This year’s BRICS summit in South Africa came amid a tumultuous, almost entropic period in global politics. Intensifying U.S.-Chinese competition and the war in Ukraine have emphasized geopolitical trendlines. Meanwhile, many newly formed “medium-powers” frustrated by U.S. global politics have found ways to raise their concerns and challenge the unipolar system by reducing their dependency on the U.S. Dollar, while increasing bilateral trade in their own currencies. For these countries, joining non-Western-led blocks such as BRICS has been the main objective.
Of course, BRICS may face particular internal challenges, while China and Russia have their own agenda against the West, and countries such as India, Brazil, and South Africa want warm relations and avoid sanctions. Meanwhile, the expansion of BRICS towards the Middle East will definitely have an impact on the shattered regional system.
The Expansion of the BRICS and the Emergence of New Challenges
Since 2022, BRICS has sought to expand its membership, as several developing and new rising powers expressed their interest in joining. During the 15th BRICS summit which took place in South Africa last August, the host President announced that six new emerging market economies (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Argentina) have been invited to join the group and full membership will take effect on January 1, 2024. According to many political analysts, the main objective behind this expansion is part of the plan to build a “multipolar” world system to increase the marginalized voices of the “Global South” in the world arena.
With BRICS now counting 40% of the world’s population and a quarter of global GDP, by adding new members to the bloc, BRICS would be a stronger and more influential group, further advancing the concept of multipolarity. Despite divisions (mainly related to the worldview and the expansion of the bloc) among BRICS members, there is an emerging consensus that the current international order is unfair and, if not replaced, at least needs to be reformed. However, each member state has its own perspective on global affairs and the future of the bloc.
Russia is keen on advancing this multipolar concept and sees BRICS’s expansion as a way to undermine the U.S. global order. After the war in Ukraine, Russia has looked to the Global South (mainly Africa and the Persian Gulf) to facilitate trade relations and bypass Western sanctions. Moreover, the presence of new members at the upcoming summit that will take place in Russia will give a positive international signal to Russia’s global standing. China also views the bloc as a tool to shape the global system and create an alternative order to the U.S.-led global order. China has been in favor of the expansion arguing that economic distress in some of the BRICS countries is weakening the bloc’s common identity, position, and enthusiasm to continue promoting the cooperation mechanism. As the era of the post-pandemic rapid economic growth in Brazil, South Africa, and Russia has passed, injecting fresh blood into the bloc would further accelerate economic activity within member states and around the globe.
Initially, Brazil and India were not in favor of expansion, fearing that this would dilute their influence and impact their non-aligned foreign policies. Brazil, isolated from Eurasian political developments, does not have enough diplomatic weight as Russia or China in shaping global or continental affairs and believes that the expansion would diminish its influence as the leader of the Global South.
Meanwhile, India, the most populated country in the world, is wary of the bloc becoming anti-Western in orientation and being used as a tool by China to increase its influence in Asia and the world. One of the founding nations of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War, India has carried this legacy even in today’s current great power competition. While it is also a member of the Chinese-Russian-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, India’s political relations with the U.S. keep expanding, while working with Japan and Australia to counter China’s expansion in the Indo-Pacific. India has its also own interest in becoming a world economic power. While China’s economic engine may be sputtering at the moment, Bloomberg Economics predicts that India is ready to “pick up the slack and could boost the BRICS’ share of global GDP to more than 40% by 2040, compared with 32% last year.”
How the Expansion will Impact the Middle East
Four of the six countries invited to join are from the Middle East, suggesting a strong inclination to include the Middle Eastern states in the bloc. Nadeem Ahmad Moonakal from the Riyadh based-Rasanah International Institute for Iranian Studies argues that an expanded BRICS could have a considerable influence within energy markets as it would now encompass major oil-exporting countries as well as India and China, the world’s two largest oil importers. This will also push the Middle Eastern members to diversify their economic outreach, enter new markets, and open new funding opportunities in the region. Moreover, if BRICS members start trading energy resources with local currencies, there will be global implications for the energy market.
Iran’s accession to the BRICS is a win for Russia, India, and even China. Moscow and Beijing have been trying to integrate Iran into their regional architectures. This was clear during Iran’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2023, whereby Moscow and Beijing aimed to bring Iran within their orbit amid possible breakthroughs of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West. For Moscow, Iran is an important partner in pushing its regional agenda in the Middle East (mainly Syria but also in Iraq and Lebanon). Hence, the recent China-brokered diplomatic rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia was a diplomatic victory for Moscow and Beijing to minimize U.S. influence in the region.
