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Saudi Arabia on claims it used Israeli spyware: 'Baseless'

UAE said linked to listing of 400 UK phone numbers as targets for NSO spyware

Leaked list includes number of British peer, as well as details of daughter of Dubai ruler who tried to run away and his ex-wife who fled; Israel’s NSO Group denies claims

Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum attends the 40th Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, FILE)
Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum attends the 40th Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, FILE)

The United Arab Emirates was connected to the listing of hundreds of British phone numbers as potential targets for spyware from Israel’s NSO Group, including the contact details of a member of the House of Lords, the Guardian reported Wednesday.

According to the report, there are over 400 UK phone numbers on the leaked list, and the main government responsible for selecting those targets was apparently the UAE.

NSO’s flagship program, Pegasus, can hack into cellphones without users knowing, enabling clients to read every message, track a user’s location and tap into the phone’s camera and microphone. According to the Guardian it is used by 40 countries.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, is believed to have been a client of NSO.

Last year, in the wake of the normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE, the Haaretz daily reported that the Israeli government officially mediated the sale of spyware to the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Ras Al-Khaimah, as well as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

The phone number of Sheikh Mohammed’s daughter Princess Latifa appears on the leaked list, the Guardian reported. The princess tried to flee the wealthy Gulf state in 2018 but was detained by commandos in a boat off India in what Human Rights Watch said might have been an “enforced disappearance.”

This undated image taken from video in an unknown location shows Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum speaking into a mobile phone camera. (#FreeLatifa campaign – Tiina Jauhiainen/David Haigh via AP)

The phone number of the sheikh’s ex-wife Princess Haya, the daughter of Jordan’s late King Hussein who fled to the UK after previously seeking asylum in Germany, is also on the leaked list of numbers.

The numbers of several associates of the two women, some of them in the UK, are also listed as potential targets, the Guardian reported.

The numbers also included that of a lawyer working at a firm representing Princess Haya, as well as Baroness Uddin, a member of the House of Lords who told the Guardian that if there was spying on British parliamentarians it would be “a great breach of trust” which “contravenes our sovereignty.”

NSO claimed that the fact that a number appeared on the leaked list did not mean that it was targeted using Pegasus.

Princess Haya bint al-Hussein, wife of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, in Dubai on Jan 17, 2016. (AP/Martin Dokoupil)

“The list is not a list of Pegasus targets or potential targets,” the company told the Guardian. “The numbers in the list are not related to NSO group in any way.”

The UAE has long faced accusations of human rights violations. A Human Rights Watch report for 2020 found that “hundreds of activists, academics, and lawyers are serving lengthy sentences in UAE prisons, in many cases following unfair trials on vague and broad charges that violate their rights to free expression and association.”

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia dismissed allegations it used Israeli-supplied Pegasus malware to spy on journalists and human rights activists as “baseless.”

“A Saudi official denied the recent allegations reported in media outlets that an entity in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia used software to monitor phone calls,” the official SPA news agency reported late Wednesday.

“The source added that such allegations are untrue, and that KSA’s policies do not condone such practices.”

Saudi Arabia has no formal ties with Israel, but mutual concern over Iran has gradually brought Israel and Gulf countries closer, and Riyadh has quietly been building relations with the Jewish state for several years.

NSO on Wednesday pushed back further against allegations that it sold its Pegasus spyware software to human rights abusers who targeted dissidents, politicians, journalists and more, saying “an orchestrated campaign is being carried out against us.”

Baroness Uddin speaks on May 24, 2020 (Screen grab/Facebook)

“False allegations have been published against us that ignore the facts,” the company said in a statement announcing that it would not be responding to further requests to comment on the claims. “We will not play the game of insinuations and slander.”

CEO Shalev Hulio denied in an interview with Israel’s 103FM radio on Tuesday that his company had done anything wrong.

He said NSO had “no connection” to the list of thousands of phone numbers.

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel approves export of technology only to governments “exclusively for the purposes of preventing and investigating crime and terrorism.”

He said Israel was studying recent publications on the subject.

The Defense Ministry has vowed that “appropriate action” would be taken if it found NSO Group violated its export license terms.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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