On August 24, the 15th BRICS summit in Johannesburg announced that the five-member grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) had invited six new members — Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from West Asia; Egypt and Ethiopia from Africa, and Argentina from Latin America. It was reported that 40 countries have shown interest in BRICS’ membership, with 22 having submitted formal applications. From 2009, BRICS has met annually at summit level, and is backed by several ministerial and expert conclaves. It has spawned two major institutions – the New Development Bank (NDB) to provide development assistance and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement that supports countries facing short-term balance-of-payments pressures. The NDB has already financed 96 projects valued at $33 billion.
BRICS members have been united in their dissatisfaction with the West-dominated international institutions that had emerged after the Second World War — the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and its various bodies, particularly the Security Council, and more recently, the World Trade Organization. At Johannesburg, the UN Secretary General António Guterres described them as reflecting “yesterday’s world”. The United States has led the western alliance in both the political and economic areas.
BRICS challenges this West-led world order: it promotes intra-BRICS economic and political cooperation, builds institutions outside western control, and agitates robustly for wide-ranging reforms to accommodate the presence and interests of emerging economies. The Johannesburg Declaration categorically asserts that the members’ “strategic partnership” will be directed at achieving “a more representative, fairer international order”. The recent expansion of BRICS’s membership has shaped a grouping that is aligned in terms of global perceptions and interests, and collectively provides considerable economic clout to the enlarged conclave. With the proposed expansion, BRICS will have 46% of world population, while its share of the global GDP will go from 31.5% in PPP terms to 37%, far ahead of the GDP of 30.7% of the G-7. The five core members account for 23% of global exports and 19% of global imports; with the new members, these figures will be boosted by 3.7% and 3%, respectively. The major impact will be on the energy sector: out of global oil production of about 90 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2022, the earlier five BRICS members had accounted for 20% of global output; this will go to 42%.
An addition of geo-strategic value
The new BRICS members will bring considerable geo-strategic value to the grouping. Those from West Asia are already closely tied to BRICS members: 35% of Saudi oil production goes to China and India; Russia, already a major oil supplier to China and India, is now looking at Brazil as a market. Despite sanctions by the United States, Iran has increased oil production from a low of 400,000 barrels per day in the Trump period to 2.2 mbd in August this year, most of it going to China. Egypt and Ethiopia are an important presence in the strategically important Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, while Argentina is the second largest economy in Latin America.
Rather than look at the issues being raised at BRICS’ summits and other meetings, western commentators have disparaged the grouping as having no shared vision and being a “talk-shop” with no worthwhile achievements. These criticisms have little substance. BRICS leaders have met over 15 years and every time have overcome their internal divisions and competitions to issue a consensual “Declaration”. Over the years, the declarations have expanded in content, focused on specific deliverables and have steadily expanded their areas of interest.
In the Johannesburg Declaration, while several paragraphs call for wide-ranging reforms in international organisations, the bulk of the document focuses on intra-BRICS cooperation and outreach to other developing countries. Thus, members have agreed to “encouraging the use of local currencies in internal trade and financial transactions” between BRICS and other trading partners.
The Declaration also reflects the shared views of its members on several political issues — the centrality of the United Nations; the problems in West Asia, i.e., Syria, Yemen, Palestine, the Arab peace Initiative, and the Iran nuclear agreement; the war in Ukraine and global terror.
Outlook for regional and global affairs
The new BRICS members, particularly those from West Asia, naturally fit into this political and economic framework. From 2020, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have shrugged off the U.S. yoke and shaped independent foreign policy paths for themselves. Saudi Arabia has pursued de-escalation and dialogue, ending the Qatar blockade in January 2021, engaging with Turkey, and opening interactions with Iran from April 2021. These regional engagements culminated in the China-brokered accord with Iran in March this year.
The UAE has also normalised ties with Iran and is focusing on expanding its maritime footprint across the Gulf, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. Iran’s entry into BRICS is propitious in that, besides its role in the energy sector, it opens up opportunities for accelerated regional economic cooperation, besides the revival of the moribund north-south connectivity projects through the Chabahar port with which India is associated.
While western writers continue to harp on the emerging global binary divide and the “new cold war”, India and other BRICS members reject this short-sighted view and insist on asserting their strategic autonomy in a multipolar world order, with member-nations demanding that their voices be heard and their interests respected. It is not surprising, then, that a recent media report described the Johannesburg summit as a “turning point in modern history”.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates