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Who’s More Powerful, Jeff Bezos or Mohammed bin Salman? Neither.
The relationship between the two men proves that, even at a time of rapid technological and economic change, you can’t buy real power.
The alleged Saudi hack of the Amazon founder, Washington Post owner, and world’s richest person Jeff Bezos offers plenty of insight into the nature of power in an era of headlong technological change. Above all, it confirms the insight that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
For those of you who have been on a desert island for the past couple of years, the whole story started back in 2019, when the National Enquirer released emails and photos exposing Bezos’s affair with a Los Angeles television personality. Bezos hinted that Saudi Arabia might have been involved, and he hired a cybersecurity firm to investigate. Last week, the firm released a report tracing the hack to malicious code contained in a WhatsApp message he had received from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, although it remains unclear if this is how the Enquirer obtained the embarrassing information.
If the Saudi government could hack the phone of someone who fully grasps the impact of technology and who has nearly limitless resources with which to protect himself, how can ordinary folks possibly protect themselves from similar intrusions? Only by remaining below the radar and off the grid, and even that approach may not be enough.
Given the heady mix of wealth, sex, celebrity, and politics involved, it’s hardly surprising this one incident has garnered so much attention. But does this event foretell a new global hierarchy, where hackers rule the world and traditional sources of power are increasingly irrelevant? I doubt it.
To be clear: the Bezos hack is a reminder—as if we needed one—that politics, privacy, and international affairs are increasingly permeated by the world of cybersecurity, and in ways we still don’t fully appreciate. Human beings have raced to link themselves to the internet for a variety of reasons—convenience, curiosity, necessity, faddishness, etc.—without thinking very much about what it might mean or how vulnerable it might make us. Previous noteworthy incidents—such as the (presumably) Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee’s computers during the 2016 election or North Korea’s attack on Sony Pictures in response to the movie The Interview in 2014—highlight both the vulnerabilities we all now face and the difficulty of identifying perpetrators in a timely and convincing manner.
And so it is with Bezos: Although the cybersecurity firm he hired claims to have “medium to high confidence” that the Saudis did hack Bezos’s phone, the forensic evidence behind this conclusion has not been made public and does not show how information that may have been acquired from Bezos’s phone made it into the public domain. Needless to say, Saudi Arabia has denied any involvement. That’s what you’d expect them to say, but can you prove otherwise?
The Bezos affair also illustrates the limits of wealth alone as a source of political power and protection, but also the limits of hacking as a source of influence. Bezos may have thought he was too important to be hacked, or he may have thought that Mohammed bin Salman wouldn’t dare do something so brazen. His wealth was no deterrent, however, and whatever safeguards he had in place were not enough to protect him from a targeted attack.
Assuming Saudi Arabia was responsible, it’s not clear that it got anything for its effort other than another embarrassing set of revelations. It’s possible Bezos’s phone contained other information that would be of value to Saudi officials, though it’s hard for me to imagine what such information might be. Bezos is a brilliantly successful businessman, and Amazon has been a transformative company, but does Saudi Arabia really need to know how he manages to get so many packages to so many places so quickly? There’s been speculation that the whole business was part of an effort by American Media (the publisher of the National Enquirer, which first reported on Bezos’s infidelity) and/or Mohammed bin Salman to curry favor with U.S. President Donald Trump, whose dislike for Bezos is well known. But Trump is already firmly in the crown prince’s corner and a close friend of American Media’s president, so it’s hard to see that either party would gain much from this gambit.
Another plausible explanation is that Mohammed bin Salman was upset by all the negative coverage that the Washington Post had dished out ever since Saudi agents murdered the dissident Saudi exile and Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In this version, Bezos got hacked in an attempt to pressure him into telling the Post staff to tone down its relentless criticism of the kingdom.
If so, there’s no sign that it worked. Bezos may have been embarrassed when evidence of his extramarital affair was exposed, and he may have ended his marriage, but American Media claims the information that exposed him was obtained from his paramour’s brother and not from any Saudi hack of Bezos’s phone. Even if the Saudis were involved, Bezos’s reaction to the revelations showed that he wasn’t going to be intimidated by them. Unless the Saudis had found a way to drain his bank accounts or mysteriously acquire all his Amazon stock (and they didn’t), what real leverage did they gain over him?
Which brings us back to our friend Mohammed bin Salman. The Bezos hack is the latest in a growing body of evidence showing that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is a complete loose cannon: reckless, paranoid, and a bit of a fool. He launched a war in Yemen that is a humanitarian disaster and a military failure. He helped convince the Trump administration to inflict maximum pressure on Iran, but then he had to try to lower the temperature with Tehran when it retaliated by attacking some Saudi oil facilities. He picked a pointless quarrel with Qatar and tried to force the prime minister of Lebanon to resign by holding him hostage on a visit to Riyadh, and he detained dozens of Saudi royals and businessmen until they agreed to cough up billions of dollars, even as he was trying to convince the global financial community that Saudi Arabia was a terrific investment opportunity. Oh, and the CIA believes he also ordered the brutal murder of a journalist who posed no threat to his rule. None of these actions enhanced Saudi security in the slightest; if anything, they have left the kingdom in a more vulnerable position. Mohammed bin Salman has gotten away with these dangerous follies for two simple reasons: Saudi Arabia still has lots of oil and gas, and Donald Trump supports him no matter what he does.
The attack on Bezos’s phone also reminds us of another sad truth of international politics: States almost always exploit new technologies to gain an advantage. Putting limits on technology is always difficult, and most new weapons eventually get used. Once mankind discovered what digitalization and global internet integration could do for us, we willingly allowed ourselves to become more vulnerable. It didn’t take long for governments, criminals, and bored teenagers to start using these new technologies for amusement, profit, or political advantage.
Yet the Bezos hack also reminds us that cyber-capabilities aren’t going to turn weaker actors into great powers—digital Davids aren’t likely to become all-powerful global Goliaths. Saudi Arabia may have obtained access to Bezos’s emails, phone book, personal photos, and Spotify playlists, but they still can’t subdue the Houthis in neighboring Yemen. As for Bezos, being the world’s richest man doesn’t give him the power to retaliate against Mohammed bin Salman, American Media, or the president who embraces them. All he can do is give them some more negative publicity.
So at the risk of seeming utterly hidebound and unimaginative, I think the role of power in the future is going to look a lot like the past. Henceforth, the global actors with the greatest power and influence will not be those who possess only one source of power, whether it is money, arms, an eloquent pen, a nasty cyberweapon, or a seductive idea. Rather, the most powerful and influential actors will be those that combine sophisticated technological expertise in many different realms, state-of-the-art data analytics, a robust economy, resource independence, reasonably well-functioning political institutions, and genuine hard military power. Having a bunch of smart hackers on your payroll won’t be a great equalizer, and in most cases the best hackers will be working for wealthy and powerful states that can pay them well. Instead of leveling the playing field of world politics, these new capabilities will tend to make the greatest powers even stronger—and leave weaker ones to suffer what they must.