The five-nation group of emerging economies known as BRICS, which views itself as a counterweight to the West, has invited six more countries to join — most of them from the Middle East — during its summit in Johannesburg this week.
The choices by the current members, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, contained a few surprises, the biggest being the addition of Iran, which joined three other Middle Eastern states: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Argentina and Ethiopia rounded out the half-dozen nations tapped for inclusion while Indonesia, which was thought to be among the top candidates for admission, did not make the cut.
The expansion was a victory for China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who strongly backed the rapid addition of new members. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India was said to be concerned about adding nations close to Beijing; India and China have border disputes and tend to consider each other potential adversaries.
Here is a look at some of the new BRICS members.
Iran, which holds the world’s second-largest gas reserves and a quarter of the oil reserves in the Middle East, sought membership in BRICS to strengthen its economic and political ties with non-Western powers.
Its admission to the bloc was seen as a sign that Russia and China had effectively advocated for its inclusion, bolstering the anti-Western bent of BRICS. For the past few years, Iran has forged a deepening security and military partnership with Russia and bolstered its economic ties to China. The invitation to join BRICS was viewed by many as a reward.
Iran’s addition will almost undoubtedly increase geopolitical tensions with the West, which could make other current members of the bloc, like India, uncomfortable.
Iran’s economy, ranked the 22nd-largest in the world in 2022, has been plagued by inflation, slow growth and economic sanctions from the United States. But the country has stayed afloat by selling discounted oil to China, among other maneuvers. It has also diversified its economy away from oil and increased trade with BRICS members.
Mohammad Jamshidi, Iran’s vice president for politics, called the invitation to join BRICS a “historic achievement and a strategic victory,” and congratulated Iranians and their leaders.
The inclusion of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf’s two biggest political and financial heavyweights and two of the world’s largest energy suppliers, is likely to give the bloc added heft in its quest to challenge the U.S.-dominated world order.
Both countries are longtime American allies who rely on the United States to protect them in a volatile region. But at the same time, both have chafed at the partnership in recent years, increasingly going their own way on issues like oil production, the war in Ukraine and their relationships with Iran and Syria — countries the United States would prefer to keep isolated.
Speaking at the BRICS summit in South Africa on Thursday, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, said his country and the BRICS members shared a strong belief in “respecting the independence and sovereignty of states, and not interfering in their affairs.”
Saudi Arabia sees joining the bloc as another step in its efforts to balance out its traditional partnerships with the United States and Europe with its largest trading partners in the East, China and India.
“We don’t assume that this is an alternative to Saudi Arabia’s traditional economic partnerships with the Western world, but it provides a parallel breathing room as the world tackles crises such as the war in Ukraine,” Majed al-Turki, a Saudi analyst, told a local radio station before the official expansion announcement.
United Arab Emirates
The Emirates, like Saudi Arabia, has sought a bigger leadership role in the Middle East in recent years, even when that meant diverging from American interests.
Despite counting on American security guarantees, the Emirati ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has cozied up to both Russia and China. He visited Russia twice over the past year to meet with its president, Vladimir V. Putin, and agreed to have the Emirati air force train with China’s this month.
Economically, too, the Emirates has thrived on non-Western relationships. The glitzy city-state of Dubai is flush with Russian money, oil and gold that found a home there after Western sanctions hit Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Its trade with India and China has flourished.
The country still gets most of its weaponry from the United States, and analysts say it is not about to abandon the United States’ security umbrella anytime soon.
But officials have expressed frustration with what they see as the United States’ failure to do more to protect the Gulf from threats from Iran, which Gulf countries believe has launched attacks on both the Emirates and its close partner Saudi Arabia in recent years. And they are skeptical that the American leadership is truly committed to the Middle East.
Those concerns were factors in the Emirati and Saudi decisions to reach separate détentes with Iran, their longtime regional nemesis, making it possible for the first time in years for all three countries to belong to the same bloc.
“The difficult global context gives the bloc a singular relevance and makes it a geopolitical and financial reference,” he said.
Gabriel Merino, an international relations expert based in Buenos Aires, said admission into the BRICS reinforces important markets for Argentina, and opens new ones, in particular in Asia Pacific. It also provides new financing avenues once the country gains admission into the New Development Bank.
“It’s key for Argentina to be able to access this financing,” he said, noting that the BRICS bank appears to have a different approach to financing than the International Monetary Fund, with less emphasis on austerity measures.
“There is something political here, too, that has to do with being part of this space of emerging power,” said Merino. “It’s clear that there is a discussion about redistributing the world powers, that the old multilateral organizations are too dominated by the United States, or the West.”
The BRICS announcement comes in the midst of a presidential campaign in Argentina that saw a far-right libertarian candidate, Javier Milei, emerge as a surprise frontrunner in primaries earlier this month.
The general election will be held on Oct. 22. What a possible victory of Mr. Milei could mean for BRICS is not clear, but in an interview with Bloomberg following the primaries, he made clear he would not promote relations with China. “We don’t make deals with communists,” Mr. Milei told Bloomberg.
Not long ago, Ethiopia was the rising star of Africa — one of the world’s fastest-growing economies led by Abiy Ahmed, a dynamic young leader who had won a Nobel Peace Prize.
But two years of civil war in the Tigray region ruined most of that. The economy tanked, the United States cut trade privileges and suspended food aid to Ethiopia, and Mr. Abiy has struggled to hold together a volatile nation.
Although the Tigray conflict ended last November, Mr. Abiy’s forces have begun a new fight with powerful militias in another region.
For Mr. Abiy, the BRICS offers an opportunity to move further from the American orbit. He is already closely allied to the U.A.E., another prospective new member, which provided crucial military support during the Tigray war.
And economically, Mr. Abiy needs foreign help to bolster Ethiopia’s flagging currency and to seek new investments: This week his finance minister, Ahmed Shide, estimated it would cost $20 billion to rebuild from the Tigray war alone.
Paulo Motoryn in Brasília and Ahmed Al Omran in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia contributed reporting.