US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) shakes hands with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan during a joint news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on June 8. The addition of Saudi Arabia and the UAE brings huge amounts of oil wealth and influence to the Brics grouping but, given their close ties with the United States, also potential complications to diminish the global role of the US and the West. Photo: AP
Kanchi Mathur
Kanchi Mathur

Expanded Brics should beware the disruptive pull of geopolitics

  • The UAE and Saudi Arabia, which both have close ties to the US, joining Brics could complicate any effort to make the bloc more active in geopolitics
  • Members who do not want a further split from the West could find themselves in a delicate balancing act with the stated goals of China, Russia and Iran
The Brics bloc is adding six new members. By bringing on Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the grouping is expected to be more reflective of the emerging power of the Global South.

This development signals the emergence of a more strategically conscious Global South, and fuels a debate on the future of multilateral organisations as political and strategic considerations become a part of their ideology.

An important question to ask is why this is happening now. West Asia has been a hotbed of deepening economic and diplomatic cooperation in recent years. Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia are forming warmer ties with former rivals in Iran and Israel.

The major powers of the region have shown they are eager to partake in the economic benefits of multilateralism. The UAE’s move to join the expanding Brics grouping, for example, shows its commitment to multilateral collaboration within West Asia and beyond.

It is also indicative of the growing awareness among major powers of the Global South of their increased relevance in the Indo-Pacific and how they can use that to balance between the United States and China.

Before the Brics summit, the world saw the emergence of I2U2, a grouping of India, Israel, the UAE and the US that is centred on security cooperation and has been described as a “ Middle East Quad”. The UAE securing its membership in I2U2 before joining Brics shows that the country’s strategic concerns in its home region still take precedence.
President Joe Biden participates a virtual summit on July 14 last year with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, not seen, and the leaders of India and the United Arab Emirates. It marks the first meeting of the I2U2 grouping. Photo: AP
Joining Brics might have moved the UAE closer diplomatically to China and Russia. Even so, it is unlikely that it is ready to forego its close political and strategic relationship with the US. The same could also be said for Saudi Arabia.

There has been vigorous discussion throughout the past year about the role of the Middle East within the wider Indo-Pacific region given its close diplomatic and strategic association with the major powers of the Global South. Multilateral platforms such as the expanded Brics could help enshrine a prominent role, but challenges remain.

One primary cause for concern is the presence of Iran. Its aim to use its place among the Brics nations as a forum for diplomatic overtures towards China and Russia is clear. Iran could benefit from its membership by providing China with oil at reduced prices – paid for in local currencies instead of the US dollar – and receiving Chinese investment in return.

That could be the high point of Iran’s membership, though, as it is unlikely the UAE, Brazil, South Africa and India would be willing to support Iran’s diplomatic opposition towards the US.

With US in crisis, Global South must ensure a peaceful shift in world order

The likes of Brazil, India, the UAE, South Africa and Saudi Arabia are likely to find themselves in a delicate balancing act against China, Russia and Iran. The latter are expected to try to use the expanded Brics forum to pursue economic and diplomatic policies that undermine the global role of the US, something the former might not be willing or able to support.

Pushing to rework the geopolitical ideology of Brics as an organisation threatens to leave it in diplomatic limbo. Carving out a coherent geopolitical perspective from a membership with such disparate needs and interests is an ambitious undertaking to say the least.

The Vale-owned Carajas Mine, one of the world’s largest iron ore mines, in the state of Para in Brazil on August 3. Vale reached an agreement with Saudi investors in July to sell a 10 per cent stake in its company. Photo: Xinhua
One guaranteed winner in all this will be energy, with the likes of Argentina and Saudi Arabia bringing significant economic prospects. Argentina has the world’s third-largest lithium reserves and 13 lithium projects in the pipeline. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia reached a US$2.6 billion deal in July to buy a 10 per cent stake in Brazilian mining firm Vale.

This puts the focus on Ethiopia and Egypt. Both could be geostrategic linchpins and provide China and Russia with greater access to chokepoints in the Red Sea. However, this could be complicated by Egypt’s heavy debt load and Ethiopia’s internal instability.

The UAE’s Brics membership showcases the emerging role of the Global South in formulating geo-economic policies that better reflect the emerging new world order. While emerging economies having more influence in multilateral forums is welcome, there are challenges that could bog down deliberations in these groups.

To best represent the developing world’s needs, each Brics member might need to stop and consider whether changing the bloc’s ideology from one based on geo-economics to one built on geopolitics is something the Global South is ready to undertake.

Kanchi Mathur is a geopolitical risk analyst whose research focuses on the Indo-Pacific region