A year after Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, the roots of the friction between the Saudis and Jeff Bezos remain disputed.
Amazon was on the verge of finalizing a $1 billion deal to build three data centers in Saudi. (Reuters)
Amazon and Saudi Arabia looked like perfect partners. Both had ambitions to become even more prominent players in the global economy. The world’s biggest store and the world’s second-biggest oil producer moved aggressively in the past few years toward a $1 billion deal to build Amazon data centers in the desert kingdom.
But in the year since Saudi operatives killed Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident who wrote columns for The Washington Post, the partnership appears to have stalled. No data centers are under construction. Amazon officials say there has been no movement on a deal this year. And when executives from dozens of major U.S. companies stream into Riyadh on Tuesday for an investment conference marking Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s return to the world stage, neither Amazon founder Jeff Bezos nor any of his top executives will be there, according to an Amazon official familiar with the company’s plans.
Although no one on either side is willing to declare the ties between Amazon and the Saudis permanently severed, the freeze in what had been a promising relationship came about after a rapid-fire sequence of chilling events: After Khashoggi’s killing in Istanbul, the planet’s richest man, who also owns The Post, became the target of waves of criticism from Saudi-based online trolls.
And after the National Enquirer published an expose this year detailing Bezos’s extramarital affair, the billionaire revealed that the Enquirer had threatened to publish explicit photos of him unless he publicly stated that there had been no political motivation for the tabloid’s story. Bezos would make no such concession; his security consultant, Gavin de Becker, alleged that the Saudi government had “access to Bezos’s phone and gained private information.” De Becker said the “Saudi government has been intent on harming Jeff Bezos since . . . The Post began its relentless coverage of Khashoggi’s murder.”
In the months since, no evidence has emerged to bolster the theory that the Saudis used information hacked from Bezos’s phone in a campaign against the billionaire, possibly including the photos that the Enquirer threatened to publish. The Enquirer denied any Saudi role in its reporting on the affair. Federal prosecutors in New York who were looking into the allegations of Saudi involvement have issued no charges.
A year after Khashoggi’s killing, the roots of the friction between the Saudis and Bezos remain disputed. Some business leaders and Saudi insiders say Saudi antagonism toward Bezos stems from the billionaire’s decision to join others in spurning the crown prince’s international business showcase, informally known as Davos in the Desert, both last year and again this month. Others say the Saudis went on the offensive against Bezos because they believed, incorrectly, that he directed The Post’s coverage of the Khashoggi killing.
Around the time the Enquirer published its story, Bezos was hit with another, apparently coordinated, wave of Twitter attacks launched from Saudi Arabia – a tactic that Khashoggi had long highlighted in his reporting on what he saw as his homeland’s corrupt regime. Shortly before his killing, the columnist was helping to fund a pro-democracy foundation that would support Saudi dissidents and counter social media trolls who parroted the government’s views.
Amazon will not be among the major US companies that will stream into Riyadh for an investment conference marking Mohammed bin Salman’s return to the world stage.
In a blog post earlier this year, Bezos, who declined to comment for this article, called his ownership of The Post “a complexifier for me.” He said “certain powerful people who experience Washington Post news coverage will wrongly conclude I am their enemy.”
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Bezos’s cloud-computing division, Amazon Web Services, has grown into the most profitable part of his colossal company, earning more than Amazon reaped from online sales, its television production unit, its Kindles or Alexa virtual assistants in North America combined. AWS did $25.7 billion in business in 2018 – more than McDonald’s – an astounding 47 percent growth from the previous year. Analysts expected much of AWS’s growth to come from abroad. With customers in 172 countries and staffers in 35 nations, AWS was growing so fast internationally that it hired at the same pace abroad as it did in the United States last year.
“We are just scratching the surface,” AWS chief Andy Jassy said recently at a conference.
With its two top competitors – Microsoft and Google – racing to catch up, AWS targeted the Middle East and specifically Saudi Arabia as part of its next round of expansion. The three companies scour the globe for places to build data centers that can provide on-demand computing services for giant corporations, tiny start-ups and governmental bodies of all types and sizes.
