A “BRICS volte-face” from Saudi Arabia?

With barely two weeks into the new 2024 year, the much anticipated expansion of the BRICS core is encountering snags. After the decision of Argentina not to join BRICS after the presidential elections at the end of 2023, it was expected that the remaining five developing economies that were invited at the 2023 BRICS summit in South Africa would join the bloc starting from January 1, 2024. Yet, during the Davos 2024 meetings on January 16th Saudi Arabia’s trade minister Majid Al-Kasabi declared: “Saudi Arabia has been invited to attend BRICS, we have not yet officially joined BRICS”. The resulting uncertainty regarding the status of the BRICS expansion highlights yet again the risks associated with widening the ranks of the BRICS core and the importance of developing more flexible tracks of BRICS+ economic cooperation, including via the “integration of integrations” format and the creation of the BRICS “partnership belt”.

The declarations coming from Saudi Arabia are not necessarily suggestive of Saudi Arabia decision not to join BRICS – in fact, a full-fledged accession of the country into BRICS+ is still the base-case scenario for this year. What is more important is that the statements from Saudi Arabia should be taken as an important sign of the fragilities associated with the expansion of the BRICS core to include economies from various regions of the developing world with varying and shifting commitments and interests. These risks may pertain to increased difficulties of policy coordination within the grouping, particularly during periods when the global economy and geopolitics are in flux. Such risks were flagged early on when the debate around the expansion of the BRICS core was just starting to unfold – back then in 2022 the scenarios associated with the choice between expanding core membership and BRICS+ were explored in a Valdai club report and its conclusion was that BRICS+ modalities may be superior to an outright expansion in the BRICS core membership[1]. Some of the possible tracks of BRICS+ as a multimodal platform for economic cooperation may provide greater optionality for economic cooperation and include[2]:

  • Expansion in the membership of the New Development Bank
  • Expansion in the “circle of friends” that are regular participants in BRICS/BRICS+ summits
  • Construction of a BEAMS platform that would bring together all of the main regional integration arrangements of the BRICS economies

The good news is that all of the above tracks of BRICS+ cooperation are likely to witness important progress in the coming years. In 2024, BRICS economies are set to decide on the composition of a “partnership belt” for the bloc that is likely to include some of the economies that had applied for membership over the course of the past several years. The New Development Bank is also likely to exhibit greater dynamism in increasing its membership, with this key pillar of BRICS economic cooperation set to build on its newly created regional centers/offices across the developing world. The track of greater coordination among the regional integration groups where BRICS are members will likely see its first implementation stages this year within the framework of the SCO-BRICS-EAEU dialogue.

In the meantime, BRICS strategists will need to weigh carefully the pros and cons of further expansion in core membership. A number of large regional powers from the developing world have varying economic interdependencies, interests and development priorities that straddle the developed world and the Global South. Including such economies into the BRICS circle will be advantageous for building bridges between the advanced and developing economies, but within the BRICS core greater divergence may also exact costs. And just like the flexibility and the low degree of institutionalization in the operation of BRICS may work to the advantage of the grouping, so too it may lead to contradictions with negative implications for the credibility of the BRICS+ enterprise.

In the end, recent developments around BRICS expansion yet again suggest that the goal for BRICS should not be to maximize core membership, but rather to create multimodal platforms that would facilitate greater economic cooperation across the developing world – as stated in our earlier article from 2023, “it is important that in designing their expansion BRICS stay ahead of the curve and rather than merely reacting to membership applications they also create a long-term inclusive framework that can offer a range of cooperation modalities to any developing economy in the Global South universe”[3].

Image by Konevi via Pixabay

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[1] Arapova, Ekaterina and Lissovolik, Yaroslav, BRICS: the Global South Responds to New Challenges (In the Context of China’s BRICS Chairmanship) (July 13, 2022). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4301141 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4301141

[2] https://brics-plus-analytics.org/brics-as-a-compromise-format-for-the-2023-summit/

[3] https://brics-plus-analytics.org/the-brics-expansion-dilemma-size-vs-representation/