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 January 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 In?cio 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.
Putin welcomed the six countries by video link. He did not mention Wednesday’s plane crash that left Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and some of his top lieutenants presumed dead.
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 organisation 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 January 1 joining date and take “the appropriate decision”.
BRICS currently represents around 40 per cent 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 United States and European Union over their criticism of the recent conflict in the country’s Tigray region.
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.
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.