These cloud-computing giants need access to reliable power, electrical infrastructure, affordable land and a growing crop of corporate customers. Saudi Arabia matched all of these criteria. Not only is Saudi Arabia one of the wealthiest nations in the Middle East but its diversifying economy and the fact that nearly 60 percent of its people are under 30 offer an opportunity for dramatic growth.
Eight months into the Trump administration, AWS announced plans to open its first Middle East data center in Bahrain and host its first regional summit there. In the following months, reports emerged in financial media around the world that Saudi Arabia was poised to be next or that Saudi Arabia might even beat its neighbor to the punch.
The reports said Amazon was on the verge of finalizing a $1 billion deal to build three data centers in Saudi Arabia; the deal was likely to be announced during the crown prince’s visit to the United States in early 2018.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States seemed to be growing closer. The new American president picked it for his first foreign trip. The Saudi prince called Donald Trump “a president who will bring America back to the right track.” Later in 2017, when reports surfaced that Mohammed – often referred to as MBS – and his uncle King Salman had jailed hundreds of political rivals and business executives, Trump tweeted his support: “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing.”
The prince ingratiated himself in particular with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. And Mohammed began rolling back some of the religious extremism that limited his country’s participation in the global economy.
When the kingdom announced that in May 2017 that it would allow women to work and study without their husbands’ or fathers’ permission, AWS’s top government sales executive, Teresa Carlson, applauded, tweeting the news with the hashtags #progress and #keeppushinghard.
A Kentucky native who trumpets her love for college sports, horse racing and bourbon from her home state, Carlson personally woos foreign leaders to team up with AWS on its cloud expansion. Two people who have worked with her at Amazon, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the negotiations, said Carlson aggressively pushed for a data center deal in Saudi Arabia starting soon after she joined the company in 2010. AWS declined to make Carlson available for an interview or to answer questions about her role in talks with Saudi Arabia.
Amazon emphasized its interest in the region by purchasing Dubai-based Souq.com, an e-commerce site that has since been rebranded as Amazon.com/ae, to reach online retail markets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. At $580 million, it was Amazon’s priciest foreign acquisition ever – a sign of how critical the region was to the company.
Saudi Arabia was already one of the top cloud-computing spenders in all of the Middle East and Africa. Of the six nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council, “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the most logical place for a data center presence,” said Tiny Haynes, a senior analyst at the research firm Gartner.
Saudi Arabia had its own ambitions. “Within 20 years, we will be an economy or state that doesn’t depend mainly on oil,” Mohammed said in 2016.
The Saudis aimed to move part of their enormous oil assets into more diverse holdings by deepening ties to the West, investing especially in U.S. tech firms.
As Mohammed prepared to visit the United States last year, news reports in several countries said his agenda included a final push to seal the deal with Amazon to build the data centers. Some analysts and Amazon insiders concluded that a deal was imminent when Bezos agreed to meet with the crown prince during his visit in March 2018.
“He would not meet with somebody unless he got direction that it was a huge opportunity,” said one of the people who worked with Carlson at Amazon. “He is famous for turning down meetings from heads of state. He does not do the polite shake of hand. They had to be close to finalizing something.”
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Seven months after the prince’s visit to America, Khashoggi was dead. There was no official cancellation of the data-centers deal, but no movement toward construction either.
An official familiar with Amazon’s plans said “there are no new developments” in the long-standing effort to build AWS facilities in Saudi Arabia. And an Amazon official said neither Bezos nor any other senior Amazon or AWS executives will attend the Future Investment Initiative, the crown prince’s economic conference, which begins Tuesday.
An official close to Bezos who is familiar with his thinking said the CEO stands by the allegations about the Enquirer and the Saudis. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment on its investigation into ties between the Saudis and the Enquirer.
