Through much of 2018,
and tech-savvy Saudi Crown Prince
Mohammed bin Salman
seemed to be hitting it off.
Texting over WhatsApp about a plan for Amazon to build a huge data center in Saudi Arabia, the men forged a cordial and mutually beneficial relationship. “It is very important for me, my friend, that you come to Saudi during the future investment Forum and we announce this $2.8B Vision 2030 partnership,” the prince messaged Mr. Bezos on Sept. 9, 2018, according to a review of texts by The Wall Street Journal and people familiar with the situation.
Amazon stood to gain broader access to the Middle Eastern market. Prince Mohammed could be aided in his efforts to reform the Saudi economy as well as burnish his personal brand.
Now, one of the world’s richest men and one of the most powerful princes are archenemies, each accusing the other of betrayal.
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Over the course of 2018, Prince Mohammed grew frustrated as the Bezos-owned Washington Post published critical columns by Saudi dissident
according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Bezos was deeply disturbed after men working for the prince murdered Mr. Khashoggi that October, said people familiar with the situation.
But the feud didn’t erupt into a public spectacle until last week, with the surfacing of a report commissioned by Mr. Bezos that said—with “medium-to-high confidence”—that Prince Mohammed had installed spyware on Mr. Bezos’ phone via a WhatsApp message in May 2018.
The Saudi government denies that the prince hacked Mr. Bezos’ phone. The Journal has reported that Saudi officials close to the crown prince said they were aware of a plan to compromise Mr. Bezos’ phone, though not that an attack actually happened.
a lawyer for Mr. Bezos, declined to comment for this article, as did representatives for the Saudi government in Riyadh and Washington. An Amazon spokesman declined to comment on details of the data-center plan.
Later in 2018, the National Enquirer received embarrassing texts and photos of the then-married Mr. Bezos and his girlfriend,
and published some of them in January 2019. Mr. Bezos has said there was Saudi involvement in the matter, an assertion the Enquirer and the Saudi government disputed.
The Journal has reported that the Enquirer paid $200,000 to buy the racy texts and photos from Ms. Sanchez’s brother
according to people familiar with the matter, and that federal prosecutors have evidence indicating Ms. Sanchez had given him the material.
Ms. Sanchez hasn’t responded to requests for comment. Mr. Sanchez said in an emailed statement: “With spoon-fed lies and half-truths, Wall Street Journal keeps getting it wrong.”
It is a remarkable show of public animosity between two men who seemed to have aligned interests when they met in 2016.
Prince Mohammed had taken over efforts to remake the Saudi economy, a position he gained after his father, Salman, became king in 2015. The prince told friends and acquaintances that he sees himself in the mold of tech-company founders like
and Mr. Bezos— men who built business empires through visionary leadership and supreme self confidence.
For several years, Prince Mohammed has met with investors, money managers and chief executives to explain his vision. Among his big initiatives was a $500 billion tech-focused city called NEOM that he planned to build along the Red Sea.
In confidential planning documents the Journal reviewed, consultants for the Saudi government outlined “tailor-made incentives” to woo Amazon as a major part of the project, including government funding and 99 years of free rent.
Many Western business leaders wanted the prince to invest Saudi money in their operations, people familiar with the meetings said. Amazon was one of the few willing to invest a large amount of money in Saudi Arabia. The data center would serve Amazon customers across the region, according to people in the Gulf and the U.S. familiar with the talks.
The two men had an April 2018 dinner in Los Angeles during a U.S. tour the prince made. For Prince Mohammed, it would be among the first major investments in the kingdom by a Western tech company, and one of the first times a big foreign company would choose Saudi Arabia, rather than traditionally business-friendly locations like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, as a Mideast hub.
The details were negotiated by lower-level teams. But the prince and Mr. Bezos kept in touch about the project on a high level over WhatsApp, people familiar with the project said.
WhatsApp was a key tool of the young prince’s global charm campaign. In his first few years as crown prince, he handed out his WhatsApp contact information to visiting dignitaries, businessmen, academics and some journalists so often that his phone streamed messages day and night, people who interacted with the prince said.
Prince Mohammed would go through the messages every day, those people said. Receiving a response was a surprise for Americans accustomed to doing business in the Gulf, where senior princes were typically aloof.
Talks about a data-center project that could cost $2 billion or more were under way when Prince Mohammed and Mr. Bezos began communicating over WhatsApp in spring 2018, the people familiar with the matter said. Saudi officials believed Amazon was willing to commit up to $4 billion to the project, said people involved in the talks.
