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Will an expanded BRICS overshadow the US in the Middle East?

Heads of State of five major BRICS countries after a session during the 15th summit of the bloc in Johannesburg

The BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) after expected expansion is curiously broadening its horizons where the clout of the US is waning – the Middle East. With the announcement of new entries, the already churning debate on the implications of it on US’ hegemony in the region intensified.

All key Middle Eastern nations – Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE and Egypt – will be permanent members of the mighty non-Western geo-political and geo-economic platform, along with Argentina and Ethiopia, from January 1, 2024.

This is the first expansion of the group since 2010. With new additions, the grouping now represents a larger share of the world’s population and economy.

Analysts say BRICS has already exceeded the US and Europe-dominated G7 in terms of economic clout.  With new members its economic and political heft is only going to multiply.

All BRICS heads of state, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have animatedly welcomed the entry of developing countries into the club and see it as a step to empower the Global South of the world.

“On the 15th anniversary of BRICS we have taken an important decision to expand it. I’m confident that together with these countries, we will be able to infuse new momentum and new energy into our cooperation,” PM Modi said at 15th summit of the grouping that concluded in Johannesburg on Thursday.

India is one of the major trading partners of the new entrant Middle East countries. It has energy and connectivity links with all of them, and joint footprints of these relations are growing. Most importantly, India is also a key strategic partner of the US. India has in recent times emphasised on development of the Global South of the world. A distinguished fellow at the Gate House, New Delhi-based think tank, articulated this: “First, there is considerable anti-US sentiment in the world, and all these countries are looking for a grouping where they can use that sentiment to gather together. Second, there is a lot of appetite for multipolarity, for a platform where countries of the Global South can express their solidarity.”

Among the new members, he added, India looks at all of them as partnerships worth developing.

The inclusion of major Middle East countries will also force the BRICS partners to expand and forge new relations with them.

“BRICS, as we know, is a multi-polar and multi-layered geo-economic platform. This (expansion) has geo-economic, geostrategic and geopolitical implications that will be seen immediately in future and, if new BRICS functions as planned, it will herald a new era in world relations,” said Professor Saheli Chattaraj of MMAJ Academy, Jamia Millia Islamia.

Sanusha Naidu, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue, a South African think tank focusing on China and Africa, christened the expansion as BRICS plus OPEC.

Most detrimental to the US’ dominance in the Middle East in the inclusion of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the grouping. Tehran, an open nemesis of the US, is playing a vital role in assisting Russia’s invading Army in Ukraine and Riyadh has a long-term security alliance with Washington.

Bringing these two Middle East arch rivals, according to the New York Times, is one of the biggest achievements of Russia and China negotiators.

Evidence of non-western countries playing a decisive role in Middle Eastern diplomatic affairs could already be seen before the BRICS’ expansion.

In March, China brokered a landmark diplomatic breakthrough between Saudi Arabia and Iran, demonstrating how far the country’s influence in the region has come and taking Washington by surprise in the process.

“Gulf countries are diversifying their political and economic relations as the world order becomes increasingly multipolar,” Anna Jacobs, a senior Gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Middle East Eye.

Tehran has also grown unsurprisingly closer to Beijing, which has helped keep it afloat by buying heavily discounted oil, ignoring international sanctions. This was reflected in almost all of Iran’s newspapers and news agencies on Friday. The Tehran Times celebrated the Iranian entry into the BRICS with a banner headline: “Knock the Dollar”. The daily also carried an interview of an Iranian-origin US professor, Hossein Askari, who reads the expansion of BRICS as a slow motion towards ending US dominance in the world markets, brick by brick.

“The BRICS want to change the rules of the game and not be under the thumb of the US. The cooperation among an enlarged BRICS membership to counter US economic and financial sanctions by defying secondary US sanctions and working together to undermine the international role of the dollar. It is a crucial goal. It would topple the US as the captain of international finance and trade,” he said.

A translator at the Iranian embassy told India Narrative that Persian newspapers have celebrated the entry as an achievement of Iranian diplomacy which the Iranian government can leverage in upcoming elections.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, according to some analysts, may be too iffy to shun the US security umbrella on account of the hefty arms deal it has with Washington and is yet to deliver all purchased weapons. But, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that frustrated over the US’ stipulations for supporting Riyadh’s quest for nuclear power, the kingdom is considering a Chinese bid to build a nuclear power plant.

China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), a state-owned firm, has proposed the construction of a nuclear plant near the border with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, the newspaper reported on Thursday, citing unnamed Saudi officials.

Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s biggest oil producers, has for years explored the development of a domestic nuclear energy industry to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.

In fact, with the drive towards BRICS and alternative powers as China, Gulf countries, including staunch and longstanding US allies such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are showing a growing ambition to chart their own path in the world – analysts have called it “attaining strategic autonomy”.

The inclusion of UAE along with Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf’s two biggest political and financial heavyweights, is likely to give the bloc added muscle in its quest to challenge the US-dominated world order. The UAE, like Saudi, has chafed at the partnership in recent years, increasingly going its own way on issues like oil production, the war in Ukraine and its relationships with Iran and Syria — countries the US would prefer to keep isolated.

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 President Vladimir Putin, and agreed to have the Emirati Air Force train with China this month.

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. Besides, practical reasons for looking for alternative methods to conduct their trade using currencies and financial systems other than the dollar as its economy tanked after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine touched off a foreign currency crisis.

“Economic and political diversification, balancing relations between global powers, and avoiding the pitfalls of great power competition are all essential pillars of Gulf countries’ foreign policies today,” summed up Jacob.

However, some analysts like Professor Sujata Ashwarya of Jamia Millia Islamia, saw the expansion of the BRICS as a collision of interests that may lead to collapse of the purpose of the grouping.

“The greater a group’s political diversity, the more difficult it is to reach consensus on particular issues. Seven of the eleven members of the group have varying degrees of authoritarianism. Consequently, the political and social interests of seven of the eleven members of the group diverge from those of four others. On global economic issues such as de-dollorisation, there is likely to be an ‘authoritarian consensus’, whereas democratic nations and those with closer ties to the United States may not concur. Differences between key Middle East powers Saudi Arabia and Iran are profound and age-old; they may be tactically resolvable, but would not vanish and could obstruct BRICS’ decisions in unexpected ways,’ ‘ she said while talking to India Narrative.

She added that given strong ties of the new entrants with China, BRICS will now be China-centric, which may subdue US influence, but whether it will bode well for the world, only time holds an answer.

Some others however disagree that BRICS with heavyweights within grouping, such as India, Russia and Saudi Arabia and Iran would accept a hegemon from the east to lead the grouping by the nose. Besides, with China being a net energy importer, many other member countries have significant leverage over Beijing, which can be exercised in case the circumstances demand.