According to people familiar with Bezos’s thinking, one “complexifier” in Bezos’s relationship with the Saudi government was the contract that The Post entered into with Khashoggi, who had fled to the United States to seek political asylum. His first column was headlined, “Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this oppressive. Now it’s unbearable.”
In addition, Bezos had begun an extramarital affair with Lauren Sanchez, a pilot and former TV host.
Less than two weeks after Khashoggi was killed, a wave of anti-Bezos tweets originating in Saudi Arabia appeared, bashing Amazon and The Post in Arabic.
Some of the tweets attacked Bezos as a “Jew,” even though he is not Jewish. “We as Saudis will never accept that The Washington Post attacks us during the day, only to buy products from Amazon and Souq.com by night!” said one of many such attacks. “Strange that all three companies are owned by the same Jew who attacks us by day, and sells us products by night!”
Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Twitter and other social media had begun in earnest with the Arab Spring in 2011, when young pro-democracy demonstrators shook authoritarian regimes from Tunisia to Bahrain. In Saudi Arabia, however, defiance of the government took place primarily online, not in street protests.
Open criticism of the regime on Twitter continued among Saudis until Mohammed came to power in 2017 and cracked down on online dissenters. Many well-known dissidents ended up in prison or in exile; others either joined the government’s propaganda campaign or became targets of an unofficial “troll army” – pro-government tweeters who launched apparently coordinated attacks on the regime’s perceived enemies.
“Government-friendly media organizations and ‘influencers’ . . . flood[ed] the online space with propaganda, assisted by hordes of inauthentic accounts, consisting of both bots and human-operated trolls,” according to a research report prepared for Twitter by Iyad el-Baghdadi, a Palestinian living in Norway who has spent years looking into the Saudi government’s online messaging. “This propaganda machine seems to be centrally directed, as various parts of it work together to pump out propaganda, mob any remaining independent accounts, [and] threaten or intimidate” opponents.
Baghdadi, who had been working with Khashoggi on a study of Saudi propaganda, said he assisted de Becker and Bezos in their investigation. Baghdadi’s report named Saud al-Qahtani, one of the crown prince’s top advisers, as the regime’s “chief propagandist and ‘troll master.’ ” Qahtani, who has been accused of helping to plan the operation that led to Khashoggi’s killing, used Twitter to warn Saudi dissidents that “you cannot hide behind anonymous accounts.” He encouraged “patriotic citizens” to inform on online critics of the government.
Former members of the troll network who have defected from Saudi Arabia describe themselves in Baghdadi’s report as paid messengers whose government-related controllers told them what stories to tell online and which people to target for harassment.
“The Saudi army of trolls is probably the best organized in the world,” said Ali al-Ahmed, a Washington-based Saudi political analyst who has been critical of the regime. “The government has created millions of Twitter accounts of real and fake influencers. They have a troll warehouse in Riyadh, with thousands of people working there.”
A Twitter representative said this month that the company has “taken action on hundreds of thousands of spammy accounts in Saudi Arabia” that didn’t conform with Twitter guidelines requiring state-backed information operations to be transparent about their ties to a government.
Twitter also announced that it had detected and permanently suspended six accounts linked to Saudi Arabia’s state-controlled media outlets. The accounts “presented themselves as independent journalistic outlets while tweeting narratives favourable to the Saudi government,” the company said in a blog post.
Digital attacks on Bezos began soon after the Khashoggi killing, coming from Saudi-based Twitter accounts. Those attacks multiplied after The Post published editorials and columns squarely placing responsibility for the murder on the Saudi government.
Bezos’s security chief, de Becker, argued in The Daily Beast that the Saudis targeted the billionaire for criticism both because of The Post’s reporting on Khashoggi’s killing and because Bezos canceled his appearance at Mohammed’s Davos in the Desert conference.
“It looks like Bezos was in the crosshairs of the Saudis,” al-Ahmed said. “Mohammed bin Salman is someone who takes things personally. What The Washington Post did by giving Jamal Khashoggi a job – that’s taken as a personal slight. That led to the attacks on Bezos.”
