Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, much attention has been paid to how the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states have responded to the conflict. Russia has imposed widely-criticized “referendums” annexing Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson, threatening the use of nuclear weapons to defend its new territory. Meanwhile, demoralizing violence and human suffering continues unabated. Amid these rising global tensions, Saudi Arabia has emerged as a surprising mediator between the warring parties. In September, Riyadh reportedly mediated a prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia that saw 10 prisoners released, including five British citizens, one Swede, one Moroccan, one Croatian, and two Americans. It is said that the initiative for the negotiations came directly from Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the Saudi crown prince and newly appointed prime minister. Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, commented, “[Saudi Arabia] learned about the issue of these foreign detainees, and [MbS] engaged with the UK and others and of course, with Russia and Ukraine, to work towards the end of getting them out.” What can observers glean from these mediation efforts, and how do they fit into the larger context of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy goals?
Despite the success of the Saudi-brokered prisoner swap, critics have questioned whether Riyadh’s new emphasis on conciliation is simply an attempt to improve the country’s international image after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud described such speculation as “cynical,” instead casting Riyadh’s decision to mediate in humanitarian terms.
Though the killing of Khashoggi should not be downplayed, mediation efforts have been an enduring central feature of the Kingdom’s foreign policy. Saudi Arabia has long managed the Middle East’s most challenging conflicts, including those in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and in Palestine between Hamas and Fatah. Similarly to its previous efforts, the talks that brought about the prisoner-swap were also discreet. In an interview regarding the Kingdom’s stance on the conflict on Arab News’s Frankly Speaking program in May, Prince Turki Al Faisal, the former chief of the General Intelligence Directorate and former ambassador to the US and UK, acknowledged that Saudi Arabia “has publicly declared and voted in the UN General Assembly to condemn the aggression against Ukraine that was passed by the UN General Assembly. But also […] that the Kingdom offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine as a mediator.” The prince emphasized that the Kingdom “has contributed to the fund that was established by the UN to provide support for the Ukrainian refugees in Europe” and “had good relations with both countries” and could still play a positive role as a mediator between the two sides.
The role of MbS as the figurehead for the new mediation campaign is a fact that should not be overlooked. While previous meditation attempts by Saudi Arabia were less personal in nature, more institutionally grounded, and discreet, it seems that the Kingdom’s recent efforts are personally linked to the country’s de facto ruler, giving them greater credibility in Saudi Arabia’s personalistic politics. Even in the Saudi diplomatic tradition, the most recent episode is a break with the past, allowing MbS to present his country and himself as peacemakers.
Other GCC States Remain on the Sidelines
It is perhaps surprising that Saudi Arabia—and not other GCC member-states—has offered its offices for negotiations between the two belligerents. Nearly two decades ago Qatar has centered mediation as a key lever of its international power. However, Doha has so far remained on the sidelines of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, despite the success of several conflict resolution initiatives in the past. Qatar mediated between the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government in 2008, 2010, and 2011, in the political conflict in Lebanon between Hezbollah and other Lebanese political factions in 2008, and between Hezbollah and the al-Nusra Front in 2014. It also mediated between Islamists and the Sudanese government in Darfur, between Hamas and Fatah, and between Eritrea and Djibouti in 2010. Qatar was also deeply involved in the Afghan Peace Process, and the agreement that secured U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was negotiated in Doha in February 2020. Despite Qatar’s stated neutrality on the Ukraine war, Doha likely has its sights set on closer ties with the West. Indeed, the potential windfall of emerging as the key alternative energy supplier to Europe has put the monarchy in a somewhat biased position, not to mention Qatar’s acceptance as a Major Non-NATO Ally by Washington in February 2022.
Meanwhile, the UAE seems to have found its niche at the UN Security Council. In March, the UAE abstained on a vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Later, 10 of the 15 Council members, including the UAE, voted in favor of the text of a U.S.-backed UN Security Council resolution “deploring” Russia for its “illegal” referendums in eastern and southern Ukraine, although Russia vetoed the measure. While the UAE seeks to walk a fine line between the West and Russia, it has chosen the UN Security Council as its preferred vehicle for making its voice heard, allowing it to fly under the radar and avoid Western criticism or international isolation. The recent visit of Mohamed Bin Zayed to Russia explained as an effort to mediate, if so, results might be seen in the future, while Saudi efforts culminated already into the outcome.
Warrior Prince or Peacemaker?
In July, Eleonora Ardemagni of ISPI called MbS as a “warrior prince” who has rebranded his leadership style as a regional “alliance-maker.” The very cautious yet independent stance of Saudi Arabia allows it to further develop this policy at the international level by conducting mediation efforts in the war in Europe. In 2021, Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen argued that MbS’ 2021 visit to the five smaller Gulf states aimed to reassert his legitimacy in the region and tackle the ongoing challenges he faces in rebuilding his global position.
Within Saudi Arabia, MbS has reaped the fruits of his labor. He has secured a new post as the country’s prime minister, replacing his father as the formal head of government, and has remained immune with respect to the Khashoggi case. However, publicly rebranding his and his country’s image has been one his key aims, and mediation efforts like those undertaken in Ukraine advance this goal. Moreover, adopting a proactive stance toward this devastating and grinding war may prove another way to achieve MbS’ personal and national objectives.
Given the influence of personal and national legitimacy on Saudi foreign policy, the Kingdom can be expected to organize additional prisoner swaps and negotiate the resolution of other vital issues, including avoiding nuclear conflict and ensuring humanitarian access to affected areas. At this point, it does not seem possible to bring the belligerent parties to the negotiating table to terminate hostilities, but the situation calls for repeated efforts to de-escalate conflict on humanitarian grounds. Though these initiatives should be goals in themselves, their potential to revitalize MbS’ international image serve as an additional incentive to action.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.