The landmark prison swap that freed WNBA star Brittney Griner from the Russian gulag on Thursday was brokered by none other than Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it was revealed.
A joint statement issued by the foreign ministries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates outlined the role of the crown prince, known as MBS, in the sensitive negotiations.
“The success of the mediation efforts was a reflection of the mutual and strong friendship between their countries and the United States of America and the Russian Federation,” the two countries wrote.
Also, the exchange “highlighted the important role of the leadership of the two brotherly countries in the development of dialogue between all parties,” the statement said.
A White House official declined to elaborate on MBS’s role in Griner’s release, saying: “There are a number of governments and countries that, throughout the terrible ordeal that Brittany has been through … we’ve asked to let them know how serious we are about dealing with them. once and for all, I’ll leave out the details of this, but I will say that we are in contact with many countries, so that the Russians will hear from a wide range of sources about our commitment to solving what is another priority.
President Biden did not address Saudi Arabia’s role in a speech at the White House on Thursday morning, but thanked the UAE for “helping facilitate Britney’s return because that’s where she landed.”
Griner, 32, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on February 17 after Russian authorities found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in his suitcase. He pleaded guilty to drug charges and was later sentenced to nine years of hard labor in a Russian prison camp.
In 2011, he was released in exchange for Victor Booth, known as the “Merchant of Death”, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his involvement in the sale of ten million dollars worth of weapons intended to be used against the United States.
After Griner and Booth’s release, the two flew to Abu Dhabi, where they were released to their home country’s prison.
The Middle East leaders’ mediation comes as Biden has come under fire for his close relationship with the Saudi crown prince, who ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
During his 2019 campaign trial, Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah like them.” But when the president met with MBS this summer, he took the first swipe at the crown prince — a move strongly condemned by Khashoggi’s daughter-in-law.
Griner’s release comes days after a federal judge dismissed a civil lawsuit against MBS over Khashoggi’s murder, saying the Biden administration should grant him executive immunity.
“He is going home after months of wrongful detention in Russia, held in unbearable conditions,” Biden said of the Phoenix Mercury Center.
“Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and she should have been there all along,” the president said. “This is the day we’ve been working towards for a long time. We have not stopped striving to free him.”
Additional reporting by Caitlin Doornbos