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Expect a more radical BRICS-plus-six

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The BRICS group, made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, last week decided to more than double in size. At its Johannesburg summit, it invited six countries to join the organisation from 1 January 2024 – Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). What BRICS didn’t do was release the criteria for new membership. This has left us to guess why these six states made the cut out of more than 40 that had expressed interest and 23 that formally applied.

As BRICS seeks to forge a new and more equitable world order, increase trade, and challenge the supremacy of the West, it’s worth reflecting on its expansion and internal dynamics, and what this may mean for South Africa and Israel.

Let’s take the new additions in turn. Argentina’s economy is ranked 22nd in the world, with a gross domestic product (GDP) estimated at $641 billion (R11.8 trillion) for 2023. It has a notoriously volatile economy, and faces the prospect of a right-wing party winning its 22 October 2023 elections, which is likely to be lukewarm about BRICS membership. With their traditional (but mostly amicable) sporting rivalry in Latin America and closeness politically since the 1980s, it was no surprise that Brazil reportedly made Argentina’s accession a condition for it supporting the expansion process as a whole.

South Africa and Argentina get on well. Israel also has good relations with Argentina, in spite of its recognition of “Palestine” as a state. Iran has been strongly linked to deadly bombings of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and a Jewish community centre in 1994 (the AMIA or Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina), complicating their relations. Attempts at Argentina-Iran dialogue have had limited results, and this tension is likely to be heightened as 2024 is the 30th anniversary of the AMIA bombing.

Africa has two new representatives: Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt’s GDP is expected to reach $477 billion (R8.8 trillion) in 2023. It’s the 31st biggest economy in the world. Ethiopia’s GDP is $127 billion (R2.3 trillion), making it the world’s 60th largest economy, and the baby of BRICS. There are simmering tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Egypt says will adversely affect the Nile River downstream. One of the reasons that the second Russia-Africa summit was postponed to July 2023 and relocated to St Petersburg was because neither Ethiopia nor Egypt would agree on the other being the host. Egypt is the most populous Arab country, and controls the vital Suez Canal. It’s a significant military power.

Both countries have good relations with South Africa, in spite of Egypt being a rival for an African seat in a reformed United Nations Security Council, should that ever happen. Israel has strong ties with Ethiopia, and a cold peace with Egypt that has endured, with ups and downs, since the Camp David Accords of 1978. It’s unclear why Nigeria and Algeria, for instance, weren’t chosen.

The other three new members are Islamic states from the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has a formidable GDP of $1.1 trillion (R20.3 trillion), ranking its economy 17th in the world. The tiny UAE comes in at 28th, with a GDP of $508 billion (R9.4 trillion). Iran is 40th, at $389 billion (R7.2 trillion).

The Saudis and Iranians have struggled for supremacy for decades, both supporting proxies in the region. Earlier this year, the Chinese managed to broker détente between the two powers, which seems to have held so far. South Africa has successfully balanced its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia over the years. Pretoria has been a big supporter of Tehran’s nuclear programme, and has loyally defended Iran in many international forums, repaying Iran’s solidarity with the struggle in South Africa.

The UAE is one of the countries in the Abraham Accords that normalised relations with Israel in 2020, and connections between the two have blossomed. In 2022, 239 000 Israelis visited Dubai. They are both part of the I2U2 group, with India and the United States (US).

Iran’s hostility towards the US and Israel since its Islamic Revolution in 1979 is well known. It’s also Russia’s major ally in the Middle East. I believe that Iran will seek to influence its BRICS partners to take a harder line on Israel and towards the West. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict usually merits a paragraph or two in the long declarations issued at BRICS summits. In spite of Israel’s solid relations with Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the UAE, and the possibility of a normalisation agreement with Saudi Arabia, I expect the tone of BRICS communications to become shriller and sharper with the inclusion of Iran. Not that I think this will bother Israel much, to be frank. Israel is used to international bodies condemning it at every opportunity.

As for South Africa, with a GDP of $406 billion (R7.5 trillion) (the world’s 37th largest), it has always been an economic dwarf compared to the other BRICS giants. It may see its voice considerably diluted in the enlarged grouping and its new set of complex relationships and dynamics. What’s left of its democratic ideals will be seriously challenged by the growing power of decidedly illiberal states like China, Iran, and Russia. And the other new additions also have appalling human rights records, for the most part. It will be judged by the company it keeps.

As Russia assumes the presidency in 2024, expect the BRICS platform to be used for propaganda purposes to show that Moscow isn’t as isolated as the West would like, especially as the war in Ukraine drags on. What’s certain is that BRICS (or whatever it might be called going forward) is a force to be reckoned with in the international system, and will be strengthened by bringing more states into the fold.

  • Steven Gruzd is a political analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.

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