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MBS aides implicated in Khashoggi murder fostered closed ties with Israel

December 19, 2018 at 2:12 pm

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia on 16 June 2018 [Saudi Press Agency]

A US-backed initiative to forge closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel faces setbacks after the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who spearheaded the effort, was implicated along with two of his close aides in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

A report by the Wall Street Journal revealed details of two high-ranking Saudi official, fired over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, making clandestine trips to Israel on behalf of the Crown Prince, known also as MBS, for the purchase of an Israeli spy tool that is widely reported to have been used to track Saudi opposition figures abroad including the Washington Post columnist killed in October at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The Israeli spyware firm is currently being sued for its involvement in a “significant manner” to Khashoggi’s death. Activists campaigning against authoritarian regimes view the Israeli spyware as a serious threat to their freedom and security. Autocrats in the Middle East and across the world look to Israel for the latest technology in repression and cyber warfare to silence dissidents and opposition groups.

READ: Saudis sought to buy Israeli hacking system

Despite not having diplomatic relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia has quietly built relations with Tel Aviv, allowing businessman from the country to travel to the Kingdom on special documents provided by the government of Saudi Arabia, aimed at facilitating relations between the two countries; Israelis are also permitted to enter the Kingdom without showing Israeli passports, according to the WSJ.

Among that business is technology that Saudis use to monitor its critics, like Khashoggi. The two aides, former royal court adviser Saud Al-Qahtani and former deputy intelligence chief Ahmed Al-Assiri have played important roles in the clandestine outreach to Israel, according to the WSJ.

Protesters in front of the White House after Jamal Khashoggi's death was confirmed [Twitter]

Protesters in front of the White House after Jamal Khashoggi’s death was confirmed [Twitter]

Citing people familiar with their work, the report in the WSJ reported that Al-Qahtani sought out the spy software made by Israel, which began providing the Kingdom cyber surveillance tools last year in a $55 million deal. While Major General Al-Assiri, who is a subordinate of Al-Qahtani, secretly travelled to Israel on several occasions, making him the most senior Saudi official known to have set foot in Israel.

Israeli companies consider Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive countries in the world, a lucrative market for their cybersecurity products and, according to the WSJ, have weighed investing in and supplying technology to the crown prince’s prize project Neom, a futuristic technology-driven city still in the early construction stages.

The clandestine security cooperation between the two countries however has taken a huge set back after the two senior Saudi officials became implicated in the brutal killing of Khashoggi. The international uproar that followed the murder and the fallout within the royal court is said to have curbed MBS’ room to manoeuvre among prospective rivals and dampened appetite for risky foreign policy endeavours such as the outreach to Israel.

A Saudi government official cited in the report said that “things have definitely cooled off right after Khashoggi’s murder.” Explaining the reason for the set-back the official added: “The last thing the Kingdom wants is for this to come out now and cause another backlash.”

READ: Saudi Arabia still hesitant to have open links with Israel