'His Highness Asks': Did Saudis Try to Enlist Former Israeli PM Barak to Buy Cyberattack Technology?

Alleged middleman of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sought spyware to use against enemies, tape reveals

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Ehud Barak.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Ehud Barak.

A man saying he represented Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman phoned Ehud Barak in 2015 saying he wanted the former prime minister to help him sell cybertech to assist the Saudis in eavesdropping on their citizens’ and enemies’ phone conversations.

According to a recording of a conversation obtained by Haaretz, the man said he wanted Barak to take on a representative role in the company he had established; he also mentioned companies whose technology interested the Saudis.

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The existence of the recording of the middleman’s conversation with Barak was first discussed in an investigative report on the Kan broadcasting authority’s television program “Shetach Hefker.”

According to a statement released on behalf of Barak, the former prime minister rebuffed the offer in the phone call, which came from the United Arab Emirates.

The man had told Barak, who is also a former defense minister and head of the Israel Defense Forces, about what he called an interesting business opportunity. He talked about a meeting that took place with the Saudi government seven weeks earlier in the UAE’s largest city, Dubai.

The Saudis came to see presentations on cyberwar and interception technology; the man said he had won the trust of the two men in line behind the king, the defense minister and his brother.

He was referring to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who serves as Saudi defense minister, and his brother Khalid.

"For this to work, His Highness would like it done a certain way," the man said. "I assume you know where this is going, there is always an economic advantage for people in deals of this scale."

The man then asked if Barak indeed understood where this was going. Barak said he did.

he interest shown toward former Israeli army officers and politicians is nothing new. But this time the circumstances are particularly interesting.

First, Barak is a former prime minister. Second, the connection was being made in the name of a country, not a company. Third, the country was Saudi Arabia, whose strategic, diplomatic and security interests have been linked with those of Israel.

Finally, a person the man said he was representing was none other than one of the most influential figures in the Arab world, and beyond.

The man added that the deal would be financially advantageous to people close to the royal family; the structure of the deal would be very special, and he would be happy to sit with Barak and explain.

The following response was issued on behalf of Barak: “By his own choice, Barak never dealt in weapons, military systems or defense systems at any stage of his business activity. Of course, dozens of people approach him each week in writing or orally with various ideas.”

According to the statement, “If it turns out, as in the case in this article, that these are people he should not work with in areas not relevant for him, the meeting or conversation ends politely and with no results. This is how the case in this article went, and as it happens that’s a good thing.”

Barak often expresses views touching on political, social and diplomatic topics, both in the traditional media and on social media. He’s also a businessman, after having left politics early this decade.

Some of his interests are known publicly; for example, he is chairman of the medical marijuana company InterCure. But many of Barak’s interests are hidden from public view.

The recording helps reflect Barak’s expertise in Israel’s cyberindustry and his familiarity with its products and distribution system. Most of this industry’s clients are governments, including some that represent Arab countries that have no official ties with Israel.

In recent months Barak has said more than once that the entities that are warming ties with countries in the region are private companies. As he sees it, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to package these achievements as a policy asset.

Even though the 2015 deal did not come to pass, the Saudis kept showing an interest in similar cybersolutions. As Haaretz reported this week, in 2017 the Saudis negotiated with the company NSO Group Technologies, whose development headquarters is in Herzliya near Tel Aviv.

The middleman said that in the 2015 phone call with Barak he was conducting the matter with an attorney representing the Saudi defense ministry, a British citizen of Jewish origin.

The middleman said he had won the confidence of the other side’s attorney, who wanted a formal invitation to come to Israel see the systems at work. He would be the eyes and ears of the Saudis in the deal.

Barak asked about who the middleman worked for, and provided the names of a few cybercompanies he guessed the middleman was working for. The middleman said he worked only for himself, or to be more accurate, for his wife. Then he said her full name and broke out laughing.

The middleman said he had received advice from people close to him, recommendations from friends. He added that he had even met with the representatives of one of the companies.

He said he knew that its technology was installed in countries that they could not discuss over the phone.

The companies mentioned by Barak and the mediator develop eavesdropping and monitoring capabilities for telephone conversations. It’s a technology whose aim is to provide a mass listening capability to a massive number of phone calls at the same time, while using a smart algorithm that monitors the calls for “hot words” defined ahead of time.

Barak was not involved in providing any “economic advantage” to the Saudi authorities as part of the deal. As far as is known, no deal came about.

But Barak met with the middleman after he mentioned the idea of providing an “economic advantage” as requested by the kingdom. This may be a detail worth remembering the next time Barak talks about the seriousness of the “submarine affair” in which Netanyahu aides are suspected of providing an “economic advantage” as part of a large security deal.

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