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Will the real Mohammed bin Salman please stand up?

For someone supposedly and hopefully alive and well, it is proving remarkably hard to find footage of him that can be dated.

What is going on in Saudi Arabia?

Since the Spectator reported on May 22 that de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have vanished, the kingdom’s government has released two sets of images and some video footage of the great man – but, strangely, all of it is impossible to date.

If the 32-year-old is alive and well – as anyone who hopes to see Saudi Arabia modernised must surely wish he is – then why not release footage that is unequivocal in terms of time and place?

To recap: on April 21 footage of what sounded like an enormous gun battle taking place in the middle of the night outside the royal palace in Riyadh was shared widely on social media.   

The following day the palace dismissed the incident, saying the heavy semi-automatic gunfire, which was reported to have lasted for two hours, was merely guards trying to shoot down a toy drone that had flown too close to the palace walls.

On April 28 – more than a month ago – photographs of the Crown Prince attending the grand opening of the Al Qiddiya leisure complex, an hour outside of Riyadh, were released to the press by the palace.

If the photos were indeed taken on the 28th, then that would seem to be the only time the crown prince has been seen in public since the gunfire.

However, no photos of MBS (not usually publicity shy) meeting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – who was in Riyadh on the same day as the Qiddiya complex was reported to have been opened – were released to the media.

It would surely be odd in the extreme for a Saudi leader to blank a sitting US Secretary of State, especially when both were in the same city at the same time.

On May 17, the crown prince’s chief courtier posted a photo on Instagram showing MBS standing in front of a swimming pool in the company of King Hamad of Bahrain, President Sisi of Egypt and Abu Dhabi ruler Mohammed bin Zayed.

There was no way, however, to verify where or when the photo was taken.

On May 18, Iranian media – always keen to cause mischief where mortal enemy Saudi Arabia is concerned – began reporting the gunfire outside the palace was in fact the sound a coup taking place, adding MBS had been shot twice and might be dead.

On May 22, the day after the Spectator reported the crown prince’s disappearance, the government-owned Saudi Press Agency released photos that purported to show MBS at a cabinet meeting in Jeddah.

Again, there was no way to verify when the photos were taken.

On May 23, the same government-owned press agency released photos that seemed to show MBS chairing a meeting of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs.

Again, there was no way to verify when the photos were taken.

And a week later, CNN was given video footage by the palace of the crown prince chairing a meeting of the same council.

But, yet again, there was no way to verify the date upon which the video was filmed.

Speculation about the Crown Prince’s sudden disappearance from the spotlight seems to coincide exactly with a marked change in government policy at home, certainly towards women.

For example, at least 11 women’s rights campaigners have been arrested in recent weeks, a crackdown that seems at odds, to put it mildly, with much touted MBS-led reforms to allow women to drive and to own their own businesses.

Naturally, people have started to wonder if it could be the crown prince is no longer pulling the strings?

There is certainly no shortage of people who would like to see him removed from power, from the 380 richest men in the kingdom who were made to sign over to the state large portions of their wealth during an anti corruption purge last year, to austere anti-reform Wahhabi clerics, to powerful Shia forces throughout the region.

Since he came to power last June, MBS has set out to do the seemingly impossible: to modernise Saudi Arabia and to reform practices that seem almost prehistoric to the outside world, practices that are preventing much needed overseas investment into the kingdom from being made.

For everyone who wishes him to succeed, and there are many, it will be a great relief if and when this strange disappearance from the public eye finally ends.

Surely it must soon.

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