The nature of the BRICS alliance, and the Gulf states’ interactions with it, has long been a matter of debate within the region. Gulf powers have long sought greater engagement with BRICS as a potential counterbalance to the Western international system; in the post-February 2022 world, as the West has heaped sanctions on BRICS member Russia and attempted to curtail its military output, ties between the two sides have deepened. Even Gulf states without antipathy to Washington, or even close relations, have tended to view BRICS nations positively as potential trading partners, even as its loose status and unorganised structure make it ineffective compared to Western institutions.
BRICS’ relevance to the Gulf, however, is certain to increase this year, after the alliance agreed to expand from five nations to eleven—including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as neighboring Egypt and Ethiopia. That three major Gulf states were chosen from among the 40 interested and 22 official applicants speaks to the region’s global importance, and in particular the economic clout of the three selected nations. The expansion—which will take effect on January 1, 2024—will reinforce Russian and Chinese hopes that the loose alliance will serve as a possible alternative to Western institutions such as the G7, the World Bank, and the IMF.
China-U.S. Rivalry in the Gulf
China is one of the founding members of BRICS and its largest economy by far. It has an equal share in BRICS’ bank, the New Development Bank, as well as other vehicles for foreign investment—perhaps most notably the “Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank” (AIIB), a Beijing-based bank that ostensibly copies Western multilateral development banks like the World Bank and the IMF but in practice operates as an extension of China’s foreign policy. A top priority for China has been to decrease the influence of Western financial institutions, curb the use of the U.S. dollar, and create a financial “new world order” centered on China.
While China’s aims in this regard are clear—and its increased diplomacy in the region, such as in its organization of the recent Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, speaks to its increased influence—it is vastly too soon to consider the invited countries as drifting toward the Chinese orbit. Although more than forty states applied to join the BRICS partnership—including some with far closer ties to China than the Gulf states—the nations that were invited tended to not only have friendly relations with China, but also with China’s regional archrival and a founding member of BRICS, India, as well as with Brazil to a lesser extent. Although the deliberations to select the six new entrants into the alliance was not made public, the Indian preference of the Gulf states is noteworthy, due to their particular importance in the Indian economy. Moreover, Argentina is Brazil’s third-largest trading partner, right after China and the United States.
In a broader sense, the general trend of some observers to describe BRICS as a Chinese-led alliance is misleading. BRICS’ existing members are not in China’s orbit; it is no secret that India and China have grave differences on regional and international matters, including bloody border crashes in the last decade. In early September, Chinese leader Xi Jinping conspicuously did not attend the G20 Summit in New Delhi, which India had gone to great lengths to prepare for and featured most other major world leaders; Xi’s absence was widely framed in local media as a snub. Although Chinese second-tier officials and diplomats did attend the summit, they also dragged their feet on agreeing to a joint declaration, a customary statement issued during each G20 meeting. Even though they found a middle ground and released the declaration eventually, the long debates and negotiations show clearly that India is not in China’s orbit in any sense of the word.
Although the India-China rivalry is considered a hindering factor for BRICS, it also has an upside—it makes BRICS more multilateral and requires genuine consensus rather than compulsion, which might paradoxically make it a more effective platform. For many years, India opposed BRICS expansion; although its reasons for doing so were complicated, one of the most significant of these was the desire to avoid transforming the platform into an anti-Western bloc. While the inclusion of Iran clearly brings the alliance closer to that position, the other members all have stable relations with the United States and Europe, despite recently increased relations with China.
The End of Hegemony?
Even though the United Kingdom left the Gulf 50 years ago and has lost its global status in general, the Gulf is still important for Britain and shares a special place in its foreign relations, which have deepened in the post-Brexit era with greater economic, security, and diplomatic relations. However, the Gulf is no longer governed by Pax Britannica, but by Pax Americana. Shifts in hegemony do not happen overnight, and even 50 years might not be enough to delete the deep connections. The same is true of the current reign of U.S. hegemony in the Gulf. Even though the U.S. is still the sole military and political actor in the Gulf, the Chinese footstep is more visible daily, from trade to military and from diplomacy to culture and education. Moreover, a possible shift from Pax Americana to “Pax Sinica” would be harsher than from Pax Britannica to Americanna, as America and Britain were allies and fundamentally shared the same objectives in the region.
A transition to “Pax Sinica” is probably overstated. Instead, the Middle East’s new political trajectory is tied to the rise of multipolarity around the globe; regional powers can now engage in non-conventional alliances with a wide range of actors, with or without the consent of the traditional “great powers.” The policy of diversification is visible for almost all regional powers. Saudi Arabia and the UAE do not ignore the United States and Europe, but build relations with China and Russia—a development which annoys their traditional allies, but does not alienate them. This is a general trend across the Middle East, and can be seen in Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and even Israel.
A New Platform for Iran and Saudi Arabia
The recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia sparked renewed debate regarding the rise of China in the Middle East. The thaw in relations between these two regional rivals together is an interesting development, as many decisions in BRICS have to be taken unanimously. While it is too early to conclude how the Saudi-Iran enmity will affect the organization, it is sure that BRICS can serve as a formal and informal arena for diplomats and politicians of these two countries to meet regularly. Indeed, both sides have experienced similar situations before, as Iran was admitted to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in July 2023 and Saudi Arabia became a dialogue partner in March 2023. (The SCO is larger than BRICS, and is no stranger to regional rivalries; India and Pakistan are both members.)
Of course, the membership of Iran and its rivals also risks the effectiveness of the club. Tehran is notoriously hostile to its adversaries, and adding new states that do not get along might make the organization even harder to manage. However, in the aggregate, BRICS expansion and the growing strength and international importance of many Middle Eastern nations can be considered a victory for the region in general. As much as discussions of current events in the Gulf are centered on the rise of China or the fall of the U.S. in the Middle East, one should be aware of the decision-making process, and consider these steps as part of the broader story of the rise of the Middle East as a whole.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.