After reports of rare bursts of heavy gunfire around the sprawling royal palace complex on Saturday evening, the government explained that security forces shot down a remote-controlled recreational drone flying in the capital's Khuzama neighborhood near the king's palace in Riyadh. Amateur footage circulating earlier on social media showed loud gunfire that lasted for at least 30 seconds, leading to speculation online about a possible coup attempt in the world's top oil exporter and questions about the whereabouts of the king and crown prince.
The incident also triggered rumors of a possible terror attack or an assault by Houthi forces that infiltrated the country.
A security screening point had noticed a small, unauthorized recreational drone, leading security forces to deal with it "according to their orders and instructions," state news agency SPA has said. Saudi officials said King Salman was not at the palace when the incident took place.Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry yesterday instructed drone enthusiasts to obtain permission to fly the devices until regulations were finalized. The ministry said the measure would be temporary until the issuance of the regulation.
Security around the palaces appears to have tightened in recent months. Last October, a gunman shot dead two Saudi guards and wounded three others at the gate of the royal palace in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, according to the Interior Ministry. Royal guards killed the gunman, identified by the ministry as a 28-year-old Saudi national armed with a Kalashnikov and three grenades.
Saudi Arabia has witnessed a series of radical political changes over the past year under the king's son, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is also referred to as MBS, who has spearheaded reforms to transform the economy, open the country culturally and impose a more tolerant form of Islam in the deeply conservative kingdom.The 32-year-old leader ousted his older cousin as crown prince last summer in a palace coup and then jailed dozens of top businessmen and senior royals, including billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and National Guard head Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, in an anti-corruption sweep.
Most of the detainees have been released after reaching settlements with the government. Space for criticism has also narrowed in recent months following the arrests of prominent clerics and activists in an apparent bid to silence dissent.
Those moves have helped MBS consolidate his position in a country where power had been shared among senior princes for decades and religious figures exercised significant influence on policy. But they have also fueled speculation about a possible backlash against the crown prince, who remains popular with Saudi Arabia's burgeoning youth population.MBS returned earlier this month from a foreign tour that included the United States, where he sought investments and support to curb Iranian influence in the region.