US slaps down Saudi claim it helped secure Brittney Griner's release, undermining Riyadh's efforts to be a global power player

President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
President Joe Biden (behind) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (front) arrive for a family photo in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 16, 2022.MANDEL NGAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
  • The US pushed back after Saudi Arabia and the UAE said they helped free Brittney Griner.

  • The White House insisted that the only two parties to the prisoner swap were it and Russia.

  • Saudi Arabia has repeatedly upset the US with attempts to take a bigger, independent global role.

The White House on Thursday disputed a claim by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that they helped free Brittney Griner from Russian prison.

The public rebuke was particularly notable given the rocky US relationship with Saudi Arabia, notionally a US ally, which has irked the White House with attempts to take a larger, more independent foreign policy role.

On Thursday Viktor Bout, a Russian serving a 25 year prison sentence in the US for arms dealing, was released by the  in exchange for Brittney Griner, a basketball player imprisoned in a Russia penal colony on accusations of drug possession. 

The Saudi Arabia and the UAE in a joint statement Thursday said that UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had helped mediate the exchange.

When asked about it at a White House press briefing, press secretary Karine Jean Pierre pushed back.

Jean-Pierre insisted that "the only countries that negotiated this deal where the United States and Russia, and there was no mediation involved."

She credited the countries only for narrow points: the UAE for hosting the exchange on its territory, and the Saudis for raising Griner's imprisonment with Russia.

"But when it comes to her release, it was between the US government and Russia," she concluded.

Crown Prince Mohammed has enhanced his ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent years, and helped broker a prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia in September in which UK and US citizens who had been fighting for Ukraine were among those freed.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have not joined US-led attempts to isolate Russia economically over the war, but have instead positioned themselves as mediators in the conflict.

Analysts believe that Riyadh is using the war to signal that it is steering a new, independent foreign policy from the US, the country which for decades has guaranteed its security and been its single most significant ally.

Its pursuit of new status as an international power player has irked the Biden administration — particularly when Saudi Arabia, Russia, and other oil-producers agreed to a huge production cut earlier this year when US officials were pushing hard for the opposite.

In recent days, Crown Prince Mohammed made a show of hosting China's Xi Jinping in Riyadh, publically strengthening ties with the US's main global rival.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was arrested in February in a Moscow airport when a cartridge containing cannabis oil was found in her possession. She was sentenced in August to 9 years in a Russian penal colony on drugs possession and smuggling charges.

In 2011, Bout was convicted of arms dealing to rogue governments, criminal and terror organisations globally, with his case inspiring the 2005 Nicholas Cage movie "Lord of War."

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