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Feature Article
2018-05-18

The Disappearance Of Muhammad bin Salman: Rumor Mill Or Going Rogue?

The crown prince has apparently vanished from public view, stirring speculation that he was injured, or even killed in events three weeks ago that some described at the time as an attempted coup. Given the provenance of reports raising concern over his absence, how much credence should the rumors be given?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Newsrooms around the globe were abuzz with reports of a coup attempt in Saudi Arabia on the night of April 21, with unverified social media reports leading the charge. Video clips purported to show heavy gunfire at the scene, a security point in Riyadh's al-Khuzama neighborhood, where a palace belonging to King Salman is located. Western media did show some restraint in coverage, given the uncertainty of the situation, though they tried to hint at the possibility of political unrest. Video footage, however, seemed to show heavy shooting that lasted for at least 30 seconds, and social media "reporting" began to claim that the king had been evacuated to a military bunker at nearby King Khalid air base for his safety. But there were no other signs within Riyadh of any trouble, such as internet disruption or communication difficulties, and the city was otherwise calm.

Official word soon came that security forces had "dealt with" an unauthorized, small recreational drone after spotting it at near the king's palace, and state media assured that the king was at his farm in Diriyah, and the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) nowhere in the area. Of course, that did little to kill speculation that this was not the full story, especially given the taught atmosphere among the royal family. Tensions have rarely been higher than in the wake of the uncomfortable reforms MbS is pushing through with his domestic agenda, and his disruption of succession norms has alienated a sizable number of princes who see now their hopes and ambitions dashed. In the aftermath both of the sidelining of his predecessor in the role of crown prince, Muhammad bin Nayif, and the shakedown of dozens of royals and prominent figures following that, there is likely no shortage of disaffected royals willing to risk it all in a last ditch, even violent, showdown.

But desperation on the part of marginalized and bitter princes is not the only threat MbS faces - there is the ever-present menace of terrorism, not only from organized groups such as al-Qa'ida, which does not recognize the legitimacy of Al Saud rule over the peninsula (Muhammad bin Nayif, as Interior Minister, was himself nearly killed in an assassination attempt), but from unaffiliated extremists who may be harder for the security services to monitor (a gunman drove up to a gate of Salman's palace in Jiddah and opened fire in October 2017, killing two guards and wounding several others before being shot dead). MbS has alienated large numbers of religious conservatives, who were already angered at the gradual liberalization of society, and who now resent the imposition of Western cultural norms, seeing the frenzy for pop concerts and WWE events, and women about to drive. Though less immediate, there is also the threat of violence from political activists or foreign agents. The Al Saud feel under seige, and not for nothing has MbS surrounded himself with a private army of 5,000 mercenaries (this in addition to the Royal Guard, tasked with the protection of the royal family, and the National Guard, whose primary responsibility has been to act as a bulwark against domestic threats).

It is not hard to see why even poorly-sourced rumors of palace trouble find a ready audience. In this case, reports have suddenly begun to circulate alleging that the crown prince was injured or even killed in the April attack, which is stated to have been, in fact, a coup attempt. The only evidence to back this up is the complete absence of MbS from any official function or media appearance in the time since the night's events. Indeed, the most notable lapse has been his failure to be featured alongside the new American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his official visit. Although news reports said he had hosted a 'working dinner' with Pompeo, the only pictures shown were of of the diplomat's meetings with King Salman and Foreign Minister Adil al-Jubayr.

Related articles: A Palace Conflicted: Royal Family Or One-Man Rule?
The Crown Prince, Change And Failure: Grooming For Power?
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Past Feature Articles
A Palace Conflicted: Royal Family Or One-Man Rule?

Historically, the royal family of Saudi Arabia has struggled with the tension between the urge by successful rulers to solidify their power and the necessity of providing for the inclusion of less prominent princes in order to maintain domestic stability. At critical inflection points the family will either rally around a disruptive leader who challenges the status quo or find itself dissolving into disunity.

Royal Family Consensus: Shattering A Myth?

As Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman wraps up his U.S. visit, few would question his apparent status as de facto ruler of the Kingdom, and whatever questions remain about the upcoming succession center on the role family consensus will play. In fact, the more recent history of the Al Saud turns out to have been an anomaly, and the rapid elevation of the crown prince suggests that the traditional mechanisms of royal governance may have been more myth than reality.

The Crown Prince, Change And Failure: Grooming For Power?

In the midst of excited chatter over the latest news on Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, it has nearly been forgotten that King Salman is still in charge. The king, despite exaggerated reports of his declining health, continues to groom his favorite son for office, allowing him wide latitude for action while still holding back from a complete abdication.

Age of Disruption: The Fourth Saudi State?

Now that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is firmly in control, is it premature to ask whether his footing is so secure, and his power base so distinct from that of his predecessors, that one may begin to distinguish the outlines of a fundamentally new political state?

The Strange Case Of The 'Salvatore Mundi' - Hiding In Plain Sight?

At the same time as the identity of the mysterious buyer of an expensive and controversial work of auctioned art is revealed to be Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the fate of dozens of royals detained for alleged corruption remains uncertain. Does the news of his purchase make a mockery of his economic austerity program, or is Muhammad sending a subtle message to his opponents?

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