As the war in Ukraine continues, Saudi Arabia’s influence grows – Times of India


RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s unexpected role in brokering the release of foreign fighters detained in Ukraine was just the latest example of how the kingdom is trying to bolster its international reputation, diplomats and analysts say.
It also allows Riyadh to argue that maintaining ties with Moscow – a source of tension with Washington, especially since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – can be a positive factor, while diverting attention from human rights issues that have consistently negative headlines. to generate.
The release of the 10 foreign fighters, including two from the United States and five from Britain, came along with a wider prisoner of war exchange brokered by Turkey, with 215 Ukrainians walking free while Russia received 55 prisoners.
A former Ukrainian lawmaker and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin were among the freed.
The foreigners, who landed in Riyadh on a chartered plane last Wednesday, were also from Morocco, Sweden and Croatia.
Expressions of gratitude for Saudi Arabia immediately poured in from Washington, London and beyond, with officials highlighting Crown’s personal commitment Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“It’s definitely a first,” Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the government, said of the deal.
“In this case, it was an opportunity to leverage Saudi Arabia’s ties with Russia for a good cause,” he said, adding that similar arrangements could be possible in the future.
Before war broke out in Ukraine seven months ago, Saudi Arabia — and Prince Mohammed in particular — was still struggling to break through diplomatic isolation following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
Last year, US President Joe Biden released an intelligence report saying that Prince Mohammed had approved the operation against Khashoggi, a claim Saudi authorities deny.
But the spike in energy prices caused by the Russian invasion prompted some Western leaders to travel to Saudi Arabia to call for increased oil production, most notably then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Biden himself, who took a previous vow. to the Saudi leadership a “pariah”.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz became the last major leader to visit the kingdom this weekend.
Saudi Arabia has largely resisted calls to pump more oil, in coordination with the OPEC+ cartel it co-leads with Russia.
At the same time, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil has benefited financially from the war. Oil giant Saudi Aramco announced record profits and the economy of the kingdom is expected to grow by 7.6 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Moves such as facilitating a prisoner exchange allow Prince Mohammed to “prove to the West that he is a trustworthy person in international affairs” — despite or even because of his close ties to Putin, a Riyadh-based Arab diplomat said.
“His intervention in this way is also making headlines obscuring stories like harsh court rulings” against government critics, the diplomat said, citing the cases of two women who received decades in prison, apparently for their social media posts.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told the BBC over the weekend that the Saudi mediation was for purely “humanitarian reasons” and that it was “very cynical” to think the kingdom was out to boost its reputation. to polish.
Several of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors have traditionally embraced a mediatory role in pursuing diplomatic influence within and beyond the region.
Oman has used ties with Iran to negotiate the exchange of prisoners, including for detained Americans, and Qatar has done the same with groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda-affiliated militants in Syria.
“Turkey has also increasingly taken on such a role in recent years, especially 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 receive praise and attention for signing the grain deal with Russia and Ukraine, and may be trying to replicate that success.”
In addition to the war in Ukraine, Riyadh has long been active closer to home, including in Lebanon and Yemen, where it leads a military coalition against Iran-backed Huthi rebels.
All the while, though, the kingdom is making it clear that its soft-power ambitions extend further than ever — even to space, where, according to a program revealed last week, it plans to send astronauts next year, including a woman. .
It was another sign of an increasingly emboldened and ambitious Prince Mohammed.
The war in Ukraine, the Riyadh-based diplomat said, “has given him new confidence in himself”.

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