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.
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 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.
Iran’s addition would almost undoubtedly increase geopolitical tensions with the West, which could make other current members of the bloc, like India, uncomfortable.
Mohammad Jamshidi, Iran’s vice president for politics, called the invitation to join BRICS a “historic achievement and a strategic victory.”
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.
The inclusion of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Persian 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.
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.
The Saudi foreign minister indicated that his country had not yet decided on whether to join BRICS. He said it appreciated the invitation but was waiting for more details from the group on the nature of membership.
“Based on that and after our internal deliberations, we will make the appropriate decision,” he told the local news media on Thursday.
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.
But officials have expressed frustration with what they see as the United States’ failure to protect the Persian 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.
Argentina has the third-largest economy in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico. Its backers in BRICS include India; Brazil, its largest trading partner; and China, with which it has increasingly close financial ties.
President Alberto Fernández of Argentina said in a recorded address on Thursday that entrance into BRICS represented an economic opportunity for his country, which is mired in one of its worst financial crises in decades, with annual inflation surpassing 100 percent.
Gabriel Merino, an international relations expert based in Buenos Aires, said admission into BRICS would reinforce important markets for Argentina and open new ones. It will also provide new financing avenues once the country gains admission into the BRICS’s New Development Bank.
Egypt is one of the top recipients of American aid, but it has long maintained a strong relationship with Russia and has growing trade ties with China.
Its interest in weaning itself off American dependence strengthened over the last year and a half, as Egypt learned just how troublesome relying on the dollar can be. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine touched off a foreign currency crisis and then put the Egyptian economy in a tailspin.
Investors pulled billions of dollars out of Egypt in a panic, and crucial wheat and fuel imports, bought with dollars, soared in price. Some imports became scarce and prices rose.
The dollar shortage also made it harder for the country to repay its debts and forced it to devalue its currency steeply, worsening the pain for ordinary Egyptians.
Inside BRICS, Egypt could trade in local currency. It also hopes to attract more investment from member countries.
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, BRICS offers an opportunity to move further from the American orbit. He is already closely allied to the Emirates, 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.