Joining BRICS is no rejection of the West

The proposed expansion of the BRICS group has prompted alarm among some western commentators. Three of the six new states invited to join, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, are key US allies in the Middle East who will now enter an economic bloc with Washington’s geopolitical rivals. Though the White House itself played down the threat this expanded group will pose to the US, its allies’ willingness to align with China, Russia and fellow newcomer, Iran has prompted some to wonder if this signals a rejection of the West by Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Cairo.

At a superficial level, the alarm is justified. China was especially keen to expand BRICS, over the reluctance of India and Brazil, seeing it as a potential counterweight to the US-dominated western bloc in international affairs. Russia also used the recent BRICS summit in Johannesburg to rail against western domination of the global order, echoing Chinese President Xi Xinping’s frequent criticism of ‘US hegemony’.

Inviting Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt to join this bloc could therefore be viewed as a major coup for Beijing and Moscow. Egypt has been aligned with the US since the 1970s and is the second largest recipient of US military aid after Israel. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s partnerships with the US date back even further and both look to Washington as their first port of call for security and purchasing arms. In addition, the UAE, like most GCC members bar Saudi Arabia, hosts key American military installations, notably the Al Dhafra air base.

However, contrary to commentator alarm and Chinese hopes, the decision to join BRICS by these three Middle Eastern players is not a rejection of the west. They are asserting their independence from the US, but not joining China and Russia in an anti-western alliance. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt still see the US as a key ally, especially in the security field. But the world has moved on, and they recognise that the ‘unipolar order’ of 30 years ago has given way to an era of multipolarity.

In the final years of the Cold War and in its aftermath, theses states came to accept that firmly aligning with the US was in their interests. As recently as the ‘War on Terror’ of the 2000s, US President George W. Bush clearly asserted, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” In such a US-dominated world order, when Washington was flexing its military muscle in multiple Middle East arenas, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo recognised the logic of sitting firmly in America’s camp.

But this is no longer the case. At a global level, Washington overstretched during the War on Terror, while Russia became more military assertive, and China’s power grew. At the regional level, the US remains present but less dominant in the Middle East. In the past decade regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and, to a lesser extent, Egypt, have filled the post-US vacuum, acting increasingly independent of the US when they feel their interests are threatened.  Meanwhile China and Russia have also taken advantage of lighter US involvement to enhance their presence in the region.

Over the past few years, the Middle East’s regional players have been adapting to this new reality. They still see the US as a key security ally but assert their right to pursue their interests even if they clash with Washington’s. Part of this is a recognition that they must work closely with other global powers like China and Russia. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and all three refused to join western sanctions on Russia after the Ukraine invasion. Yet none saw this as rejecting the US or the West, but rather balancing several important relationships at once.

If all three states opt to join BRICS, it should therefore be seen within this context. It is the continuation of their adaptation to the multipolar reality, rather than taking sides in the growing confrontation between Washington, Beijing, and Moscow. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Cairo are learning to make the most of the end of unipolarity, walking a careful line between the global ‘great’ powers to maximise gains for themselves.

Some western commentators may lament the passing of an era when Washington could take these Middle Eastern powers for granted, but the world has moved on. The expansion of BRICS, however, should not cause the alarm it has. It hasn’t created the multi-polar global order, that happened years ago, but rather reflects the current reality. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt will remain close allies of the West, much in the same way as other BRICS states South Africa, India and Brazil remain close to Washington. But by joining the bloc they will be confirming what Middle East observers have known for some time: the era of US hegemony is long past and the region’s players, including its close allies, are now doing things their own way.

Christopher Phillips
Christopher Phillips
Christopher Phillips is a professor of international relations at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of The Battle for Syria, available from Yale University Press, and co-editor of What Next for Britain in the Middle East, available from IB Tauris.