Has Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman been assassinated, had a breakdown or gone into hiding? Or is that just wild internet conjecture? I ask only because he has barely been seen in public since prolonged heavy gunfire was heard at the royal palace in Riyadh in the middle of the night on April 21.
At the time Saudi state media dismissed reports on Twitter and elsewhere the shots were the sound of a coup taking place, insisting instead the semi-automatic gunfire was merely aimed at a recreational drone that had flown too close to the palace walls.
In this age of fake news and heavy Arab media censorship it’s hard to know who to trust, but what seems certain is that the Crown Prince, previously ubiquitous as the international focal point of a cultural revolution in the kingdom, seems suddenly to have vanished.
Social media is ablaze with rumours of the young ruler’s murder. Users are sharing reports of a supposedly secret intelligence dossier that states MBS, as the Crown Prince is known, has been shot twice.
The editor-in-chief of Tehran-based daily Kayhan (unlikely, it must be said, to be an impartial source for Saudi news coverage) has written in an editorial: ‘At least two bullets have hit bin Salman in April 21 clashes in Riyadh and it is even possible that he is dead.’ But according to a well-placed source at the British Foreign Office, the Crown Prince is alive and well.
So is the story Iranian fake news? Perhaps. Presumably to head off talk of assassination, a palace courtier has released a photo of MBS appearing to socialise with King Hamad of Bahrain, President Sisi of Egypt and Abu Dhabi ruler Mohammed bin Zayed.
But the picture seems a strange way to convince the world MBS is fighting fit. It certainly looks like the man himself, even if a cap is obscuring his eyes. But it’s impossible to verify when the photo of the four men standing by a swimming pool was taken. Surely – given the gravity of the claims – MBS could have recorded a video statement by now? Is he in hiding? Or incapacitated? Interestingly, when Mike Pompeo visited Saudi Arabia in late April, no photos or video footage of MBS with the US Secretary of State were seen.
Whatever has happened to him, MBS is certainly not short of enemies at home. After becoming the nation’s de facto ruler in June, 2017, the 32-year old rounded up 380 or so of Saudi’s richest men in what was billed as a corruption purge. There were unconfirmed reports of torture until the powerful detained men agreed to sign over to the state large portions of their wealth.
He has also not shied away from angering powerful Wahhabi clerics as he has sought to begin modernising the kingdom. He has lifted a ban on women driving, for example, and, more shockingly, allowed relations with the long-hated Israel to start to thaw.
Abroad, Iran and other powerful Shia forces throughout the region would rejoice at news of the Crown Prince’s death. Tensions in the Middle East are running particularly high at the moment thanks in no small part to the apparent closeness of MBS to President Trump’s White House.
It could be, of course, that MBS, exhausted after a whistle-stop media tour of Europe and the United States, is holed up on a luxury yacht on holiday. But it does seem strange that his disappearance from public view seems to have coincided exactly with the sound of heavy gunfire at the palace.
UPDATE: Following the publication of this article, the Saudi royal family yesterday permitted the distribution of a photograph https://mobile.twitter.com/ahmed/status/999035183188840448?s=12 of the Crown Prince at a cabinet meeting in Jeddah looking in rude health. All’s well that ends well, then…