Yet the prince at points griped to Mr. Bezos about Amazon’s earlier business decisions in the region—it had bought an e-commerce company in 2017 that competed with a business co-owned by the Saudi sovereign-wealth fund, and announced a deal to build a data center in neighboring Bahrain.
“I was very disappointed” to hear about the Bahrain deal, the prince texted Mr. Bezos, according to the people familiar with the exchanges. He wrote that Amazon’s decision not to partner with Saudi Arabia from the get-go “has pushed” Saudi Arabia to compete in e-commerce with Amazon.
Still, the prince continued to send enthusiastic messages through the summer of 2018 about Amazon’s eventual arrival in the kingdom, these people said.
It turns out the prince’s messages to Mr. Bezos were somewhat misleading.
Prince Mohammed’s security adviser, Musaid al Aiban, had already frozen the data-center deal because Amazon.com wouldn’t allow Saudi intelligence and law enforcement access to the data as part of the discussions, people familiar with the matter said.
On April 17, 2018, less than two weeks after the prince and the CEO had dinner in Los Angeles, Mr. Aiban told officials working on the deal not to complete it—and also not to tell Amazon it was being held up. Prince Mohammed was apprised of this strategy, according to these officials.
“Never say no publicly. We just keep stalling and cite bureaucratic delays,” said an adviser for the government who worked on the project.
Multiple efforts to reach Mr. Aiban through media representatives of the Saudi government were unsuccessful.
It was important not to alienate Mr. Bezos because Prince Mohammed wanted him to attend the Riyadh financial conference later in the year. Nicknamed “Davos in the Desert,” it was the prince’s opportunity to trumpet, domestically and abroad, his alliances with the world’s business and technology leaders.
Through the summer of 2018, the prince encouraged Mr. Bezos to come to the October conference, text messages show. It isn’t clear whether Mr. Bezos ever formally committed to attending.
Then, on Oct. 2, 2018, Mr. Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist, entered the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and never emerged. The Post wrote a number of investigative articles and editorials about the murder, many blaming Prince Mohammed.
For days, Saudi Arabia issued statements denying involvement only to be contradicted by information gathered by Turkey, partially through recordings inside the Saudi embassy, that indicated Mr. Khashoggi was killed by Saudi operatives.
Later that month, Saudi Arabia said officials of its government killed Mr. Khashoggi in a rogue operation, and tried to dampen international outrage by announcing its own investigation. The Central Intelligence Agency concluded that the killing was carried out under the prince’s orders, U.S. officials said. Saudi Arabia has denied the prince had any prior knowledge.
In the aftermath of the Khashoggi killing, government officials and executives from around the world pulled out of the Riyadh conference, including Mr. Bezos.
Around that time, National Enquirer employees got a tip about Mr. Bezos’ affair and began tailing him, the Journal has reported. In January 2019, Mr. Bezos revealed he was getting divorced, knowing that the Enquirer was ready to publish an article about his affair. The Enquirer subsequently threatened to publish more racy texts and photos unless Mr. Bezos publicly said he had no evidence the tabloid had targeted him for political reasons.
Mr. Bezos refused the Enquirer’s demand.
It wasn’t until last Wednesday that details of the alleged Saudi hack of Mr. Bezos’ iPhone became public, after United Nations officials called for an investigation of the incident and summarized the report by Mr. Bezos’ consultants.
The consultant’s report has spurred questions among cybersecurity experts, who said it relied heavily on circumstantial evidence to make the case that a WhatsApp account associated with Prince Mohammed was probably used to hack into Mr. Bezos’ phone.
The consultants weren’t able to figure out if information from Mr. Bezos’s phone was linked to the photos and texts that ended up with the Enquirer.
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Streaming TV’s Boom Is a Mixed Blessing for Some Hollywood Writers
LOS ANGELES — It seemed like a good deal. At first.
Last April, Netflix offered Kay Reindl and her longtime writing partner a substantial sum — in the mid-six figures, Ms. Reindl said — to oversee 10 episodes of a new sci-fi series, “Sentient.” It sounded like a lot of money for what they figured would be less than a year of work.
Ms. Reindl and her writing partner, who have worked steadily as TV writers since the 1990s, would be executive producers, instead of staff writers on someone else’s show. That would mean a lot more responsibility and much longer hours, but it seemed worth it. They found office space and hired a few writers.
Then came a surprise: they learned that “Sentient” would actually take 18 months from start to finish. When Ms. Reindl did the math, she realized that, under the new timetable, she would be making roughly the same weekly pay as the writers she was overseeing.
“It was a very bad day,” Ms. Reindl said.
Netflix declined to comment.
