- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s dynamic 32-year-old reformer and considered by some security experts to be the world’s most heavily guarded man, according to recent reports, is dead.

The only problem is the reports all stem from dubious sources linked to Iran, the Saudi Kingdom’s bitter rival.

U.S. officials and private analysts cautioned Tuesday against reading too deeply into claims about the crown prince swirling through the Arab media, on grounds the content is likely part of an Iranian propaganda campaign designed to portray Riyadh as unstable.

Over the past week, several Arabic news outlets have breathlessly speculated on Prince Mohammed’s whereabouts since heavy gunfire was heard early last month nearby the Royal Palace in the Saudi capital.

Some of the theories suggest the April 12 gunfire incident, which official Saudi news outlets attributed to a security force downing a drone over royal property, was actually a coup led by other Saudi royals trying to topple King Salman, the crown prince’s father.

The State Department has dismissed the claims as fiction. One U.S. official told The Washington Times on Tuesday that the several Arab outlets were running with reports based on “rumor, gossip and innuendo” being promoted by “possibly Iranian sources.”

They officially added that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo himself had “recently interacted” with Crown Prince Mohammed.

Former leading U.S. diplomats, meanwhile, said the crown prince simply may have gone underground by his own choosing — adding an interesting wrinkle to the reports in a region prone to embracing fantastic conspiracy theories.

Ahmad Majidyar, who heads the Washington-based Middle East Institute’s “IranObserved” project, said news organizations that started the dead Crown Prince Mohammed narrative are all connected to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and are using unnamed sources or quoting unverified reports.

The Iranian newspaper Kayhan, for instance, claimed the crown prince had been hit by two bullets and cited “a secret service report sent to the senior officials of an unnamed Arab state.”

Such reports have subsequently been picked up and cited by Arab media outlets.

Mr. Majidyar, who has lectured on Iranian issues to U.S. Naval postgraduates, said the IRGC, which operates parallel to Iran’s regular armed forces and has massive influence, maintains a dedicated propaganda unit focused on Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.

IRGC operatives, he said, are closely monitoring what has in recent years emerged as the crown prince’s aggressive, rapid, and bare-knuckle effort to overhaul the Kingdom’s social, religious and economic profile — a push that has rankled many in deeply conservative Saudi Arabia.

The operatives are also seen to keenly interested in — as well as eager to exploit for propaganda purposes — the crown prince’s notoriously outspoken animosity toward Tehran.

Iran seeks to highlight any divisions it sees within the Saudi royal family,” said Mr. Majidyar. “Mohammed bin Salman is their enemy and is not following the cautious policies of his followers. They are trying to depict him as fragile and portray his policies as backfiring.”

But where exactly has the Crown Prince Mohammed been for the past month?

While public sightings in the past month have been rare, Mr. Majidyar noted that a photo of the crown prince was recently released by the royal family’s private office.

The picture, retweeted on May 18 across Arabic media outlets including the Saudi-owned pan-Arab TV channel Al Arabiya, captured an informal meeting of the crown prince with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

All four men are shown relaxing and laughing, with the crown prince wearing a baseball cap instead of his traditional red and white headdress. But the shot had no indication of time or place.

Last Wednesday, the royal family again seemed to address the crown prince’s month-long disappearance from the limelight by releasing a photo of him at a cabinet meeting in Jeddah.

His apparent retreat into the shadows contrasts with the crown prince’s otherwise his high-profile presence on the world stage — including a trip he made earlier this year to the U.S. with stops in Washington, New York, Silicon Valley and Houston.

Considered a cross-country charm offensive, the trip saw the crown prince visit with President Trump at the White House and discuss boosting U.S.-Saudi economic and military ties. Trump administration officials say the two also talked about the crown prince’s push for social reforms in Saudi Arabia and his opposition to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.

During the trip, CBS “60 Minutes” aired an exclusive interview featuring a bold and frank crown prince addressing U.S. perceptions of Saudi Arabia and an inspired discussion about his love for America and American culture.

His sudden absence from the spotlight has generated fodder for whispering across the conservative Middle East, says former State Department spokesman and retired Air Force officer P.J. Crowley.

“Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are running so high,” Mr. Crowley told The Times. “It’s not surprising that there’s a lot of rumor mongering going on.”

Mr. Crowley, who gained significant regional experience serving multiple White Houses, suggested the crown prince has been through so much lately, he may just be trying to lower his profile.

“If he was overexposed, pulling back a little would make real sense,” Mr. Crowley said. “His staying out of the spotlight is more likely a conscious choice rather than some sort of mysterious development.”

Guy Taylor contributed to this report.


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