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Ukraine prisoner swap highlights growing Russia-Saudi alliance

Saudi Arabia’s relations with Moscow have warmed significantly. But its involvement in the prisoner swap suggests that Riyadh is also leveraging this relationship to mend its own links with the US

Saudi Press Agency via Reuters
Ten prisoners of war (five British citizens, one Moroccan, one Swede, one Croat and two Americans) arrive at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh on Wednesday 21 September

A surprise prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine took place on Wednesday that saw the release of more than 200 Ukrainians and various other nationalities including British, American, Swedish and Moroccan.

The swap took place just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced that he would mobilise the army reserves, in a sign of further escalation of the ongoing war.

While speaking on the prisoner swap, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Turkey and Saudi Arabia for their efforts in mediating and negotiating the exchange between the warring parties.

Throughout the war, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have sought to avoid becoming embroiled in what they perceive to be an internal conflict between the ‘West’ and have resisted attempts from Washington to force them into an open position against Russia. 

Prior to the war, US relations with both countries had become increasingly strained, with both Ankara and Riyadh viewing Washington as antagonistic. This lead to a more cautious policy on the part of both, to ensure they do not unnecessarily alienate Moscow – which has been effective leverage to strongarm Washington when needed.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, has seen its relations warm significantly with Moscow.

The countries have been working in tandem with one another on oil price, by influencing OPEC+ where they collectively make up more than half of the organisation’s total quota.

This partnership has been integral to empowering Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman against a Biden administration that very publicly promised to isolate him.

Rising gas prices in the US, and Russia’s cooperation with Saudi in helping to maintain discipline within the ranks of a notoriously fractious OPEC+, eventually forced Biden to U-turn on his promise not to engage with the Saudi Crown Prince and embark instead on a controversial high-profile visit to Jeddah in a bid to mend relations.

There have also been growing bilateral investments. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia imported large quantities of Russian oil for domestic consumption at a time in which Moscow appeared to be scrambling for buyers following the imposition of sanctions and the announcement of plans from Europe to begin weaning its dependency on Russian energy. 

Riyadh also invested more than $500 million in Russia’s three major energy companies. This was a clear bet that Moscow will survive the consequences of Ukraine, and that it is therefore worth investing in futureproofing and increasing the alignment in the relationship by taking advantage of low stock prices to take a greater stake in Russian energy.

Yet Saudi Arabia’s role in the prisoner swap, and the extensive PR coverage of Saudi media lauding the Crown Prince’s involvement, also suggests that Riyadh is leveraging its relationship with Russia in order to mend its own relations with the US. 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman seeks to demonstrate that he can be a valuable player on the international stage and that he has the capacity and influence to be able to facilitate US interests on issues such as Ukraine. 

Although Biden’s visit to Jeddah was a PR win for the Crown Prince, the controversy over the invitation extended to him by the United Kingdom to attend the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II demonstrated that the international rehabilitation that he seeks remains elusive, and that clearer signals are needed from Washington in order to facilitate this. 

However, it is also important to highlight that Putin has a vested interest in ceding to Turkey and Saudi Arabia on issues such as this prisoner swap.

Russia has been encouraged by Washington’s inability to garner support for Ukraine beyond Europe, and will likely believe that publicly ceding to Ankara and Washington will encourage other regional actors to resist US pressure to take a firm position against Moscow. 

Sami Hamdi is managing director of global risk and intelligence company The International Interest

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