The rise of streaming has been a blessing and a curse for working writers like Ms. Reindl, who said she and her partner had ultimately left “Sentient” because of creative differences unrelated to the length of the series. On-demand digital video has ushered in the era of Peak TV, meaning there are more shows and more writing jobs than ever. But many of the jobs are not what they used to be in the days before streaming.
“All this opportunity is great, but how to navigate it and keep yourself consistently working and making your living has been the challenging part,” said Stu Zicherman, a writer and showrunner whose credits include “The Americans” on FX and HBO’s “Divorce.”
When Ms. Reindl got her start, network series had 24 episodes or more a season. The typical TV writer’s schedule looked something like this: Get hired by May or June, write furiously for most of the year, and then take a six-week hiatus before the process started again.
The seasonal rhythms that had been in place for TV writers since the days of “I Love Lucy” started to change more than two decades ago, when cable outlets put out 13-episode seasons of shows like HBO’s “The Sopranos” and, later, AMC’s “Mad Men.”
Streaming platforms have revised that model further: eight-episode seasons of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and Disney Plus’s “The Mandalorian”; six-episode seasons of Amazon Prime Video’s “Fleabag”; three- and six-episode batches of Netflix’s “Black Mirror.” Cable has replied in kind, offering fewer than 12-episode runs of shows like “Atlanta” on FX and “Silicon Valley” on HBO.
“I think they’re experimenting with the shortest product they can still call a TV series,” said Steve Conrad, the president of Elephant Pictures, a production company in Chicago. “I couldn’t keep this company together if it was fewer than eight, and it’s coming.”
In addition to shortening season lengths, the streaming platforms have ignored the school-year-style calendar of television’s network days, with its premieres in the weeks after Labor Day and finales late in the spring. Netflix has served up new seasons of its most-watched program, “Stranger Things,” in July. Apple TV Plus unveiled one of its most-hyped shows, “Little America,” in the middle of January.
The rise of streaming has fattened the wallets of superstar writer-producers like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, while also giving chances to unproven writers. But the medium’s shorter seasons and unpredictable cadences have made it harder for writers in Hollywood’s middle class to plot out a year’s work in a way that doesn’t leave them nervous when mortgage payments are due.
Complicating the issue is that streaming platforms have been known to take more time to make an episode than their network and cable counterparts. For many writers, that meant less money for more hours, and they complained to their union representatives.
“Five years ago, it grew from an isolated problem to a dominant problem,” said Chuck Slocum, the assistant executive director of the Writers Guild of America, West. “We had half of our members wake up and realize one day that they’re making half the money that they were making.”
That change kicked in too late to help Lila Byock, a writer whose credits include HBO’s “The Leftovers” and Hulu’s “Castle Rock.” She said she was hired on a scripted series that she figured would last 10 months. Instead, it took nearly 18 months, which caused her to pass on other writing jobs.
“It gets tricky,” Ms. Byock said. “That wasn’t what I had budgeted for two years of my life.”
On the flip side, streaming seasons that require a short time commitment — say, eight months — can also wreak havoc on a writer’s schedule. “You’re not being paid by the studio for five months of the year, but that’s not enough time to take on another show,” said Mr. Conrad, of Elephant Pictures.
The old TV calendar is not quite dead. Major producers of network shows, like Dick Wolf and Chuck Lorre, still must come up with at least 22 episodes per season of shows like NBC’s “Chicago P.D.” and CBS’s “Young Sheldon.” But with new streaming platforms like NBCUniversal’s Peacock and HBO Max set to start in the spring, the lives of many TV writers are likely to get more chaotic.
“I have friends working in network television and it’s like they’re on a different planet,” said Harley Peyton, a writer and co-executive producer of “Project Blue Book,” a History Channel series with 10 episodes a season.
He described staff positions on network shows as “the last full-time jobs in this business,” adding that “those jobs are extraordinarily difficult to get.”
The 10 established Hollywood writers who discussed the changes in the industry with The New York Times were careful to point out that they were still able to make good money, even amid the digital disruption of their industry. And yet, they said, it is common for veteran writers these days to be paid as if they were rookies.
Jonathan Shikora, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents actors and writers, suggested that longtime TV writers were now underpaid. “Should I be getting the same as some new writer whose script I’m rewriting because their work is so green and new and I’m teaching that person?” he asked.
The new economy has some writers thinking twice about moving up the ranks to the position of executive producer. “What I’m starting to see is a lot of friends being like, ‘Why would I ever want to be a showrunner?’” Ms. Byock said, referring to the hands-on executive producer in charge of the writers’ room. “If you’re making the same amount you could be making doing a much less stressful job, why wouldn’t you just do that?”
