BRICS’ expansion into the Middle East operates as a combination of regional and global dynamics. The expansion is not just a passive presence but rather an active and interactive process that impacts both regional and global contexts. BRICS has entered the Middle East with the promise of bright economic prospects for the region and scope for strengthening mutual bilateral and multilateral trade agreements between four new signatories: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Iran. These four countries are regional stalwarts and play a significant role in shaping the dynamics of the region. The expansion of BRICS into the Middle East will strengthen the multi-alignment option for regional countries and encourage cooperative multilateralism and conflict resolution, especially since the grouping is more of a geo-economic nature than a geo-political one. Instability has been the region’s defining geopolitical feature since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. BRICS members could help mediate differences, quell instability and alleviate chaos.
Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Iran are driven by distinctive geo-political objectives, the primary being to steer their economies out of resource dependence (in the case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE), economic stagnation (in the case of Egypt), and isolation (in the case of Iran). These countries are also driven by the desire to compete on a global level, where they want to be partners rather than dependents. Since BRICS membership does not come with a demand for in-group political solidarities and commitments, it is less likely to focus on conflicting motivations at the regional level and more likely to spur coordination of economic goals at the global level.
The MENA region’s countries today are driven less by ideology and more by domestic pressure for employment generation in public and private sectors, creating new avenues for business, investments, and advancement in the fields of technology and production. These countries have powerful motivations to detach the region and their countries from confrontational and block politics. The economic outreach to China and India along with ‘regional rapprochement’ is expected to reconcile or de-focus ideological divisions. Divisive ideological rhetoric at home had been responsible for creating fissures in the region and spurring dangerous challenges to the legitimacy of regimes in these countries.
The global economic dynamic that has transpired post-pandemic and Ukrainian war, resulting in disruption in the global supply lines of food commodities to import-dependent countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, has convinced these countries to take part in the emerging production and manufacturing blocks like 12U2, and the BRICS membership represents an extension of that policy. The MENA countries have a firm faith in countries like India, which have immense potential to be uninterrupted suppliers in the global supply chain. China, on the other hand, has the potential to provide a technological helping hand to Middle Eastern powers, as exemplified by Saudi consideration for the development of nuclear plants with Chinese help. China and India are also the largest oil buyers from Riyadh and Iran, and through BRICS cooperation, energy supplies can be more streamlined.
It is important to highlight that oil-producing countries, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, and Russia, and their collaboration with emerging powers in Asia like China and India indicate the emergence of an economic block that has capital, technology, human resources, and markets that can become potential drivers steering the global south out of poverty and global inequality.
This new economic mechanism, besides challenging dollar hegemony and benefiting Europe’s exchange system, can be beneficial for smaller economies in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. These regions have the potential to become areas of new economic operations, development, and sustainability. These new economic activities under an alternative trade system can be beneficial for political stability in regions that are in abject states of conflict, crises, and human suffering in Africa and the Middle East. Once the connectivity is established, the stable states will not allow instability to take root; strong powers will have the capacity and will to eliminate potential sources, client actors, and their patrons stocking violence and instability. The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran indicates that it is possible to thaw conflictual relations and reduce the threshold of violence in Yemen, which has been in perpetual war with Saudi Arabia since 2015.
However, rapprochement is only possible when actors feel a strategic compulsion motivating them to adopt diplomatic means to avert direct military confrontation. The most successful policy is to strengthen bilateral economic activities and de-radicalize the respective domestic spheres. BRICS framework motivates members to undertake bilateral and multilateral economic activity.
Iran and Russia view the new economic framework as an effective mechanism to escape the sanctions regime imposed due to nuclear enrichment and support non-state actors like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis, who are designated terrorists by the US and other European countries. The new framework also has the potential to enable trade in local currencies, which is being seen as challenging the west’s trade and exchange system. There are speculations that de-dollarization will affect American and European dominance in the global energy supply market. However, the expansion of the BRICS to the Middle East entails engagement with actors and powers that might not want to commit themselves to a revision of the existing global system but rather enhance new alliances and multilateralism, showing the world there is scope for multiple inclusive mechanisms and alternative forms of global governance that have the potential to bring regions together and create connectivity links to enhance peace and prosperity in the world.
The expansion of BRICS is anticipated to accelerate the process of normalization in the Middle East. This is because the four key regional powers – Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Iran – possess the potential to collectively combat extremism, terrorism, instability, and regulate the refugee crisis that plagues the region. There exists an opportunity to instill confidence in risk-averse investors and foster an environment conducive to investments and sensitive geopolitical tensions. This conducive environment would draw the interest of investors, prominent technology companies, and large corporations towards untapped Middle Eastern markets, known for their substantial growth potential. The acceleration of economic activities would entail talking back on revisionist narratives, challenging extremism, and containment of radical ideologies. Crucially, this could foster a sense of security interdependence, encourage cooperation, and lead to the identification of common threats among Middle Eastern nations.
The development of peace would mean a decrease in external geo-political interventions spearheaded by global powers like United States and European states since 2003. The reduction in external geo-political intervention is crucial for alleviating state failure, diminishing the scope for dangerous trans-nationalization and encouraging the process of rebuilding failed states. This is imperative since the unchecked areas like Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya have exacerbated both internal and external conflicts, thereby destabilizing the regional security order. In this way, the coming together of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran means that peace and stability have prospects. It thus represents a nuanced formal step towards the regionalization of peace, strengthening rapprochement and diplomacy.
The analysis of BRICS expansion suggests that geopolitical objectives are not its drivers; rather, economic expansion with the aim of creating an investment and funding group represents the desire for the acceptance of the membership offer for MENA countries. The inclusion will primarily help get rid of intra-regional and external power competition in the Middle East, which has also been a major contributor to instability and division in the region. BRICS can be seen as a new cooperation alliance rather than a geo-political or military alliance, which can help Middle Eastern countries diversify their economies, expand their outreach, and enter international markets as trade partners. It provides opportunity for new funding tools for countries like Egypt, Ethiopia, and Iran for their developmental programmes. Countries like India, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia are not inclined to favor the trajectory if the platform is used for political and strategic agendas, which will also be antithetical to the founding goals of the BRICS.
The inclusion of Iran has raised eyebrows in western circles that, along with China and Russia, an alliance might strengthen that may pose a threat to western interests in the Gulf and elsewhere. However, it is important to highlight that the BRICS expansion is not purposed to challenge the existing international order. Rather, it is an attempt to carve a space for its functioning and economic operations, which can be beneficial for the process of stabilization and averting conflicts and disagreements. The presence of multiple economic blocks or frameworks will strengthen interdependence and can prove corrective for imbalances in the existing economic order. The availability of multiple frameworks will enhance health and economic competition by providing countries with multiple options for doing trade and choosing alliances; in this way, the system will itself balance discouraging conflictual behaviors from undermining the working of the system. Countries will strategically hedge or navigate through alternative systems to regenerate alliances without undermining the existing system.