels from retaining control of large swaths of civil war-torn Yemen, to the recent assassination of well-respected Iranian Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani, the US has willingly leveraged its mechanisms of power to bolster the oppressive Saudi regime.
The United States has an arguably poor track record of supporting oppressive regimes (or removing them), for example, US support of the Shah prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ousted him and led to the present-day Iranian theocracy. While Iran’s regime is hostile, the Iranian people are not. Behind the rhetoric and demonization, it is reasonable to assume that the Iranian people seek that which most humans do: economic prosperity, the ability to live and work in a stable and safe domestic environment, the ability to peacefully practice their religion, and an end to hostilities, saber-rattling, and oppressive governments.
The easy distraction is to focus on the state of Iranian – US relations following the increased tensions after Soleimani’s killing, hailing President Trump as a decisive and calculated actor that made the tough call that no other commander could. The true threat and more insidious cancer remains closer to home yet largely concealed from the public’s view – that is, until Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was blackmailed by an American media publisher with close ties to the Saudi royal family, using personal photos stolen from his cell phone obtained through spyware personally implanted on Bezos’ phone by the Saudi Crown Prince.
Like all toxic relationships, things are not immediately clear at the onset. What no doubt began as a convenient and economically beneficial relationship between the House of Saud and the United States has transformed into a resource-intensive, killing-heavy endeavor that enables the arrogant abuse of power that unfortunately corrupts those with unfettered access to its environs.
As we observed with the President’s impeachment proceedings regarding Ukraine, and with MbS’ use of spyware as a means to coerce, intimidate, and commit murder, toxic relationships enmesh us in constant conflict and effort. Rather than allow the cancer to grow unchecked, now is the time for the United States to warm relations with Iran. The US has made a decisive and irreversible power-play move in an attempt to deter further Iranian aggression by killing Soleimani. This is prime time to reconsider US foreign policy with respect to Iran and Saudi Arabia. The ethical, moral, and economic costs of the US’ toxic relationship with Saudi Arabia have long sunk, and we can do better.
Thanks for listening.