Analysis: What do BRICS invitations mean for the Middle East?

Saudi Arabia, UAE look to balance relations between east and west, while Iran, Egypt look to benefit financially.

President of China Xi Jinping and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa attend the China-Africa Leaders' Roundtable Dialogue on the last day of the BRICS Summit
BRICS is made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa [Alet Pretorius/Pool/Reuters]

In an era of emerging multipolarity, the BRICS group’s move to expand its membership should come as little surprise – with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region not exempt from a possible changing world order.

BRICS is made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and is seen as a counterweight to the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States).

Four of the six BRICS invitations, which came on Thursday during the finale of the group’s summit in South Africa, were handed to MENA countries: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.

The enlargement rests on the group’s desire to level out a global playing field it views as rigged against it.

The bloc will soon invite more members chosen for their geopolitical importance and not ideology, said Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on the same day, suggesting its MENA selections were also based on increasing the group’s clout.

Balance through BRICS

The UAE has already jumped at the bloc’s offer. Iran and Egypt are expected to accept their invitations as well, likely buoyed by financial interests, analysts said.

Saudi Arabia, however, is still mulling the proposal, but is likely to be on board, as it seeks to balance its relationship with the United States alongside emerging powers like China, analysts have predicted.

According to analysts, the kingdom’s ironclad alliance with the US has already loosened on a number of fronts; its entry into BRICS would be another unravelling – but still far from doing away with ties.

“Riyadh will first gauge the reaction of Washington, and consider any offers from the delegations that [US President Joe] Biden will send to Riyadh, before moving ahead with accepting the invitation,” Sami Hamdi, the managing director at International Interest, a political risk firm focusing on the Middle East, told Al Jazeera.

Still, Saudi Arabia, already a regional leader, also has an ambitious drive to become a heavyweight globally, an ambition for which deeper ties with China are equally as important, according to Michelle Grise, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

The UAE, another US ally, similarly shares this interest in balance, she said.

“BRICS membership offers a path for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to balance their respective relationships with the United States with their interests in deepening economic ties with China,” Grise told Al Jazeera.

The pair’s entry would hardly be a reflection of an anti-Western positioning, Hamdi argued.

“I do not think it means that they have become anti-West,” he said. “Instead, it reflects the extent to which these Western allies have become disillusioned with the West, and the growing sense that the West is no longer committed to their interests and security.”

The US has been vocal about rolling back its presence in the region, a further impetus for the Gulf heavyweights to diversify relations, Hamdi said.

“There is a sense that given [that] the West no longer prioritises these allies, the diversifying of relations and the pursuit of additional poles, blocs, and orbits has become an existential political and economic imperative,” explained Hamdi.

New economic partners, new oil policies?

Iran, meanwhile, with its already poor relations with many Western countries, has taken the opportunity of its BRICS invititation to argue that the US-led international order is collapsing.

“The expansion of BRICS shows that the unilateral approach is on the way to decay,” Iran’s Arabic-language television network Al Alam quoted Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi as saying.

Iran has supported BRICS’s efforts to move away from dependence on the US dollar. American domination of the global financial system has been particularly troubling for Iran, as its economy has struggled under the weight of US sanctions.

Its entry into the bloc was, therefore, “a broader trend of Iran seeking to bolster its economic, and military, ties with non-Western powers”, said Grise.

“I think this is also evidence that Iran is seeking economic partners where it can find them – likely out of necessity given continued sanctions,” she added.

Hamdi said that Iran’s entry alongside the UAE and Saudi Arabia “will have major consequences on oil trade and policy”, as they are all major producers of oil.

“With these additions, BRICS has become a bloc with potentially significant influence on global oil and the financial mechanisms with which oil is traded,” he said.

Regional differences no matter

While the MENA region has been undergoing a reckoning with the forging of improved bilateral ties among several countries with previously poor relations, differences have remained. However, analysts have said the entry of the four MENA countries muddle cooperativeness within the bloc.

“In the last year, we’ve seen the UAE restore its diplomatic relations with Iran, and then a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran – and those shifts have made it possible to imagine a scenario in which all three countries are part of BRICS,” said Grise.

According to Hamdi, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran have long put aside collective differences as members of OPEC, and will therefore be able to do the same in the BRICS bloc as well.

“Although their differences may complicate decision-making processes, it is unlikely to hamper the operations of the bloc,” Hamdi said.

Ayham Kamel, the head of Eurasia Group’s Middle East and North Africa research team, agreed that regional issues are unlikely to be a focus, and would be disadvantageous in what is otherwise a beneficial arrangement for the region.

“In one move, the Middle East and North Africa region could have four members in an expanded BRICS organisation,” Kamel told Al Jazeera. “This will structurally enhance their leverage.”

A strengthened region would further pave the way for a multipolar world, according to Trita Parsi, vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

“As the world moves away from unipolarity, the US is also losing its ability to act as a gatekeeper,” he told Al Jazeera. “No one single state can any longer decide who is in the Community of Nations and who is a pariah.”

Source: Al Jazeera