SAN FRANCISCO: Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister dismissed allegations that the kingdom’s crown prince might have been involved in a plot to hack the phone of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos as “absurd” on Wednesday, seeking to head off a dispute that could damage the kingdom’s reputation.

Cybersecurity experts hired by Bezos, the world’s richest man, concluded his phone was probably infiltrated by a video file sent from a WhatsApp account purportedly belonging to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2018, according to a person familiar with the matter.

They said the device began leaking massive amounts of data about a month afterwards, the source said.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud dismissed the allegations.

“I think ‘absurd’ is exactly the right word,” he said in an interview in Davos. “The idea that the crown prince would hack Jeff Bezos phone is absolutely silly.”

The dispute involving Mohammed bin Salman can damage the kingdom’s reputation

The allegations could nonetheless further damage relations between tech tycoon Bezos and Riyadh, and risk harming the kingdom’s reputation with foreign powers and investors.

The alleged cyberattack is said to have taken place months before the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government and a columnist for the Bezos-owned Washington Post.

Prince Mohammed, or MbS, said last year that the killing was carried out by rogue operatives and that he did not order it.

In another previous flashpoint, Bezos’ security chief said last year that the Saudi government had gained access to the Amazon CEO’s phone and leaked messages to US tabloid the National Enquirer between Bezos and Lauren Sanchez, a former TV anchor who the newspaper said he was dating.

A month before, Bezos had accused the newspaper’s owner of trying to blackmail him with the threat of publishing “intimate photos” he allegedly sent to Sanchez.

The Saudi government has denied having anything to do with the National Enquirer reporting.

Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington also dismissed the allegations against the crown prince. “We call for an investigation on these claims so that we can have all the facts out,” it said in a message posted on Twitter.

Amazon declined to comment.

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2020