Brics tilts balance of regional interests

27 September 2023

 

With the extension of invitations to Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to join the Brics group of major emerging economies – and the acceptance by the UAE – Middle East interests are represented within the bloc for the first time and could end up comprising a third of its total membership.

This potential shift in the geopolitical reorientation of Brics reflects two interests for the group. The first of these is the strategic nature of the Middle East, both in terms of energy and logistics. The second is the key role that Saudi Arabia and the UAE could play in challenging the dollar.

None of this is necessarily a hard sell. As it stands, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have reserved, business-like and occasionally testy relations with the US and the EU, while Iran is alienated by sanctions. All four Middle East countries meanwhile have strong and expanding trade relations with China and India.

From the perspective of China, India and Russia, the Middle Eastern invitees to Brics are ripe targets for being drawn further away from the sphere of Western influence. Brics, as a collective of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, is already a counter of sorts to the G7 and aims to level the global playing field. 

The addition of six new members stands to not only increase the bloc’s leverage, but, in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, aims to add two countries that are also ambitious about raising their stature on the global stage.

Strategic partnership

In terms of economics, the proposed expansion of the Brics membership would increase the size of the bloc by about a tenth, adding markets responsible for $2.6tn in GDP and populated by 409 million people, as of 2021, according to the World Bank. This builds on an existing GDP of $27.3tn – $17.7tn of it from China alone – and a population of 3.6 billion people.

Of the invited countries, Saudi Arabia represents the largest single potential net gain for the group, with its economy valued at about twice that of existing member South Africa.

Trade ties are already extensive within the group. China and India are top trade partners for Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, so the prospective new Brics membership is building upon a framework of already highly interconnected and integrated economic relationships.

China is the single-most important trading partner of Saudi Arabia, accounting for 17 per cent of the kingdom’s foreign trade, while India accounts for about 9 per cent. The UAE and Egypt are also top trading partners for the kingdom. 

Overall, this means that the new prospective line-up of the Brics bloc could potentially represent a sizeable proportion of Saudi Arabia’s total trade moving forward.

China, India and Saudi Arabia are similarly two of the UAE’s top trade partners, while China, India and the UAE are all among Iran’s top trade partners. China and Saudi Arabia are likewise major trade partners for Egypt.

Though the expansion may represent a fractional upscaling in terms of market volume and value, the broadening of the bloc to strategic players in the Middle East could have an outsized potential to strengthen its member states’ global influence and collective bargaining.

Not least is the addition of three key members of oil producers’ group Opec – Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – and observer state Egypt, up from the single Opec+ party Russia. 

This stands to bring key energy producers into yet closer economic partnership with China and India, both major energy consumers. It could also be key to progressing the Brics ambition of loosening the hold of the dollar by transitioning major bilateral energy transactions conducted in dollars into other currencies.

Next steps

The UAE’s quick acceptance of the Brics invitation shows its enthusiasm for strategic advancement and the potential leverage that a more empowered bloc could represent. The country will nevertheless, like India, need to carefully balance its role in the group with its existing US partnership – perhaps more so than any of the other invitees.

The UAE’s agreements with China and India to trade in local currencies is already a major win for the bloc in its efforts to reduce reliance on the US dollar. The more ambitious proposal for a common Brics currency to counter dollar fluctuations remains complex and uncertain.

The likes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE do, however, have the financial clout and expertise to potentially place the Brics-established New Development Bank on firmer economic footing, improve its project management and help establish it as a more credible counterpart to the likes of the Washington-based IMF and the World Bank.

Much will hinge on which of the remaining invitees ultimately choose to join the bloc. 

Iran and Egypt are expected to swiftly follow the UAE in accepting. Saudi Arabia is still carefully weighing the invitation, cautious of the chilling effect that throwing in its lot too clearly with China could have on its US relationship. 

For both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to join Brics would be a major coup for the bloc and a momentous shift in global politics.

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John Bambridge
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