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Saudi FM in Russia after Ukraine visit, talks mediation and energy ties

The Saudi Foreign Minister and his Russian counterpart discussed a range of topics including the Russia-Ukraine war, bilateral trade, oil market stability and the role of Syria during the Moscow meeting of senior officials on Thursday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) meets with Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud in Moscow on March 9, 2023. (Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud traveled to Moscow on Thursday, where he met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. The visit comes less than two weeks after his visit to Ukraine, and as Riyadh makes a bid to mediate the ongoing war between Moscow and Kyiv. 

Prince Faisal and Lavrov also discussed bilateral trade, oil market stability and a possible return of Syria's Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League. 

The Saudi foreign minister reiterated his country’s hope for a political solution to the war. “The kingdom is ready to mediate to resolve the crisis in Ukraine,” he said at a press briefing after the meeting. 

The Saudi chief diplomat said the meeting addressed “the importance of deep coordination between the kingdom and Russia in the energy markets” and his country's "unflinching commitment" to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies (OPEC+) agreement, according to Bloomberg.

Lavrov stated that energy cooperation between the two countries was not affected by the war, despite the West’s attempt to sanction Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Western sanctions hindered Russian exports in 2022, yet Russia has continued to sell oil to China, the world’s largest importer, in continuation of the no-limit partnership established between them before the Ukraine war, according to Reuters. 

Gulf Arab states have resisted US pressure to isolate Russia, and tanker tracking data indicates the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is importing increased volumes of Russian crude, Reuters said. It is not clear, however, when the UAE, one of the world's largest oil producers, began importing from Russia. 

Ship tracking data shows about 1.5 million barrels of Russian crude have gone to the UAE since November 2022, with volumes either beginning or moving higher since earlier the same year. 

The United States had accused Saudi Arabia of siding with Russia when OPEC+ decided to cut oil production in October over Washington's objection. The US-Saudi relationship notably soured afterward. 

The next OPEC+ ministerial meeting is set for early June this year. 

Lavrov, whose country backs Assad, said Syria should be allowed back into the Arab League, which it was kicked out of in March of 2011. Arab and UN delegations have flocked to Damascus following the earthquake, but Saudi Arabia has not taken such step yet. Prince Faisal said on Tuesday that normalization with Assad is premature. 

"An engagement in order to address these concerns is necessary. And that may well lead eventually to Syria returning to the Arab League, etc. But for now, I think it's too early to discuss," he told reporters in London, where he met with British Minister of Foreign Affairs James Cleverly on Monday. 

On Feb. 26, the foreign minister made a landmark visit to Kyiv where he met Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and signed $400 million of humanitarian aid to the country.

The trip was the first official visit for any Saudi foreign minister to Kyiv in more than 30 years, and since Ukraine’s independence in 1991. It is also the most senior for any Arab delegation since Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year. The agreement included $100 million in humanitarian aid and $300 million in oil derivatives as a grant from the kingdom.

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries took a neutral stance amid Western sanctions placed on Russia for its war on Ukraine.

This allowed Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, to mediate between the United States and Russia in December. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh facilitated the prisoner exchange between them that led to the release of US basketball star Brittney Griner after nearly nine months in detention. In return, the United States released Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. 

Two months prior, Saudi Arabia and Turkey mediated a large-scale prisoner swap, where almost 300 people, including 10 foreigners, were released. Two Americans, a Swede, a Croatian, five Britons and a Moroccan were among those released. In return, 55 Russians and pro-Moscow Ukrainians were sent back to Moscow.

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