Two UAE Princes Each Got Their Own Personal NSO Spyware

Why does UAE - one country with a joint federal military, police and security force, need two separate NSO spyware systems held by two different leaders?

Eytan Avriel
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Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Makhtoum and Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Makhtoum and Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.Credit: Thibault Camus/ Amr Nabil / AP
Eytan Avriel

The Israeli cyber firm NSO sold its Pegasus mobile-phone hacking software to two different leaders of the United Arab Emirates – Abu Dhabi ruler Mohammed Bin Zayed and Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Makhtoum.

TheMarker has learned that the price each of these clients paid in dollars is a seven- to eight-figure number.

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Why does one country, with a joint federal military, police and security force, under the command of Bin Zayed, need two separate spyware systems held by two different leaders?

One possibility is that due to the internal politics and rivalries between the seven emirates that form the UAE, the heads of the two most prominent principalities wished to have their own system. As far as is currently known, the heads of the other five have not sought to acquire a system of their own.

Another possibility, recently borne out, is that one of the rulers sought to use the system for personal ends, in violation of NSO’s terms of use, which are supposed to limit the use strictly to "combatting terrorism and violent crime." In this case, the one who made personal use of the system is Bin Rashid al-Makhtoum.

Mohammed Bin Zayed attends a joint statement with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, 2019.Credit: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

According to a ruling last month by the U.K. High Court of Justice, the Dubai potentate used the NSO Pegasus system to hack into the mobile phones of his estranged wife and five members of her entourage – while the couple was conducting a court battle in London for custody and the future of their two children. Among those whose phones were hacked are two of the princess’s lawyers. One of these is Fiona Shackleton, a high-powered celebrity lawyer and Conservative member of the House of Lords.

As expected, British media took umbrage to the surveillance by a prominent leader in the UAE, a country considered a close ally of the U.K., against a member of the House of Lords. But NSO is also using the story to show that is making efforts to enforce its terms of use, as the company was the one who informed British authorities of the surveillance, upon detecting it.

This angle also includes celebrities. According to reports in the U.K. confirmed by NSO, the company revealed the information to Cherie Blair, a powerful British attorney who works for NSO, and Blair, the wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, was the one to hand the information to barrister Shackleton.

According to NSO findings handed to the British government, as reported by The Guardian, Princess Haya’s phone was hacked 11 times under Bin Rashid al-Makhtoum’s direction or knowledge, yielding 500 images and some 65 MB of data, equivalent to 24 hours of continuous audio, taken from her device. Oddly, while the British judge ruled that “the findings constitute a complete violation of trust and an illegal use of force,” British police have closed their investigation into the matter.

The princess’ 2019 escape from Dubai to London with her children and the couple’s struggle have fascinated the British public, but are also a vivid example of the use NSO’s clients make of its products. In some cases, including the sale of two systems to two separate rulers in the UAE, the Pegasus system was only sold following heavy pressure from the Israeli government, as part of the diplomatic warming between Israel and the UAE. Yet the system’s irregular use embarrassed NSO and caused the third bout of bad publicity the company has sustained since being blacklisted by the U.S. last week.

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