Writing about a rumour is a difficult journalistic proposition. The very act inadvertently propagates the rumour while a slip here and another there will make it look like an endorsement of the rumour. The rumours about the whereabouts of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman are a case in point. The wild and hitherto unsubstantiated talk about his death or serious injury could have been rubbished easily had Saudi Arabia taken the viral story head on. But it hasn't, and therein lies the problem.
The more Riyadh brushes aside the raging rumour as inconsequential the bolder the rumour mongers become. The latest example is an apparently photoshopped funeral photo pertaining to MBS. The game has gone that far!
Anyway, before we delve into the vexing death rumour, here are some updates:
* Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the all-powerful crown prince of Saudi Arabia, hasn't appeared in public after April 21.
* MBS, as he is popularly known, was rumoured to have been killed in a palace attack on April 21
* The Iranian media, led by Kayhan newspaper, triggered the MBS assassination rumour, stating that he was fatally shot during a 'coup attempt' on April 21.
* MBS, who won many enemies within the royal family over his reform and anti-corruption drive, did not attend high-profile diplomatic events after the April 21 'attack'
Even as the death rumours swirled around, originating in Iran and then spreading to the rest of the middle East and the larger world, Prince Mohammad bin Salman chose not to make a public appearance. The Saudi government also did not show the intent to kill the wanton rumours with one piece of overarching evidence.
Instead, the royal court released a few footages and photos that unfortunately did not have a time stamp. This was seen vastly inadequate in dousing the raging rumour. The latest was a video Riyadh released, which could be construed as an effort to quell the death rumour. In the video, aired by Al Arabiya TV, the Crown Prince was seen meeting Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi in Jeddah.
Separately, CNN reported that Riyadh officials released video of MBS taking part in a meeting of the Council of Economic Affairs and Development in Jeddah on Tuesday. However, the report added that the video could not be independently verified and that it's not certain when the video was shot.
"Since the April 21 incident, the kingdom has released various stills showing the crown prince carrying out official duties. The images contain no timestamp or marker to indicate when they were taken," the CNN report added.
Photoshopped funeral photo
Meanwhile, Pakistani news portal Daily Pakistan published a story asking if Mohammad bin Salman had been assassinated. The news story carried a funeral photo, in which Saudi King Salman, MBS' father, was seen as one of the pall bearers. This photo appears to be a photoshopped image of some regular Islamic funeral into which King Salman's glum-faced image was superimposed. The news website said the photo was doing the rounds on social media. It also published another photo that zooms in on the face of a man lying in a coffin, saying it was widely in circulation on social platforms as well.
Perhaps Saudi Arabia, and MBS, thinks that the death rumours are too trivial to respond to. Perhaps they are worried that a proper response would give away their own vulnerability. Pressed hard, Saudi Arabian authorities had released a couple of pictures of the Prince two weeks ago. One photo showed the prince attending a cabinet meeting in Jeddah while in another he was seen chairing a meeting of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs. However, this move gave rise to probing questions. Why wasn't a video released? The video finally came last Wednesday, but questions have remained. Why didn't the prince attend any public events in the last month?
Only the appearance of MBS in public can finally deal the killer blow to the swirling rumours. Maybe that opportunity will present itself in the form of a high profile visit. Saudi Arabia better make sure Prince Salman is present at such a meeting. Remember, one thing that added fuel to the death rumour was his absence during the visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the end of April.
Great power begets great enemies. MBS may well ride roughshod over the enemies within. However, great power also mandates great visibility. When that's missing rumours invariably spread.