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A Russian Navy vessel made history in recent days, docking at a Saudi Arabian port for the first time ever, according to Arab News. The Admiral Gorshkov frigate arrived at the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah for two days of “crew rest and refueling,” a Russian official told the Saudi news outlet.

Update: The AFP, however, quoting an unnamed Russian embassy official in Riyadh, reports that the move is rare, though not unprecedented. According to a Russian defense ministry statement cited by the AFP, this is the first time in roughly a decade that a Russian warship has made a port call in Saudi Arabia.

A Russian power show in the Indian Ocean region: Before arriving in Jeddah, the Admiral Gorshkov vessel took part in two key joint exercises: one with China and South Africa in the western Indian Ocean in February and another trilateral with China and Iran in the Gulf of Oman near the Chabahar port. Russia is trying to signal it’s a global power and won’t be boxed in even as it faces a brutal stalemate in Ukraine.

The big picture: The rare or unprecedented welcoming of a Russian naval ship comes as Saudi Arabia adopts a more independent foreign policy that at times clashes head-on with the Biden administration’s domestic and foreign policy aims.

  • On Sunday, Saudi Arabia and other members of the OPEC+ cartel announced an unexpected cut in oil production that sent Brent oil prices back above $80 per barrel — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s target price. Higher global oil prices will not only help fund MBS’s domestic projects, but they’ll also weaken the Biden administration’s hand in combating inflation and shrinking Russia’s war chest.
  • Saudi Arabia is also growing closer to China. It warmly welcomed President Xi Jinping in December after coldly treating the visiting President Joe Biden just months earlier. And last month, China brokered a landmark normalization agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, marking its arrival as a Middle East power.

What the experts are saying: Ali Bakeer, a regional expert at the Atlantic Council, argued that while the move may frustrate Washington, it is at fault for the growing alignment between Moscow and Riyadh.

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Key data:

  • Russia and Saudi Arabia are the world’s largest exporters of crude oil. Along with the U.S., they are the world’s top oil producers.
  • In 2022, Saudi Arabia was the second-largest recipient of military hardware from the U.S., with $13 billion in arms transfers, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
  • The total stock of Saudi foreign direct investment in the United States in 2021 stood at $6.1 billion, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has stakes in U.S. companies such as Blackstone, Lucid, and Uber.

The bottom line: Under the de-facto rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is now putting its national interests first in an unprecedented way. The Saudis will remain top buyers of U.S. weapons and big investors in American companies in tech and other industries. But they aren’t shying away from partnering with America’s geopolitical adversaries. This isn’t mere posturing. It’s the new normal.

This article has been updated citing additional reporting from the AFP on the historical precedent of this event.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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