As wild speculation and questions abounded early this week over the whereabouts and status of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) — with some going so far as to suggest he was assassinated during a palace shootout a month ago — Saudi Arabia tried to clamp down on the rumors by releasing an awkward photo of the crown prince socializing with other heads of state, including President Sisi of Egypt, at a swimming pool while wearing a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes.
The prior ball cap photo in which half of bin Salman's face was obscured only served to fuel more rumors and conspiracies about his fate, prompting a lengthy article in the Spectator chronicling the theories and examining the photo, which was deemed "impossible to verify" and "a strange way to convince the world MBS is fighting fit."
لقاءٌ وديٌّ يستمر بين الأشقاء..— بدر العساكر B.Asaker (@Badermasaker) May 17, 2018
كان في ضيافة فخامة الرئيس المصري عبدالفتاح السيسي قبل أيام. pic.twitter.com/Va3f1b4XVc
MAG: Is the Saudi crown prince dead? Or Sidelined? https://t.co/0OKaLBTQGF— DRUDGE REPORT (@DRUDGE_REPORT) May 23, 2018
When the question of "Is the Saudi crown prince dead? Or sidelined?" made it onto Drudge Tuesday night and early Wednesday, it appears the Saudis felt compelled to act by releasing another photograph.
This time the Saudis released what is said to be an official photograph of MbS chairing a meeting of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, tweeted by the prince's press spokesman.
برئاسة سمو #ولي_العهد مجلس الشؤون الاقتصادية والتنمية، يناقش تقريرا عن الربع الأول لأداء الميزانية العامة، وتقريرا اقتصاديا وتنمويا من العام المالي الجاري، والمؤشرات ذات الصلة، وتطورات الاقتصاد الدولي، ويتخذ التوصيات اللازمة تجاهها. pic.twitter.com/yjALNerp07— بدر العساكر B.Asaker (@Badermasaker) May 23, 2018
MbS had reportedly not been seen or heard from in public since April 21, which was the same day gunfire was widely reported near the prince's residence, which the Saudis blamed on a toy drone breaching the security perimeter.
The incident, the aftermath of which was purported to be captured in a video shared widely on social media, led to theories of a successful assassination attempt.
The Saudi Crown Prince is probably in hiding in his own country after the April 21 coup attempt that failed.— Jeff Gauvin (@JeffersonObama) May 18, 2018
Reports of heavy gunfire ongoing near Saudi’s King’s palace in Riyadh. The king has reportedly been evacuated to a bunker at a military base. pic.twitter.com/c6uZefWHXE
The rumors of a coup attempt originated primarily in Iranian media after the editor-in-chief of Tehran-based daily Kayhan asserted in an editorial that "At least two bullets have hit bin Salman in April 21 clashes in Riyadh and it is even possible that he is dead." Similar stories were picked up by Iran's semi-official FARS news agency and other state connected Iran sources.
And subsequent public ceremonies and official visits by foreign dignitaries to the kingdom, some where MbS was a no-show and all of which failed to provide photographic proof of his presence further fueled theories. Iranian newspapers even claimed at one point to be in possession of leaked Saudi intelligence pointing to MbS' being shot on April 21st.
Of course, Iran has every incentive to present the Saudis as in a state of turmoil and instability and vice versa, as the two countries are in a regional cold war stand-off of sorts. However, there is much truth to the kingdom's current state of political fragility even without the wild rumors, as bin Salman's very first act after coming to power as next in line to be king was his infamous rounding up of close to 400 royals and other prominent officials to lock them in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton. Many of them were forced to pay their way out after reports of torture and brutal interrogations.
But this all appears yet another bizarre episode in the ongoing Saudi-Persian rivalry for influence in the Middle East. Barring any spectacular and hard-hitting evidence to the contrary, it appears MbS is indeed alive and well.