At a pivotal moment in global geopolitics, the “BRICS” group of emerging economies—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—extended an invitation to six new states, including the three major Gulf states, to join the group starting next year. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), together with Egypt, Ethiopia, and Argentina, are poised to join the founding members on January 1, 2024. Discussions about BRICS expansion have been ongoing for several years, with China being one of the most interested in expanding the coalition. Amid changing relations with the United States, the oil-rich Saudi Arabia and the UAE have shown keen interest in joining the bloc, signaling a strategic interest in a multipolar world.
Although BRICS has never operated as a rival to the developed world in any sense—its institutions are nowhere near as cohesive as those of the Group of Seven (G7) nations—it could serve as a powerful economic counterweight to these countries. Today, even before the addition of its new members, BRICS represents 32.1% of global GDP and 42% of the world’s population. Once the expansion is finalized, the bloc will have an additional 420 million people, and will include the oil-rich Gulf states. Chinese President Xi Jinping, the clear political and economic heavyweight of the bloc, described the expansion as “historic” in character.
Indeed, the inclusion of these three Gulf nations into the BRICS framework can significantly elevate the bloc’s global economic and political stature. This potential is especially pronounced in areas such as energy security, natural resources, investment opportunities, and enhanced political influence within global international bodies such as the United Nations. Brazil and India have long harbored aspirations to secure permanent seats on the UN Security Council, a move that Russia has openly supported in the past. The expanding clout of BRICS could bolster a bloc-wide effort to realize that ambition.
Within the regional context, it is noteworthy that each of the three Gulf nations pursues their own avenue to bolster their individual political, economic, and strategic interests in their cooperation with BRICS. However, the envisaged alignment of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the UAE not only promises to galvanize their cooperative pursuits, but also stands as a catalyst for fortifying regional stability, which has steadily gained traction since the latter part of 2021. Evidence of this trajectory is provided by the reinstatement of the UAE’s ambassador to Tehran in August 2022, and the restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March 2023. This historic accord, which materialized through adept Chinese mediation, resolved a protracted diplomatic impasse between the two nations that had endured since 2016.
Ending Iran’s International Isolation
After Iran’s recent formal inclusion into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in July 2023, its future BRICS membership—set up for January 2024—is viewed as a substantial diplomatic step that will amplify its stature both regionally and globally. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi emphasized that both the SCO and BRICS stand as the foremost emerging alliances geared towards countering United States unilateralism and fostering deeper collaboration among developing nations. Echoing this sentiment, Raisi underscored Iran’s endorsement of BRICS initiatives focused on the de-dollarization of economic exchanges among members. He further advocated for the employment of national currencies and the bolstering of BRICS-centric payment and financial settlement mechanisms.
Beyond the geopolitical advantages of aligning with an international consortium that is well-positioned to counter U.S. dominance, Iran’s inclusion in BRICS is anticipated to broaden its commercial and economic relationships with the member nations, moving beyond already-leveraged connections with China and Russia. One of Iran’s pivotal aspirations is the realization of the North-South Transport Corridor, which aims to link India and Russia via the recently constructed Iranian port of Chabahar. This ambition stems from a series of strategic partnership accords inked with India since 2003. Tehran envisions that this fresh initiative will help to offset the myriad challenges that have beset India-Iran diplomatic ties over the past decade.
Iran is similarly interested in strengthening its foothold in Latin America, building upon its established ties with nations like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. During Brazilian President Lula’s prior tenure in office from 2003 to 2010, Brasilia and Tehran enjoyed close relations, and Iranian leaders have sought to restore this relationship. It is worth noting that, for the fiscal year 2022-23, Brazil emerged as Iran’s leading trade partner in Latin America, followed by Argentina, another of the six states invited to join BRICS.
Iran furthermore anticipates leveraging its bolstered regional standing, particularly in light of its recent reconciliation with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Their collective membership in entities such as BRICS can foster greater regional cooperation. Although they may differ in their foreign policies, particularly towards the United States and Western nations at large, Gulf states can still identify areas of collaboration, especially in commercial and financial sectors. With the persisting sanctions on Iran and the failure of both sides to restore the JCPOA nuclear agreement, diversifying and securing investment sources from financially robust nations is becoming increasingly crucial for Iran. More importantly, Iran hopes to alleviate the isolation resulting from President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy of 2018 by nurturing deeper engagement with both established and emerging trading partners in Asia and Latin America.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE: A Multidimensional Foreign Policy Approach
One day after receiving the invitation, Abu Dhabi promptly accepted and officially announced its membership in BRICS. If Riyadh were to similarly embrace the invitation to join BRICS, the decision can be understood as an affirmation of the new role that both countries have played in their increasingly resolute approach to foreign policy formulation.
The discourse articulated by Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan during the recent BRICS summit signifies the paradigm shift in the kingdom’s role conceptions globally, positioning and portraying it as an engaged, self-governing, dependable, and responsible participant on the international stage. Farhan declared in his remarks that the Kingdom was “moving forward with confident steps towards achieving global goals,” underscoring Saudi Arabia’s sentiments of pride in its prominent standing as the primary BRICS trading partner in the Middle East. Bilateral trade with BRICS member states has surged to $160 billion. Similarly, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah Zayed bin Al Nahyan conveyed Abu Dhabi’s keen interest in expanding its international economic and political alliances: “This development 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 organizations- in an ever-evolving world order.”
The prospect of BRICS membership also aligns harmoniously with the political sensitivities of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. This alignment is based on a shared consensus within the bloc that upholds non-interference in domestic affairs and the principles of sovereignty.
Although the GCC states are not keen on de-dollarization of trade and investment within the BRICS bloc, closer cooperation with BRICS countries also serves their economic interests. Since 2021, the UAE has been a member of the New Development Bank, a multilateral development bank founded by BRICS countries in 2015, with a $556 million subscribed capital. Membership in BRICS has the potential to expedite the economic transition and post-oil restructuring endeavors of the two GCC states in the forthcoming period.
While BRICS has yet to fully realize its ambition of becoming a cohesive and globally influential power bloc, its recent expansion undoubtedly presents a fresh avenue to foster multilateral collaboration outside the predominant political and economic institutions led by industrialized Western nations today. In this context, the addition of the three Gulf states—Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—offers them an invaluable opportunity to amplify their influence on both the Middle Eastern and the global stages. Amidst a prolonged conflict with the West and enduring the hardships of five years of an economic isolation, Iran emerges as the most promising beneficiary of involvement with the group. However, it is evident that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are poised to reap substantial advantages from this engagement as well.
It is finally important to highlight that since its creation in 2010, this is the first time BRICS has expanded, and its gaze has been firmly set on the Gulf. This strategic choice underscores the global significance of the region, emphasizing its potential to wield considerable economic and political influence on a global scale. Still, this expansion has been met with skepticism in various quarters. The notion of a formidable economic bloc that does not prioritize democratic values, and which encompasses states under international sanctions like Russia and Iran, is seen by many as a challenge to the established international order—and not necessarily one for the better.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.