How Mohammed bin Salman could use the Ukraine war to make a diplomatic comeback

·4-min read
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - Pavel Golovkin
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - Pavel Golovkin

When the news of the Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap broke late on Wednesday, there was one surprising name in all the statements of gratitude from the West: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

MBS, the Kingdom's de facto ruler and a man associated with the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, appears to be using his country's role securing the release of foreign fighters captured by Russia in Ukraine to seek a diplomatic comeback.

Aiden Aslin, who was threatened with execution after he was captured while fighting in the Ukrainian army as an enlisted soldier, is one of five Britons released thanks to the deal brokered by Riyadh.

Saudi media reports suggest that the Crown Prince, the Kingdom's de facto ruler, had a personal role in overseeing the talks as he secured the release of ten prisoners of war.

Aiden Aslin arrives in Riyadh after he is freed from Russian forces following the prisoner swap deal - AFP
Aiden Aslin arrives in Riyadh after he is freed from Russian forces following the prisoner swap deal - AFP

The Crown Prince "held successful mediation sessions" which were "based on the support of Prince Mohammed and in continuation of his efforts to adopt humanitarian initiatives toward the Russian-Ukrainian crisis," Arab News reported on Thursday, citing a foreign ministry statement.

The move is likely to fuel speculation that he is seeking to relaunch himself on the world stage as a diplomat and mediator - perhaps one who will play a larger role in wide negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. He may even be seeking to eclipse Turkey as the lead mediator from a Middle Eastern country.

Middle East states are increasingly offering their services to mediate other conflicts: Qatar acted as a go-between for the US and the Taliban amid the withdrawal from Afghanistan while Israel offered to mediate Russia-Ukraine peace talks, before condemning the invasion.

Turkey, which also played a role in the Saudi-brokered prisoner swap, recently brokered a deal to allow grain exports from Russian-blocked ports in Ukraine. It also hosted an early, failed round of peace talks between Ukraine and Russia.

Saudi Arabia has remained neutral in the Ukraine war and has a cordial relationship with Russia, which one Saudi official recently said was "as warm as the weather in Riyadh."

However, in the West, the Crown Prince remains a hugely controversial figure due to Saudi Arabia's record on human rights and accusations that he personally ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post Columnist.

Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi leadership, was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. His remains have never been returned to his fiancée. The Crown Prince denies ordering the killing and has blamed it instead on rogue Saudi agents.

"It [the deal] shows that Saudi Arabia has learned from Qatari diplomacy in managing relations between the US and the Taliban," explained Neil Quilliam, an associate fellow at Chatham House's Middle East programme.

"As such, Riyadh is eager to leverage its relationship with Russia to demonstrate its value to Western partners and also justify its close ties with Moscow."

Bin Salman remains a controversial figure in the West over accusations that he personally ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi - SAUDI PRESS AGENCY
Bin Salman remains a controversial figure in the West over accusations that he personally ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi - SAUDI PRESS AGENCY

He added: "It is a first-step diplomatic win for MbS [Mohammed bin Salman], though he will hope to capitalise upon it further by supporting efforts to bring a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine war. However, brokering the prisoner swap is not about to change popular perceptions of MbS."

In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has intensified a crackdown on dissent in the Kingdom, handing down unprecedented jail sentences to those who criticise the leadership online.

This includes Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University medical student who was jailed for 34 years for criticising the Kingdom when she visited Saudi Arabia for a holiday. She was reportedly caught by a snitching app which allows Saudi citizens to report state criticism to the authorities.

The prisoner swap has not been welcomed by Saudi human rights activists, who have accused the Crown Prince of hypocrisy. "Release the ones you imprisoned! Nobody will be fooled by this," tweeted Lina al-Hathloul, an activist and the sister of jailed Saudi feminist Loujain.

However, it has been warmly received by Western politicians. Liz Truss tweeted, in response to the deal:

Some of those who namechecked the crown prince, known colloquially as MBS, for all his "efforts" and "work" included James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, Jake Sullivan, the White House National Security Advisor, and Robert Jenrick, Aiden Aslin's MP.

The foreign minister of Sweden and the prime minister of Croatia have also thanked Saudi Arabia, as well as Ukraine, for their efforts.

It comes after President Joe Biden held a controversial meeting with the Crown Prince over the summer in Riyadh, where they exchanged a "fist-bump."

The meeting was widely perceived as an attempt to give the Saudi ruler legitimacy and draw a line under the Khashoggi murder, as the United States sought Saudi support in tackling the energy crisis triggered by Russia.