It all started with a successful mediating role back in December 2022. On one side was Viktor Anatolyevich Bout, generally known as Viktor Bout, the renowned Russian arms dealer who was arrested in 2008 in Thailand and extradited to the United Stated two years later on allegations ranging from conspiracy to kill US nationals, officers or employees to providing material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization. On the other side was Brittney Griner, American professional basketball player, who was sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia after facing drug smuggling charges. Brittney Griner held vaporizer cartridges containing less than a gram of hash oil with her during a trip in February, 2022. Both sides accused the other of involving in politically motivated initiatives.
Saudi Arabia, along with United Arab Emirates, mediated the talks that led to the prisoner swap 10 months after the American sportswoman was jailed in Russia. The achievement marked a turning point in Saudi Arabia’s efforts in introducing itself as a regional and international mediator and guardian of peace. Riyadh’s mission started years earlier on other global disputes like Lebanese political impasse, Palestinian political crisis between Hamas and Fatah, and mediating peace between hostile Sudanese parties.
Motivated by its grand strategy of upholding peace across the Middle East and elsewhere to proceed with the nation’s economic mega-projects, Riyadh has attempted to carve its name in deeper international disputes and conflicts. While staying committed to the policy of ‘neutrality’ in global conflicts, the kingdom has attached a ‘proactive’ essence to the strategy in an effort to stay on the safe corner. Saudi leaders invited Ukrainian president to Riyadh while arranging a meeting with Russian president in Moscow. Bizarre as it may seem, Riyadh takes lunch with Zelensky, while enjoys the dinner with Vladimir Putin. On a more recent example, the Gaza conflict, the Kingdom has adopted a similar policy of shaking hands with both sides of the conflict.
Ukraine War; A Broker or a Business-maker?
At the outset of Russo-Ukrainian War in February, 2022, Saudi Arabia clarified its position as “active neutrality”. Riyadh evaded from condemning the invasion of Ukraine while complying with the UN resolution on the war. Throughout the war process, the Kingdom preserved cooperation with Ukraine while rejecting to join the western campaign against Russia. The Crown Prince’s denial of a request for boosting oil production following a Biden’s visit to Riyadh is telling about the Saudi strategy to ignore the Western allies and their expectations over Russia. The Saudi decision was characterized as an OPEC+ grand policy, actually serving the interests of Russia during a universal economic sanctions campaign against Moscow.
The Kingdom utilized the resources from King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre to endow the war-stricken Ukraine with a $400-million aid in oil derivatives and humanitarian assistance. The Saudi officials also provided assistance for the Ukrainian refugees and facilitated the process of shipment of international aids to the country. As a more supportive gesture, Mohammad Bin Salman invited the Ukrainian president to the 2023 Arab League Summit as a guest of honor.
Riyadh’s policy was to build a channel through which a negotiation between the two sides would be possible. This ‘broker’ role was first displayed when Saudi Foreign Minister traveled to both Ukraine and Russia in less than a month. Five months later, Riyadh held a summit in Jeddah hosting top-rank official from 40 countries, excluding Russia, to discuss the Ukraine war and find a solution out of it. The summit was applauded by Ukrainian president as “fruitful consultations” while dismissed by Vladimir Putin as having no “added value” ignoring the Russian interests. By and large, more than Moscow and even Kyiv, the Jeddah Summit served Riyadh in its quest for consolidating the role of an active international mediator.
Gaza, Israel, and a Convoluted Gesture
Boasting a father role in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia used to be a staunch supporter of the Palestinian people and their right to their ancestral lands. During the recent years, however, Riyadh’s attitudes have gone through a shift which is characterized by ignorance, self-interest, and finally normalization of ties with Israel. Following the path that the former US president Donald Trump established, the Kingdom was considering all the aspects of a political armistice with Israel, while fully aware of the anti-Israel sentiments among its people.
Following the start of war in Gaza after Hamas surprise attack on October 7, Saudi Arabia urged both sides to contain the violence and start a peace-making process. Riyadh referred to the two-state solution as the ultimate resolution to the decades-long conflict in Palestinian lands. It was, albeit, no surprise that the Kingdom dodged supporting Palestine and its rights, having an eye on the potential future of ties with Israel and looking for peace to proceed with ambitious economic projects. Besides, Riyadh sought the promotion of the old project in the new conflict.
The Gaza war, while bloody and destabilizing, proved a fresh opportunity for Saudi leaders to boost their international influence and improve the “mediator” role. Riyadh expanded the talks with the United States, the main Israeli supporter, and Hamas leaders through multiple channels during the recent weeks. It also criticized the blockade, insisting on the shipment of humanitarian aid to Gaza. As part of the fundraising campaign, Riyadh dispatched twelve relief planes to Egypt to be transferred to Gaza, containing 39 tons of relief aid and two ambulances, of the expected twenty.
Saudi Arabia also hosted the Emergency Arab-Islamic summit on Gaza this month aiming at finding a solution for the crisis. For a neutral-policy Saudi Arabia, the summit meant to glorify its center role in the regional and trans-regional developments. The summit ended with an uncommitted declaration, marking no change in evolution of events in Gaza.
Whether it be in Africa, Europe, or Asia, Saudi Arabian policy towards the conflicts is guided by various principles that serves its economic and security interests. Saudi policy of neutrality is accompanied with a practice of providing assistance to the affected parties of the conflict. In any case, boosting influence and consolidating the “broker” role is the utmost objective that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia means to attain through capitalizing on conflicts and wars.