We’ve been looking into the relationship between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and Jeff Bezos for a few days – here’s the picture we can see so far – we’ll keep updating this as we find out more. Is it possible that MBS thought he could get away with Khashoggi’s murder because of this relationship?
For a quick primer before you get into this article, we recommend that you read this article, where we put everything we know (so far) about the Saudi connection to the Bezos blackmail scandal in one place.
Dictators take things personally. They prefer to deal with personalities rather than institutions, and tend to be transactional in their dealings. Keep this in mind as you read on.
Last October, as news of Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder spread, many institutions and personalities that had links with MBS publicly denounced the murder and suspended their relations with the Saudi state. There was one notable exception: Jeff Bezos.
I’d imagine Jeff Bezos was in a bind. Amazon had been interested in the Saudi market for two years at that point, an interest that had turned into multiple projects. But also, Bezos owned the Washington Post, for which Jamal worked. If Bezos spoke out for Jamal, then it would seem that he’s joining the Washington Post’s “Justice for Jamal” campaign, if not leading it.
Bezos clearly doesn’t want that. For all his faults, it seems that he respects the Washington Post’s independence, treating it as an institution, not as just another business. The following words from his Medium post come across as sincere.
Furthermore, in his post, Bezos notes that “certain powerful people who experience Washington Post news coverage will wrongly conclude I am their enemy”. Bezos is effectively saying to some powerful people offended by the Washington Post’s coverage of them: Don’t take this personally.
And so in the aftermath of Jamal’s murder, Bezos stood apart from the Washington Post and did not wade into the Khashoggi affair – not commenting on the murder, but also not curbing the Washington Post in any way.
Someone saw this as an act of betrayal. Guess who takes things personally, has no respect for institutions, and thinks money (or threats) can get you anything? “Trump”, you may say – but also, Mohammad bin Salman.
Amazon’s Business Interests in Saudi Arabia
To understand what’s at stake here, it’s helpful to take a step back and look at Bezos’s business interest in Saudi Arabia – here’s a summarized timeline.
In early 2017, Amazon acquired UAE-based Souq dot com, dubbed the “Amazon dot com of the Middle East”. But another major business interest Amazon had in the region seems to have been cloud computing services – by September 2017 they were looking to establish a regional center in Bahrain. The UAE and Bahrain both neighbor Saudi Arabia, and their business environment had been seen as more welcoming to foreign investment than Saudi Arabia. MBS promised to change that, declaring Saudi Arabia “open for business”.
By December 2017 Amazon was in talks with Saudi Arabia for investments in the country. On paper*, it looked great. The Saudis seemed most interested in cloud computing and e-commerce. Amazon Web Services (AWS) could setup data centers in the country; meanwhile projects and partnerships with Amazon can make Saudi Arabia an e-commerce and logistics hub. But also, Vision 2030 advertised – and required – an almost insatiable appetite for private sector investments. Perhaps the richest man in the world can find other investment opportunities in the liberalizing country?
So when Bezos and MBS met in person in March 2018, there was already a business relationship between Amazon and Saudi Arabia, and lots of further interest. The meeting was planned well in advance. It seems to have been a warm meeting – look at the smiles.
Fast forward to October 2018, and to Khashoggi’s murder. Bezos is in a bind – MBS is a man he knows personally at this point. He doesn’t want to seem to have joined the Washington Post’s crusade, but also doesn’t want to curb the Washington Post. What was MBS thinking, though?
The Saudis React with Anger
The Saudi regime relies on Twitter as a primary means for pushing pro-government narratives, spreading propaganda, and identifying and hounding opponents. There are virtually no prominent Twitter accounts that are based in Saudi Arabia and also independent – rather, an enormous network of accounts of various size and prominence is centrally directed and controlled by MBS and his close advisers.
Despite being an opaque regime, one can find out a lot about what they think – or what they want you to think – by looking at the narratives they push through their massive network of Twitter accounts. And while Jeff Bezos maintained his silence in the aftermath of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudis – or at least, their Twitter accounts – didn’t.
On October 15 – a mere eight days after Turkish authorities said they believed Jamal Khashoggi was murdered – we were contacted by a Saudi whistleblower who said that MBS was obsessed with the Washington Post and was – with his right-hand man, Saud Al Qahtani – preparing plans to target its employees. “He won’t target them physically”, he said, but rather, the preferred method is to expose either sexual or financial scandals. He insisted The Washington Post were at the top of MBS’s enemies list at that point.
On the same day – and unbeknownst to us at that point – a hashtag appeared for on Saudi pro-government accounts titled “Boycott Amazon”. The first tweets linked to a screen grab of Bezos’s Twitter account, linking him to the Washington Post’s coverage of Khashoggi’s disappearance. The campaign would soon escalate, with two additional hashtags appearing: “Boycott Amazon and Souq Dot Com”, and the more direct “The owner of Amazon and Souq is targeting us”.
This Saudi social media attack on Bezos and Amazon continues – our team is preparing a more detailed article looking into it – but two videos in particular caught our attention. The first appeared on November 12 on a verified Saudi account. The accompanying tweet describes Bezos as being “specialized in smearing our Kingdom”.
Another video from the same account came on November 21 – this time with graphics. The commentary is more direct: “Never did I ever see a businessman whose blind hatred leads him to harm his own business interests – but that’s Jeff Bezos, whose Washington Post is smearing Saudi Arabia”.
So, interestingly, while Bezos opted to remain silent on Khashoggi given his “complex” situation – it was the Saudis who launched an all-out attack on him first, accusing him of weaponizing the Washington Post against them. Someone expected Jeff Bezos to “do the right thing” – put his business interests first, and curb the Washington Post*.
Stepping Back to Look at the Full Picture
It seems quite plausible that MBS thought his relationship with Bezos – and Bezos’s business interests – could get Bezos to curb the Washington Post’s reporting on Jamal. It also seems very plausible that MBS felt betrayed – and angry – when Bezos didn’t, and sought to punish him.
MBS had both the means and the motive to target Bezos. The extramarital affair – and MBS’s relationship with David Pecker – may have given him the opportunity. Some of our investigations are speculative – as is the case when covering highly opaque regimes – but all of this isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. Let’s follow the story and see – we’ll keep updating our articles on the topic as we find out more.
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