For Iran, this invitation is a new step toward strengthening its “Looking to the East” foreign policy. The Iranian leadership believes that the future international order will be centered on Eurasia and that the U.S.-led unipolar global order is in decline. Hence, by integrating into such blocs, Tehran sends a message to the West that it can confront U.S.-imposed isolation and is in no need of diplomatic engagement with the West over its nuclear program. Most importantly, Iran’s admission to BRICS, alongside its regional Arab rivals, UAE and KSA, can foster further de-escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf, Yemen, and the Levant by providing these countries an additional venue for dialogue.
Finally, Iran is the linkage of regional transit projects. The country has a geostrategic location bordering 13 countries and has strategic access to the Persian Gulf, Caspian Sea, Central Asia, and South Caucasus. In addition, it is part of China and India-backed international transit corridors. Already within this context, the General Director of the Railway Company in Iran announced on August 27 and for the first time in history, the transit of Russian cargo to Saudi Arabia through the Iranian section of the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC) INSTC.
For the Gulf states, the reasons for joining are slightly different. As China, Iran, and Russia may push for an anti-Western agenda, India, South Africa, and other future members may seek flexibility. According to Barak Seener, CEO of the geopolitical risk assessment group Strategic Intelligentia, Saudi Arabia “does not want to create an alternative to the dollar nor is attempting to undermine the post-World War II international order.” By joining the BRICS, the Arab monarchs of the Persian Gulf will “decrease their reliance on the U.S. and diversify their alliances while assuming a more important position of regional and global leadership,” but will not try to challenge the U.S. order.
For the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the logic of joining the BRICS has political and economic objectives. The eight-year conflict with Iranian-backed Houthis in neighboring Yemen was threatening oil facilities and distracting from his grand plan to turn the kingdom into an economic hub. Hence, ending this war through diplomatic means is a priority for the Kingdom. When it comes to the UAE’s interest, Nickolay Mladenov from the Washington Institute argues that by joining BRICS, the UAE will boost its geopolitical position and consolidate its relations with diverse actors such as India, China, Russia, and rising middle powers from Africa and Latin America.
The recent events – Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iranian deal and the expansion of BRICS to the Middle East – will bring China and the Middle Eastern countries closer. Some analysts argue that this is an effort by China to carve out more significant political influence in the MENA region, most notably by facilitating the Iranian-Saudi diplomatic agreement in March 2023 and the entry of several Middle Eastern members into the SCO (Iran as a full member in 2023 and the Gulf states and Egypt as dialogue members between 2022 and 2023). China’s outreach to the region fits into a broader Chinese coalition-building strategy among countries of the Global South, in part through its “Global Development and Global Security Initiatives,” through which it has articulated its vision for the future of the international order.
Of course, Middle Eastern countries have many motivations to get closer to China. In addition to its economic attractiveness, there are certain geopolitical factors that come to play as well. For Iran, under the 25-year agreement signed in 2021, Tehran is eyeing for the USD 400 billion Chinese investment to turn the country into a regional transit hub connecting the Middle East to Eurasia. UAE and KSA, both OPEC members, expect China to remain a long-term growth market for oil as they are investing billions of dollars in Chinese oil refineries. Moreover, they view China as an attractive economic partner in achieving their objectives of economic diversification. Politically, and unlike the U.S., China has enough leverage to push Iran to engage with KSA on regional matters. Within this context, Turkey would be another strategic candidate in the far future to join the bloc, thus solidifying China’s position in the region.
However, the direct political impact of BRICS expansion to the Middle East on the region is still far from a reality. Dr. Igor Matveev, Assistant Professor at MGIMO University, Valdai and Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) expert, pointed out that it is too early to predict any concrete economic impact of the recent BRICS's extension to the Middle East and the Iran-Saudi relationship in particular. Nevertheless, Dr. Matveev stated that Saudi Arabia could contribute to the BRICS-affiliated New Development Bank by financing certain projects that could benefit the INSTC or develop joint projects with Iran under the BRICS political umbrella.
In conclusion, the prospects for BRICS adapting to a new extended reality correlate with the ongoing transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world. This transition will have a direct impact on the regional system in the Middle East. The region is experiencing a transition as a result of the war in Ukraine, where traditional US allies are seeking to diversify their economic and political relations while pursuing an independent foreign policy with the aim to consolidate their position in the emerging global system.