DUBAI (BLOOMBERG) - The incendiary claim that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia was involved in hacking Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos' mobile phone will refocus critical attention on the controversial young leader just as he was seeking to repair rifts and build for a year in the global spotlight.
United Nations experts on Wednesday (Jan 22) called for an investigation into the allegations, first reported by The Guardian.
They pointed to information that suggested a possible role for Prince Mohammed, 34, in the surveillance of Mr Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post, in an effort to influence the newspaper's reporting on Saudi Arabia and in light of separate claims that the Prince was involved in the 2018 murder of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
A probe would take time, yet the damage to Saudi Arabia's image the allegations bring could be more immediate, with speculation swirling as the kingdom prepares to host G-20 finance ministers next month.
That is one of dozens of events meant to showcase the Prince's economic programme to transform his nation and lure billions in foreign investment ahead of the grouping's main extravaganza in November.
The allegations reinforce the existing perception among some "that he's not a good guy", said Mr Kamran Bokhari, founding director of the Centre for Global Policy in Washington.
People have already made up their mind about Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, and unless he enacts major political reforms, it is unlikely that public opinion will shift in the West, he said.
Officials have spent the past year trying to rebuild the country's reputation after Mr Khashoggi's killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
They have won support from US President Donald Trump, who defended the Prince and shielded the kingdom against any major retaliation by US lawmakers.
The government pulled off a flagship investment conference in October and then sold an initial stake in its oil giant Aramco against the backdrop of a missile attack that temporarily knocked out its biggest crude processing facility.
Riyadh has also attempted to disentangle from regional problems with limited results.
It showed openness to talks in a long-running Gulf dispute with Qatar, helped end fighting between two factions that were Saudi allies in the war in Yemen, and sought de-escalation with chief foe Iran, which it blames for the missile strike - rejecting Teheran's denials.
A Saudi court sentenced five people to death for the murder of Mr Khashoggi, who had criticised Prince Mohammed's rule in his writing, while three others were given prison terms totalling 24 years in a move designed to close a damaging chapter, at least locally.
The kingdom denies that the Prince was involved in the killing and the court cleared his former top aide.
"We have seen in recent months a far more consultative and multi-lateral approach, partly triggered by doubts about US reliability and given the fact of the chairmanship of the G-20," said Mr James M. Dorsey, a Middle East scholar at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
The hacking report does not help in the rebranding of Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed, he said.
If Mr Bezos, the world's richest man, can be a target, what about other people doing business in the kingdom?
"If you are a businessman communicating with the Saudis, you are going to become a lot more cautious and ask yourself - am I being monitored?" Mr Dorsey said.
Saudi Arabia has promoted a veneration of the crown prince in an effort to swing nationalist opinion behind his reforms, which have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent at home.
On Thursday (Jan 23), a hashtag urging Saudis to boycott Amazon products was trending on Twitter, with users defending Prince Mohammed, suggesting other online shopping companies and posting photos of Mr Bezos sitting next to or hugging Mr Khashoggi's fiancee.
In a response to queries citing an unidentified official, Saudi Arabia's information ministry rejected news reports on the Bezos phone breach as "wholly unsubstantiated allegations," and said it doesn't conduct or condone such illicit activities.
CRISIS WITH QATAR
"We request the presentation of any supposed evidence and the disclosure of any company that examined forensic evidence so that we can show it is demonstrably false," it said on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia is a key US ally in the Middle East and the Trump administration rebuffed talk of the prince's involvement in the Khashoggi murder despite reported CIA findings that he ordered it.
Even so, Washington has been pushing Riyadh and other Gulf states to end the nearly three-year diplomatic and trade crisis with Qatar, saying it was playing into the hands of Iran at a time when the US is seeking to weaken the Islamic Republic's miltary and economy.
Saudi Arabia had shown an openness to talks with Doha ahead of taking over the G-20 chairmanship in December, raising hopes among Gulf officials of an end to the crisis.
Riyadh hosted Qatar's foreign minister late last year to discuss the regional row, but those efforts have since lost momentum, according to three Gulf officials briefed on the discussions who asked not to be named.
While the hack reports are seen as denting the kingdom's image, investors are unlikely to pull back, after already weathering the Khashoggi fallout.
Some Western companies distanced themselves from the kingdom in the months after his killing - their executives staying away from a 2018 investment conference - but others continued to pour in money. That has continued.
The government sold US$5 billion (S$6.8 billion) of debt its first Eurobond offer of the year on Tuesday, with orders worth more than US$23 billion.
Several overseas investors in Saudi Arabia said it was too early to gauge the impact of the Bezos claims, but said they were unlikely to change their existing views on the kingdom.
Mr Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa research at Eurasia Group, a consultancy, said that while individual countries would proceed with the kingdom at their own pace, the trajectory was unlikely to change.
"There will be incidents along the way that take things off-track for short periods of time and just make it very difficult for the kingdom to define this on its own," he said.