Rob Long, once a writer and an executive producer of the long-running NBC sitcom “Cheers,” said he had tried to make allowances for the changes when he was in charge of “Sullivan & Son,” a TBS sitcom.
That show had 10 episodes in its first two seasons and 13 in its third, a significant change from the 28-episode final season of “Cheers.” That was fine with the financially secure Mr. Long, who said, “I got to be honest, I thought it was fantastic.” The difficulty came when he was hiring staff writers.
“I was making deals with younger writers just starting out,” he said, “and I was doing the math.”
It took eight weeks to write the scripts and prepare for shooting. An additional 15 weeks brought the staff to the end of the production. The schedule meant that “Sullivan & Son” would eat up nearly six months of staff writers’ time.
Under the terms of their contracts, they had to give priority to “Sullivan & Son,” meaning that, if the show got renewed, they were obligated to go back to it even if they were working on another project.
“It was a de facto way of locking you up,” Mr. Long said.
So he came up with an informal solution that he has used on other shows since then.
“We make a private, handshake deal with our writers,” he said. “We tell them that if you get on another project, or you sell a pilot or something else happens, I will let you out of your contract,” he said.
In other words, Mr. Long added, “I promise to fire the writer.”
Intuit Is Expected to Buy Credit Karma in $7 Billion Deal
Intuit, the home of TurboTax and Mint, is nearing a deal to buy Credit Karma, a start-up that grew to fame by offering consumers free access to their credit scores, for about $7 billion in cash and stock, two people briefed on the matter said on Sunday.
The deal, which could be announced as soon as Monday, points to the value of the financial data of ordinary Americans. Credit Karma grew to be worth billions of dollars by selling credit card offers to its customers after building their credit profiles.
Intuit has long helped businesses and consumers manage their financial data, but it has often been slow in adapting to a new era in which that data is profitably used to attract advertisers.
Credit Karma has been at the leading edge of a large group of start-ups in the financial technology sector over the last decade. It says its customers include a third of all Americans who have a credit profile.
The company, which has over 1,100 employees and is based in San Francisco, had been expected to pursue an initial public offering. But after the rocky I.P.O. of Uber and the failure of WeWork’s planned offering, some companies have instead pursued the surer path of a sale rather than face potentially skeptical investors.
Last month, another successful fintech start-up, Plaid, sold itself to Visa for $5.3 billion rather than stage an I.P.O. Plaid’s business is also focused on consumer data, serving as the middlemen between the big financial firms that have that data and the start-ups that need it.
The deal negotiations were earlier reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Credit Karma was started in 2007 by Kenneth Lin, the current chief executive, and two co-founders, after Mr. Lin had trouble acquiring his own credit score. Until about a decade ago, consumers generally had to buy a credit score directly from the three major credit bureaus. Otherwise, the most likely opportunity for individuals to get a sense of their creditworthiness came just as they were applying for a loan — when it was too late to do anything to improve their lot.
Signing up for the site became a rite of passage for Americans looking to get their credit score in shape to apply for a mortgage. In addition to providing credit scores from TransUnion and Equifax, Credit Karma offers advice on how the scores could be improved by doing things like lowering credit card balances.
The company made its money by offering its customers new credit cards and online loans, based on their credit scores. When customers accepted the offers, Credit Karma would receive payments of a few hundred dollars, though it closely guarded the details of these deals.
Over time, though, Credit Karma’s success invited imitators, and today most digital financial firms offer their customers free credit scores.
Credit Karma has branched out by offering other services that give it access to even more financial data. Its biggest recent product introduction was a free tax return offering that put it into direct competition with Intuit’s TurboTax.
(The Wirecutter, which The New York Times owns, also aims to earn money via affiliate relationships with lenders.)
Intuit’s business has long been based on charging businesses and customers for its software offerings, like QuickBooks and TurboTax. But the company, which is valued at more than $77 billion, has been trying to shift to the new world in which software is free and paid for by deals for consumer data.
TurboTax now offers a free version of its tax-filing service. And Mint allows customers to create free budgets, with the service paid for by credit card ads, much as Credit Karma does.
There is a potentially significant business opportunity for Intuit if it completes a deal. For example, Intuit could try to match all the tax data its TurboTax customers provide with the credit-scoring data that Credit Karma holds.
That could let Intuit serve up better customer prospects to credit card issuers — and eventually let Intuit charge lenders more for access to its hoard of data.
Sheel Mohnot, a venture capitalist who focuses on fintech start-ups, suggested that the combined company could become a sort of Facebook for financial services.
“They would have all of this rich information, and they would basically be an ad network,” he said. “You’re almost forced to advertise with them.”
Ron Lieber contributed reporting.
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