As you will surely have heard by now, Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s controversial and energetic Crown Prince, was killed or badly wounded in an attack on the royal palace of Khuzama in Riyadh by a hostile faction of the ruling Al Saud family during the night of April 22. Which is why he has not been seen in public since.
In actual fact, MBS is alive and well, putting in an appearance this week at a royal audience with members of the royal family before chairing a meeting of the Supreme Council for Economic and Development Affairs. Like Mark Twain’s before him, the reports of MBS’ death have been grossly exaggerated — indeed they appear to have been based on little more than rumour and speculation. How did these rumours start, and how did they gain such currency over the past month?
Something does appear to have taken place around Khuzama palace in the evening of April 22. Heavy shooting was heard by local residents, some of them rushing to upload mobile phone footage of the incident to Twitter and other platforms. While visually indistinct, the footage does record what would seem to be intense small arms fire. In a swiftly issued statement, the Saudi authorities said palace guards had shot down an amateur drone flying over the palace grounds. Dissident accounts on Twitter, led by the best known and most mysterious of them all, @Mujtahidd, begged to differ, immediately claiming there was more to the incident than the authorities were ready to admit. There might well have been a drone, @Mujtahidd conceded the very same day, but there was also “an attack by a group of royal family members on board trucks, fielding 50mm machine guns. The shootout lasted an hour and left seven dead. The assailants then vanished.”
تتناقل دوائر في أوساط آل سعود تفاصيل شبيهة بما في هذه التغريدة https://t.co/PZxPqH5lzC
— مجتهد (@mujtahidd) April 22, 2018
The story was promptly picked up by news sites hostile to the Saudi regime (many of them, unsurprisingly, backed by Iran or Qatar). The result was an echo chamber: the sites, having got the news from @Mujtahidd, were then quoted by @Mujtahidd by way of ‘proof’ that his allegations were correct.
The fact that MBS had dropped out of sight following his return from his tour of the US and France on April 10 gave added spice to the dainty dish the rumour machine had concocted: by mid-May, it was being blithely asserted that MBS had been killed or wounded in the ‘attack’ on Khuzama palace. The speculation was by then so intense that it broke out of the echo chamber and into mainstream Western media.
Most seasoned observers of Saudi politics did not fall for this, however, for a number of reasons. First, @Mujtahidd is a conspiracy monger. He did, it is true, seem to have sources in royal circles in the early days of his fame, around 2012-14, and did on a number of occasions reveal important news before it was officially announced, together with regular snippets of ‘inside’ information from within the House of Saud (which, in Yaqut’s experience, it was often but not always possible to cross-check with trusted, private Saudi sources). But he seems to have largely lost whatever access he had with the accession of King Salman to the throne in January 2015. Since then, what he posts is mostly his own analysis (which is sometimes astute), or merely rumours, speculation and conspiracy theories.
Second, the absence of MBS for much of April and May is not particularly unusual. Unlike the previous generation of Saudi royal officials, MBS does not appear in public that often. Not for him the ribbon-cutting and graduation ceremonies and public audiences that were the signifiers of normality for his predecessors. Seeing himself as the great disruptor of the old way of doing things, be it in terms of the economy, of governance, or of regional relations, he surely sees such genteel social engagements not merely as a waste of his precious time but as sending out quite the wrong message. For MBS, there can be no more ‘business as usual’. The Crown Prince is constantly in the news, of course, but he prefers to conduct business behind closed doors. He also has a habit of disappearing on private (working) holidays for weeks on end.
Third is the way MBS operates. His track record suggests that if there had really been an attack on the palace by a disgruntled royal faction, he would not have let the opportunity go to waste. Far from playing it down or hiding it, MBS would have announced it, even exaggerated it, presented himself as the victim of an Iranian-Qatari-Muslim Brotherhood attack on the Saudi people and launched a massive purge of his opponents within the royal family, à la Erdogan.
That of course is to assume that a serious opposition faction actually does exist within the ruling family. Sadly for the conspiracy theorists, however, everything Yaqut has been hearing over recent months suggests that any threat from within the House of Saud has largely been contained, isolated, browbeaten and, for the time being at least, neutralised.
MBS actually resurfaced as early as May 23, when he had his photo taken with the Saudi national football team before they embarked for their pre-World Cup training camp in Switzerland. This week’s official engagements came as confirmation that the Crown Prince is not only alive but in control — eliciting a hasty, face-saving revision from @Mujtahidd. In a short Twitter thread on May 29, the anonymous royal commentator alleged that MBS had “spent the past weeks on his yacht in the Red Sea”. While “we cannot confirm or deny that he was wounded in the Khuzama incident,” @Mujtahidd continued, people close to the Crown Prince say “he deliberately disappeared after the incident to give the impression that he had been killed or seriously injured, so as to induce those among his cousins who wanted to organise a coup against him to move, and thereby discover and eliminate them”. None of the cousins moved; the rumour mill, however, is running like clockwork.
يردد القريبون منه والذين على صلة به أنه تعمد الاختفاء بعد الحادث حتى يعطي انطباعا بأنه توفي أو بإصابة خطيرة وذلك من أجل أن يحفز كل من ينوي الانقلاب عليه من أبناء عمه بالتحرك فيكتشفهم ويقضي عليهم
— مجتهد (@mujtahidd) May 29, 2018