Iran and Saudi Arabia were among six countries invited Thursday to join the BRICS bloc of developing economies in a move that showed signs of strengthening a China-Russia coalition as tensions with the West spiral higher.
The United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Egypt and Ethiopia were also set to enter BRICS from Jan. 1, 2024, joining current members Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa to make an 11-nation bloc.
The announcement came after two days of talks at a summit in Johannesburg involving Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. Russian President Vladimir Putin participated in the discussions virtually after his travel to the summit was complicated by an International Criminal Court arrest warrant issued against him over the war in Ukraine.
While there has been momentum for a BRICS expansion for months - pushed largely by China and Russia - the five leaders were locked in closed-door discussions for two days Tuesday and Wednesday before emerging with an agreement on expanding and a list of countries on the last day of the summit.
BRICS is a consensus-based organization that needs all members to agree on decisions.
The bloc was formed by Brazil, Russia, India and China in 2009 and added South Africa in 2010, making Thursday’s announcement in the heart of Johannesburg’s high-rise Sandton financial district its most significant decision in more than a decade.
Mohammad Jamshidi, the political deputy of Iran President Ebrahim Raisi, called joining BRICS a “strategic victory for Iran’s foreign policy.”
“Felicitations to the Supreme Leader of Islamic Revolution and great nation of Iran,” Jamshidi wrote on X, the website formerly known as Twitter.
Raisi attended the summit, as did Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, who said the oil-rich kingdom could be a leader of the bloc given its resources, wealth and access to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.
However, in a twist, Saudi Arabia’s membership appeared uncertain after Prince Faisal told the Saudi-owned broadcaster Al Arabiya later Thursday that the kingdom appreciated the invitation but would first study the details before the proposed Jan. 1 joining date and take “the appropriate decision.”
BRICS currently represents around 40% of the world’s population and more than a quarter of the world’s GDP, with that set to increase. The potential new members include three of the world’s biggest oil producers: Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran.
“This membership expansion is historic,” Chinese leader Xi said. “It shows the determination of BRICS countries for unity and development.”
“Over the years, China has stood in solidarity with developing countries through thick and thin.”
Saudi Arabia and the UAE might provide new capital for BRICS’ New Development Bank. However, economists also noted that Argentina and Egypt are the International Monetary Fund’s two biggest debtors and have required bailouts.
Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country with 120 million people, has been at odds with the U.S. and European Union over their criticism of the recent conflict in the country’s Tigray region.
Argentinian President Alberto Fernández said that joining BRICS was “a new opportunity” that “strengthens us.”
BRICS has a stated aim to amplify the voice of the Global South. All five current members and dozens of other developing countries represented at the summit repeatedly called this week for a fairer world order and the reform of international institutions like the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank.
Many in the developing world view those institutions as Western-led and unfair to them and a stream of leaders made speeches Thursday calling for change.
While that sentiment and challenging the current international order is useful for China and Russia’s geopolitical aims, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a speech to the BRICS summit that the calls for reform were valid.
He quoted figures that said, on average, African countries pay four times more for borrowing from international financial institutions than the United States and eight times more than the wealthiest European countries.
“Redesigning today’s outdated, dysfunctional and unfair global financial architecture is necessary, but it won’t happen overnight,” Guterres said. “Yet we can and must take practical action now.”
More than 20 countries had formally applied to join BRICS ahead of the Johannesburg summit and more than 20 others had expressed interest, indicating how the bloc might resonate with many as an alternative.
“Cooperation is key to our collective survival,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said.
South African officials pushed back against characterizations that BRICS was taking an anti-West turn under the influence of China and Russia. Putin and Xi laced their speeches with criticism of the U.S. and its allies earlier in the summit, although Xi did also call for a “lowering of the temperature” in reference to the geopolitical climate.
Putin used a 17-minute prerecorded address on the opening day of the meetings to lash out at the West over the financial sanctions imposed on Russia as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine.
The expansion of BRICS also appears to expand China and Russia’s sphere of influence, especially in the Persian Gulf. While Saudi Arabia had been touted as a likely new member, Iran’s inclusion wasn’t expected. In the end, three Gulf nations were in line to possibly join.
Until recently, the inclusion of Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE together in the same economic or political organization would have been unthinkable, as tensions escalated following the collapse of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal.
But the UAE became the first to reengage diplomatically with Iran, and Saudi Arabia and Iran announced they had reached a separate détente in March, notably with the help of Chinese mediation.
China has recently pushed for more of a presence in the Gulf and has sought closer relations with all three nations, particularly Iran, from which it has imported oil. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also maintained relations with Russia amid the war on Ukraine, annoying the U.S., which has long provided security guarantees for the major oil-producing nations.
The U.S. and its Western allies clashed with Russia and Iran at the U.N. Security Council last month over Tehran’s uranium enrichment and its reported supply of combat drones to Russia that are being used to attack Ukraine.