Riyadh, Saudi Arabia ●
Tue, September 27, 2022
Saudi Arabia’s unexpected role in brokering the release of foreign fighters being held in Ukraine was just the latest example of the kingdom trying to bolster its international standing, diplomats and analysts say.
It also allows Riyadh to argue that maintaining ties with Moscow — a source of tensions with Washington, particularly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — can be a positive factor while potentially diverting attention from human rights concerns that consistently generate negative headlines .
The release of the 10 foreign fighters, including two from the United States and five from Britain, came alongside a wider exchange of POWs brokered by Turkey, in which 215 Ukrainians ran free while Russia received 55 prisoners.
Among those released was a former Ukrainian lawmaker and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The foreigners who landed in Riyadh on a chartered jet last Wednesday also came from Morocco, Sweden and Croatia.
Expressions of gratitude for Saudi Arabia immediately poured in from Washington, London and beyond, with officials highlighting the personal commitment of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
“It’s definitely a first,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the government, of the deal.
“In this case, it was an opportunity to put Saudi’s relationship with Russia to good use,” he said, adding that similar deals could be possible in the future.
The rehabilitation of a prince
Before war broke out in Ukraine seven months ago, Saudi Arabia — and Prince Muhammad in particular — was still struggling to overcome the diplomatic isolation that resulted from the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
Last year, US President Joe Biden released an intelligence report that found Prince Mohammed had authorized the operation against Khashoggi, a claim Saudi authorities dispute.
But the surge in energy prices triggered by the Russian invasion prompted a number of Western leaders to travel to Saudi Arabia to appeal for oil production expansion, most notably then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Biden himself, who made an earlier vow swallowed to do so Saudi leadership a “pariah”.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz became the latest major leader to visit the kingdom this weekend.
Saudi Arabia has largely resisted calls to pump more oil and has coordinated with the OPEC+ cartel it co-runs with Russia.
At the same time, the world’s largest crude oil exporter has benefited financially from the war. Oil giant Saudi Aramco announced record profits and the kingdom’s economy is expected to grow 7.6 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Moves like arranging a prisoner swap allow Prince Muhammad “to prove to the West that he’s a reliable person on international affairs” — despite, or even because of, his close ties with Putin, a Riyadh-based Arab diplomat said.
“His intervention in this way also creates headlines covering up stories like harsh court sentences” against government critics, the diplomat said, citing the cases of two women who appeared to have been sentenced to decades in prison for their social media posts.
This was announced by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan BBC over the weekend that the Saudi mediation was for purely “humanitarian reasons” and that it was “very cynical” to think the kingdom was trying to polish its reputation.
The “new self-confidence” of MBS
Several of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors have traditionally taken on the role of mediators to gain diplomatic influence inside and outside the region.
Oman has used its relationship with Iran to negotiate prisoner exchanges, including for detained Americans, and Qatar has done the same with groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters in Syria.
“Turkey has also increasingly assumed such a role in recent years, particularly in Syria and more recently in Ukraine,” said Alex Stark, senior researcher at the New America think tank in Washington.
“Saudi Arabia has also seen Turkey gain praise and attention for brokering the grain deal with Russia and Ukraine and may seek to replicate that success.”
In addition to the war in Ukraine, Riyadh has long been active in its vicinity, including in Lebanon and Yemen, where it leads a military coalition against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
At the same time, however, the kingdom is making it clear that its soft-power ambitions stretch further than ever — even into space, where it plans to send astronauts, including a woman, next year as part of a program unveiled last week.
It was another sign of an increasingly emboldened and ambitious Prince Muhammad.
The war in Ukraine, said the Riyadh-based diplomat, “has given him renewed self-confidence.”