© Reuters FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attend the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
By Aziz El Yacobi
RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia scored a diplomatic victory by securing the release of foreign fighters held in Ukraine, underscoring the importance of the crown prince’s ties to Russia to Western allies seeking to isolate Moscow over that war, analysts said.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the initiative — intentional or otherwise — would help the movement take a step toward global reform after the 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi tarnished his reputation.
Through the mediation of Prince Mohammed, Russia released 10 foreigners, including five Britons and two Americans, who were detained in Ukraine on Wednesday.
The move, which comes as part of Prince Mohammed’s cautious relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, coincides with a prisoner exchange for 215 Ukrainians and 55 Russians and pro-Moscow Ukrainians that Turkey helped broker.
Christian Ulrichsen, a political scientist at Rice University’s Baker Institute in the United States, said the working relationship between Saudi Arabia and Russia appears to be a crucial factor in the selection of a mediator.
“By endorsing this mediation and bringing it to fruition, Mohammed bin Salman can play the role of regional head of state, countering the narrative of the prince as a supporter and disruptive actor,” Ulrichsen said.
The first image of Prince Mohammed as a bold reformer was struck by the 2018 assassination of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, at the hands of Saudi agents who appeared to be close to MBS.
He denies having ordered the assassination of Khashoggi and ultimately claimed responsibility as it was carried out under his watch.
Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, told the BBC that the reason for Saudi Arabia’s release of prisoners was humanitarian. The Crown Prince said they had no involvement in renaming it.
“That’s not focusing on the issue. I think that’s a very misguided attitude,” he said. On the conflict itself, he stated that the government wants to find a negotiated solution and that Riyadh is committed to helping to achieve that result.
Prince Faisal said the crown prince had met with Putin in April to negotiate a prisoner deal after current British Prime Minister Boris Johnson “understood” the case of the five British nationals after a visit to the kingdom.
“He was able to convince His Highness President Putin that this was an important humanitarian gesture, and that’s how we got this result,” Prince Faisal told Fox News.
The freed prisoners, who are of Croatian, Moroccan and Swedish nationality, were flown to Riyadh on a Saudi plane, where officials lined up to greet them.
Alexander Drucke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, of Alabama, are expected to leave Saudi Arabia within days, officials said.
The world’s largest oil exporter has grown in importance to Washington and Moscow as Russia’s war in Ukraine roils global energy markets.
World leaders have won the road to Riyadh to demand more oil production. But Saudi Arabia has shown it is ready to join the effort to isolate Russia. He strengthened cooperation with Putin, including in the OPEC + group of oil producers.
A ‘useful’ connection with Russia
A visit by U.S. President Joe Biden in July failed to secure commitments from the Saudis to rapidly increase oil production or take a tougher stance against Putin, underscoring the strain on relations between Washington and Riyadh.
Ali Shihabi, a pro-government official, said Saudi Arabia’s mediation to free the prisoners was “the first”.
“I think the regime was sending a message to the West that its relationship with Russia would serve an important purpose for them,” Shihabi said.
“You need some countries to maintain relations with both sides.”
A Western diplomat says the prisoner deal has been in the works for months, but most of the Gulf diplomatic community has only heard about it in its final stages.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Foreign Secretary Anthony Blinken and British Prime Minister Liz Truss praised the Saudi prince for his role.
Christine Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said Saudi Arabia’s deployment of a diplomatic brokering strategy is unusual — but good for smaller Gulf states like Qatar to leverage their ties.
“It’s like alchemy – he (Prince Mohammed) is turning his much-criticized relationship with Russia into gold,” Diwan said.