Jeff Bezos was far from the only American VIP who met Saudi Arabia’s crown prince in the spring of 2018. During a coast-to-coast tour Mohammed bin Salman had personal encounters with dozens of celebrities, politicians and tech titans including George Bush, Richard Branson and Bill Gates.
On the way, he had stopped off in Britain, meeting the Queen and the then prime minister, Theresa May. The then foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, praised Prince Mohammed as a man of “tolerance and mutual respect”.
The global tour was an attempt by the crown prince to project a more modern image of Saudi Arabia and attract significant investment in the kingdom as part of his Vision 2030 programme.
It is not publicly known whether the crown prince exchanged WhatsApp messages with anyone other than Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, however there have previously been unconfirmed reports that he used the messaging platform to chat with Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law.
The crown prince told Saudi associates that Kushner, a senior aide to Trump, was “in his pocket” according to the Intercept, which cited two sources reporting that Kushner was exchanging WhatsApp messages directly with Saudi princes. CNN also said at the time it had confirmed through a source in the Saudi royal court that Kushner was communicating with Prince Mohammed directly through WhatsApp.
Kushner’s representatives dismissed questions from the Intercept about his contacts with Saudi officials, and they declined a request for comment on the latest disclosures.
Forty-nine other people are named as either having attended or being scheduled to attend direct meetings with the crown prince in contemporaneous press releases by the Saudi embassy in Washington. A further dozen were reported by various media organisations as having had meetings with him.
On 20 March 2018, a flight carrying the crown prince and his retainer arrived in Washington DC. A series of press releases from the Saudi embassy in Washington and tweets from the Saudi Press Agency documented the dozens of meetings Prince Mohammed would attend over the following two weeks.
The first, which appears to have taken place the very next day, was with Kushner, followed by roundtable meetings with members of the House and the Senate.
Political meetings began the next day with a sit-down meeting with President Trump, alongside administration officials including the vice-president, Mike Pence, and Kushner.
Over the next two days in Washington, Prince Mohammed also met with the then-secretary of defence, James Mattis, and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright.
Christine Lagarde, the then-head of the International Monetary Fund, tweeted a picture of her meeting with the crown prince to discuss the Saudi economy and said “good progress in implementing ambitious reforms”.
The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, SoftBank executive Masayoshi Son and a further 40 US business chiefs met with Prince Mohammed in New York on 28 March, followed by sit-downs with the former US senator and presidential candidate John Kerry, and former US president Bill Clinton.
Meetings with staff and executives at a Boeing manufacturing plant, and Microsoft boss Satya Nadella and founder Bill Gates also occurred, as well as the meeting with Bezos in Seattle.
He also met with the chief executive of Apple, Tim Cook. At Davos this week, Cook declined to respond to a question from a Guardian reporter about whether he too had exchanged WhatsApp messages with the crown prince following the encounter.
Prince Mohammed was also invited to Virgin Galactic’s spaceport facility in the Mojave desert in California, where he met with Richard Branson. Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, was pictured meeting the crown prince on 6 April 2018.
Former presidents George HW Bush and George W Bush also met the crown prince during a visit to Bush senior’s residence in Houston, according a press release by the Saudi embassy.
Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg are also among those reported to have met Prince Mohammed. The Goldman Sachs boss, Lloyd Blankfein, tweeted a picture of himself shaking hands with the crown prince.
There is no suggestion any figure other than Bezos has been the target of malware or surveillance.
The Crown Prince is always impressive when he sets out his vision for the KSA. Can’t remember WHEN my beard turned white, but I remember WHY. MBS is much younger and I’m sure handles stress better! pic.twitter.com/zyu3ftGi6a
The purpose of the visits was not just to secure trade deals, but to convince US opinion formers that the crown prince was a modernising figure determined to wean his country off an immoderate form of Islam and a dependence on oil. The idea that he was an impulsive foreign policy adventurer was to be challenged.
The visits were also seen as a prelude to Saudi Arabia’s chairmanship of the G20 this year, a pivotal moment in installing the kingdom as the pre-eminent respected Middle East superpower.
Many diplomats have detected signs that Saudi Arabia wanted to clear the decks ahead of the G20 summit by finding a solution to the Yemen civil war, and even to enter into dialogue with its arch rival Iran. Highly influential and westernised diplomats were appointed to London and Washington to start a period of outreach.
Overall the strategy appeared to be working. The lure of substantial contracts and fear of Iranian aggression started to take precedence in western minds, and diplomats privately admitted it might never be possible to know if the crown prince had personally sanctioned the killing of the Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi.