Forty-five years after the revolution and establishment of the Islamic Republic, the regime in Tehran is not only widely distrusted but has also sown the seeds of distrust among Iranians.
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The BRICS economic bloc’s invitation to six more countries – four of them from the Middle East – could be perceived as another indication of China’s growing influence and the Middle East’s shift away from the West, particularly the United States. But it is more likely a part of the continuing process of the Gulf Arab countries’ East-focused economic, diplomatic, and security diversification in an increasingly multipolar and multialigned world.
The economic grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa announced in Johannesburg August 24 that the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Argentina could formally join the expanded bloc in January 2024.
This is the bloc’s first expansion in 13 years, after the BRIC group came together in 2009, joined by South Africa a year later. The expansion from a list of 22 aspiring applicants will revitalize BRICS after years of skepticism about the group’s importance and impact. If all six countries accept their invitations, the bloc will represent 46% of the world’s population and 36% of the world’s gross domestic product in purchasing power parity terms.
While new members joining these emerging market economies, which are urging more representation for the Global South in world affairs, suits the interests of the bloc, it adds great value for the UAE, which is a middle power in its own right because of its crude oil, capital, commerce, and connectivity resources.
While the UAE has formally accepted the invitation, Saudi Arabia is yet to make any formal announcement.
The entry of the UAE into the BRICS fold indicates its growing confidence to take bold and independent decisions, unmindful of how the United States perceives them. For the UAE, joining BRICS epitomizes the pursuit of strategic autonomy and equidistant ties.
According to Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE’s entry into BRICS “forms part of the UAE’s commitment to promoting constructive dialogue through active platforms that represent developing and emerging economies, and the country’s focus on long-term economic prosperity and maintaining balanced strategic and economic relations – including with international organisations – in an ever-evolving world order. The UAE has consistently championed the value of multilateralism in supporting peace, security, and development globally.”
The G7, led by the United States, is an exclusive club of post-World War II democracies whose economies thrived until the turn of the century but have slowed in recent years. While it would be difficult to envisage the G7 entertaining any additional members, BRICS has set aside ideology and offered smaller countries a seat at the table among countries that are tipped to be some of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
The summit’s host, South Africa, said BRICS is “inclusive” and not “anti-West.” The bloc’s newly invited members have been chosen for their geopolitical importance, not ideology, Brazil’s president said. Even though the UAE views joining the bloc similarly, it certainly adds to the perception of growing disillusionment with the West, while also offering it another window to avoid superpower competition.
BRICS membership will help the UAE consolidate its multialignment strategy by working with China on the one hand and with the United States as part of I2U2 (India, Israel, the UAE, and the United States) on the other.
The UAE – which is a very important oil and non-oil trade partner of most of the BRICS countries, especially India and China – will continue to find significant investment opportunities in BRICS countries and the Global South. However, the fact that the UAE joined the BRICS-promoted New Development Bank in September 2021, along with Bangladesh, Egypt, and Uruguay, offers “co-financing opportunities.” Its cash-rich sovereign wealth funds can deliver “greater market access to the BRICS countries,” especially in infrastructure projects, leading to greater connectivity between them.
The UAE is already a reputed global hub. Its strategic location and well-connected network of airports, ports, roads, and now railways syncs well with BRICS members’ bid to capitalize on the global connectivity agenda, including China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Its NDB membership also ties in well with its membership in other multilateral development banks, thus giving teeth to the UAE’s economic diversification plans.
The BRICS bloc, which would have seven G20 members upon the entry of Saudi Arabia and Argentina, is also discussing a common currency. Though it is unlikely to materialize any time soon, some of the BRICS and newly invited members have already started using their local currencies to conduct trade.
In mid-August, India and the UAE began settling bilateral deals, including crude oil transactions, using their local currencies instead of the U.S. dollar. A few weeks earlier, with little or no U.S. dollar reserves left to repay its International Monetary Fund loans, Argentina made a partial settlement using China’s renminbi.
While these could be seen as de-dollarization moves, financial experts have stressed that such currency switches and diversification help simplify business dealings, reduce currency conversion fees, and even help overcome difficulties borne out of U.S.-imposed sanctions.
Further, the BRICS bloc offers another platform for competing countries, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran, which are already OPEC members, to advance their de-escalation bids. Iran is also a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE are dialogue partners. While these moves would seem to undermine U.S. efforts to contain Iran and enhance the importance of non-Western countries in the region, they also offer a template for the United States to follow – by focusing less on ideological and political issues and more on economic diplomacy.
With the expansion of BRICS, there would be three regional powerhouse countries in Africa and two South American countries in the bloc, enabling the UAE to enhance its African and South American strategies, which have gained momentum in recent years. These could be pursued via the South American trade bloc, the Southern Common Market, or Mercosur, and the African Continental Free Trade Area.
A few days before the summit, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan appeared unfazed by the bloc’s expansion plans. He said that the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is not anticipating the grouping to evolve into a “geopolitical rival to the United States.” He pointed out that the United States had “strong, positive” relations with three BRICS members – Brazil, India, and South Africa – and will continue to “manage our relationship with China” and “push back on Russia’s aggression.”
It is likely that in Washington’s calculus the expansion of BRICS will not pose a serious challenge. It perhaps doubts the effectiveness of an 11-member multilateral forum even more than the earlier five-member “minilateral” mechanism. But Washington ought to bear in mind that the continued expansion of the new non-Western alternative economic ecosystems reflects the increasing global power shifts that are underway amid a leadership vacuum.
The evolving multipolar world order is unlikely to be conditioned by superpowers as much as they are likely to be conditioned by middle and smaller powers, which prefer multialignment. It would be in the United States’ interest not to view the UAE and other Gulf Arab countries’ new strategies from the prism of competition or as a zero-sum game but as a bridge between the Global South and Global North, especially while dealing with the hotspots in the Middle East, South China Sea, and Europe
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and director of research and analysis, with expertise on Gulf-Asia relations, at the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy.
the director general of b’huth, which he established with Ahmed Al Mansoori in 2002 in Dubai, UAE.
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