That fall, the Enquirer prepared its exposé about Bezos’s affair. Published on Jan. 9, the story led to renewed Twitter attacks against Bezos from Saudi accounts. “Jeff Bezos has incited against Saudi Arabia and its leadership for weeks via his Washington Post, and now has been struck by a marital infidelity scandal that will cost him half his fortune in the divorce,” a typical tweet said. “Whoever earns Saudi Arabia’s enmity will be broken, disparaged, and ended by God.”
According to Baghdadi’s report, a top-ranking Saudi official sets the narrative for such tweet attacks and communicates it to influencers, many of them paid operatives, each controlling dozens of Twitter accounts.
“The influencers are paid $3,000 a month to push these narratives, which they receive on special Telegram channels that tell them who to tweet at,” Baghdadi said.
Baghdadi detailed how trolls disseminated anti-Bezos messages – calls for a boycott of Amazon, and attacks on employees of Amazon and Souq.com – after Turkish authorities confirmed that Saudi agents had killed Khashoggi.
Another wave of anti-Bezos material appeared after the Enquirer’s exposé and again after de Becker accused the Saudis of playing a role in that story.
Some defenders of the Saudi government call Baghdadi a biased source whose antipathy toward the regime colors his research. They view de Becker as a hired hand seeking to blame a third party for the notoriety stemming from the Enquirer report about Bezos’s affair.
“The Saudi government understands that Bezos is not driving editorial policy at The Washington Post,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi national who often defends the country’s government in his role as founder of the Washington-based Arabia Foundation. “Seems like a brilliant diversionary tactic by de Becker to throw a ‘Saudi conspiracy’ into the pot and distract everybody from, shall we say, more delicate issues.”
Shihabi said the tweetstorm against Bezos “could have come from tweeps who are government-employed, but I doubt it was a result of a strategy ordered from above. Most of these tweeps are kids in their 20s . . . and could easily have emerged from the Saudi twittersphere collectively and simplistically deciding Bezos should be a target.”
A Saudi official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, called the idea that the Saudis had ginned up attacks on Bezos “a very smart PR strategy by this Gavin de Becker to distract everyone” from the controversy over the explicit photos that Bezos wrote about in his blog post. “Saudi Arabia has said, ‘OK, we’ll keep social media open, but we’ll try to influence the conversation,’ so they hire 100 or 200 university graduates to put out tweets. But nobody at a senior level says, ‘Let’s hit Bezos on Twitter.’ ”
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In May, Baghdadi said, two Norwegian intelligence agents showed up unannounced at his home in Oslo and took him to a secure location outside the city, where they informed him that they had received a tip from a foreign security agency that he was the target of a threat against his life from Saudi Arabia. A spokesman for the PST, Norway’s intelligence agency, declined to comment.
Baghdadi said the Norwegian authorities indicated that they had received the tip from the CIA. A U.S. official familiar with the case confirmed that American officials provided the information to the Norwegians. Another vocal critic of the Saudis’ online propaganda efforts, Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi who is living in Canada, said the Saudis’ attacks on Bezos have subsided in recent months, focusing instead on criticism of Turkey.
Baghdadi said he believes any threat against him resulted from his role in that research.
“Iyad has been a thorn in these guys’ side,” said Javier El-Hage, chief legal officer for the Human Rights Foundation, a nonprofit organization in New York.
The United Nations’ special investigator appointed to examine the Khashoggi killing, Agnes Callamard, asked Norway’s government to provide extra protection for Baghdadi.
“I have taken this threat seriously, absolutely,” Callamard said in an interview. “One would have expected demonstrable steps from Saudi Arabia toward holding the responsible people to account, but so far, I have not found any evidence of tangible steps to assure that actions against dissidents are no longer the policy of the state. In view of what we are being told about the credible threats against Iyad, it is super important for intelligence agencies and police in countries where dissidents are living that they scale up their protection.”