Photo Credit: BRICS 2022 China website
By Harshita Devavarapu
Following South African president Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement in mid-October that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was interested in joining the BRICS coalition, the group’s rising influence on the global stage has certainly not gone without notice.
BRIC was an acronym coined by former Goldman Sachs analyst Jim O’Neill to describe a group of developing countries that would dominate the global economy by the year 2050. This acronym, originally ‘BRIC’, stood for Brazil, Russia, India, and China– the addition of South Africa in the year 2010 made it BRICS. The term BRICS was initially not meant to recognize a formal coalition, instead, it was a way to recognize countries with good investment opportunities. Following 2009, they started becoming a cohesive geopolitical bloc and currently they meet annually to discuss bilateral relations based on the principles of noninterference, mutual benefit, and equality. The most recent BRICS summit was held in China in July 2022. BRICS is considered one of the coalitions that can rival the powerful G7 economic bloc which includes the USA, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. Not only do the BRICS countries together account for approximately 27% of the planet’s geographical area, but they are home to about 42% of the world’s population, almost a quarter of the world’s GDP, and 16% of international trade as well.
While nations like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have expressed their interest in joining this East-focused coalition, Iran and Argentina have officially applied to be part of BRICS following the convention in Beijing earlier this year. The Argentinian ambassador Sabino Vaca mentioned in his statement that, for developing countries, BRICS was an alternative to the current global institutions that only work for a select few– particularly the wealthiest nations. Developing nations actively looking toward the East for cooperation has become a more relevant trend that experts have been witnessing as of late. Following the nation’s confirmation of their application to become an official member, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who presented at the BRICS+ conference, emphasized how “the continued marginalization of developing countries, within the various institutions of global governance, constitutes a sure source of instability, inequality, and development.”
Saudi Arabia’s declaration of its intention to join the BRICS coalition has led to surprise and debate as the state has historically been a strong ally of the U.S. and has relied on it for security and military strength. This declaration comes after rifts in the U.S.-Saudi relationship following the Biden administration’s criticism of the Kingdom’s human rights violations and OPEC+’s decision to further cut daily production of oil by 2 million barrels, causing gas prices in America to skyrocket. On the other hand, Putin stated in late October that he supports the admission of Saudi Arabia into BRICS not only because it is a “leader in hydrocarbon production and oil extraction” but also because “the crown prince and Saudi government have plans to diversify the economy, which is very important.” However, researcher Mohammadbagher Forough mentions how, “while still geopolitically dependent for its security on the U.S., Saudi Arabia has politically and economically shifted to the east.” It is interesting to note how Saudi Arabia pursues energy independence and shows its political autonomy while still engaging with the USA for its defense needs. Riyadh and Washington D.C. cannot disengage with each other despite disagreements and the former’s ‘look East’ policy as they need each other for their defense and energy needs respectively.
BRICS has not formally expanded since the addition of South Africa in 2010. Although there is no particular protocol for expansion, original member states China and Russia have expressed enthusiasm in welcoming Middle Eastern and Latin American states. But, there is a chance that expansion might be harder than anticipated, as all 5 original states have to be in agreement before any nation is added to the coalition. Though the 5 countries share structural similarities like rapidly growing economies, increasing political influences in the global forum, and a substantial military, there are significant geopolitical differences that might make it difficult to reach a consensus. Professor Rajan Kumar of the JNU School of International Studies mentions how Brazil, South Africa, and India, unlike Russia and China, might be against the expansion of the bloc at the moment, since inviting other nations– and rival states– into the bloc might threaten their regional authority. The Executive Director of the Center for African, Latin American, and Caribbean studies mentions how, for India, the decision process might be based on if a country’s admission to BRICS could threaten India’s standing and influence relative to China. While BRICS expansion would change the way international power and influence are structured, this change might be far-fetched.
What would the expansion of BRICS mean for the western world and existing international power structures? It might mean the creation of a more multipolar world with financial institutions that are not as dependent on the dollar. In the 14th BRICS summit that took place earlier in July, the member nations discussed the creation of a new development bank, a new intercountry payment system, a contingent reserve system, and most importantly, a BRICS basket reserve currency. These steps would all result in the weakening of the U.S. dollar as the international reserve currency. In the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, the fact that Algeria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are interested in joining BRICS might have a stronger impact. Saudi Arabia is a prominent exporter of crude oil, is a founding member of OPEC, and holds 15% of global oil reserves while Egypt is an important petroleum producer. The case of Algeria is interesting as well since it is the third-largest exporter of gas to the EU. As the EU is trying to wean itself off of Russian energy sources, they had initially considered Algeria to be an alternative; however, as seen through its interest in joining BRICS, the nation continued fostering relations with Russia.
While the expansion of BRICS might not be happening in the immediate future, the interest shown by nations in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa reflects an impending reform of international politics. It will be interesting to see how the development of a multipolar world might bring more focus to the Eastern powers and how the established Western institutions respond to this change.