Pro­pa­ganda falsely re­ports death of Saudi crown prince

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY DAN BOYLAN

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 last week 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.

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 of­fi­cial 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.

Tthe 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.”

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