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LONDON: The foreign ministers of BRICS countries Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa have expressed their willingness to admit new members, including Saudi Arabia, as the bloc seeks a larger voice in the international arena.

At a two-day conference in Cape Town on Thursday and Friday, attended by Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the group presented itself as a force for a rebalancing of the global order away from Western-dominated institutions .

Prince Faisal held bilateral talks with several of his counterparts and attended a ministerial meeting of the Friends of BRICS on Partnership for mutually accelerated growth, sustainable development and inclusive multilateralism.

He also held talks with Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s foreign minister, to review measures to implement the deal between the two countries signed in Beijing, including stepping up bilateral work to ensure international peace and security, according to a statement by the Saudi delegation.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. (MOFA/Twitter)

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Cuba, DRC, Comoros, Gabon and Kazakhstan have all sent representatives to Cape Town for talks, while Egypt, Argentina, Bangladesh, Guinea-Bissau and Indonesia have attended virtually.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said more than a dozen countries have expressed interest in joining the BRICS. Meanwhile, Ma Zhaoxu, China’s deputy foreign minister, told a press conference: We expect more countries to join our big family.

According to reports, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Algeria, Egypt, Bahrain and Iran have all formally applied to join the BRICS, as have several other nations that appear intent on recalibrating international ties. in line with an increasingly multipolar world order.

According to the Financial Times, Saudi Arabia is also in talks with the New Development Bank, the Shanghai-based lender better known as the BRICS bank, to admit the kingdom as its ninth member.

A summit of heads of state is scheduled for Johannesburg in August.

The BRICS economic bloc is positioning itself as an alternative to Western-dominated centers of power. However, experts seem uncertain about its potential, pointing to innate divisions among the BRICS core powers and a lack of clarity about what membership might entail.

However, for several countries seeking financial assistance, the stringent demands often attached to bailouts from Western-dominated institutions such as the IMF and World Bank have proved increasingly unpalatable, leading many nations to seek partnerships elsewhere.

A Tunisian man and his children ride home in their wagon to the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. (AFP)

One such example is Tunisia.

Battered by dwindling output, high debt and rampant inflation, with soaring food and fuel prices, many saw the IMF’s offer of a $1.9 billion loan as the only way Tunisia’s exit from a growing economic and political crisis.

President Kais Saied, however, did not agree with this prospect, expressing his views on the agreement very clearly in early April, rejecting calls to cut energy and food subsidies and to reduce public wages, on which the loan had been subordinated.

I will not listen to diktats, Saied said, noting the deadly riots that followed in 1983 after the bread price hike, telling Tunisians they had to rely on themselves instead.

Others close to Saied seem to think he has different plans to stop the country’s economic rot.

Echoing Saied, Mahmoud bin Mabrouk, spokesman for the pro-presidential 25 July Movement, told Arab News that Tunisia will not accept diktats or interference and will now look to the BRICS as a political, economic and financial alternative that will allow Tunisia to open up to the new world.

If bin Mabrouks reclaims his weight, Tunisia would become the latest North African country to gravitate towards the bloc after Algeria applied to join late last year.

Such a move would suggest that the BRICS bloc is an expanding entity that offers an alternative to the IMF and World Bank for states seeking bailouts.

However, Jim O’Neill, the economist who coined the acronym BRICS, wonders what Tunisia would actually have joined, describing the bloc more as a political club than a defined economic grouping, and which appears to have had financially negative.

As I have argued before, since the political circle was born, ironically, its economic strength has weakened, O’Neill told Arab News. He also wonders what criteria the bloc would look for in new members, suggesting that in the case of Algeria and Tunisia everything just looks like (like) symbolism.

Symbolism or not, Algeria and Tunisia are not alone in their pivot to the fledgling bloc, with Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkiye all considering tying their futures to it.

Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at the Carnegies Middle East Program, believes Tunisia’s move should be taken seriously as it represents an intentional geopolitical shift on its part, noting the growing criticism of Tunisia from both Europe and states United.

Tunisia is in desperate need of financial assistance and since the West is focused on making aid to Tunisia conditional on democratic reforms, it makes sense that Saied would seek assistance from countries that are less concerned about human rights and freedom, Yerkes told Arab News.

However, like ONeill, he questions whether the BRICS can offer an alternative to the IMF and the World Bank, underlining the bloc’s weak track record when it comes to assisting other countries and helping them achieve real and lasting economic prosperity.

Internally, the BRICS group, at least, seems confident it can compete with the West. And, with the group due to meet in Johannesburg this August, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor has reportedly suggested that the launch of the economic bloc’s currency, intended as a rival to dollar hegemony, would be firmly on the table.

Even so, few commentators offer a defense of BRICS as a new economic bloc, with Elie Abouaoun, director of MENA at the US Institute of Peace, seeing the addition of Tunisia as a burden around a limited pool of GDP contributors. .

The foreign ministers of South Africa and India. (Provided)

At this stage, the top contributors to global GDP among the BRICS countries are China and India, and most of the countries listed as potential candidates for membership are borrowers rather than solid contributors to global GDP, Abouaoun said. to Arab News.

With seven or eight new consumer countries joining the alliance, I see challenges for the larger BRICS member states and less, if any, financial gains for the new ones. The alliance will surely be weaker with more members so desperate for economic aid.

Similarly, Liam Campling, a professor of international affairs and development at Queen Mary University’s School of Business and Management, London, said the BRICS cohort’s agreement to admit Tunisia would be slightly puzzling given that it is a major medium level.

When you look at the existing members, they’re all sub-regional powers, each dominant in their own part of the world, but when you look at Tunisia it’s not as dominant in North Africa as Egypt is, Campling told Arab News.

So from the BRICS perspective it is not an obvious ally, but on the Tunisian side it could obviously be an effort to garner broader macroeconomic support. Although what I think is happening is that both sides are played, which is part of the game for any middle-ranked country.

Campling’s skepticism stems from his assertion that while Tunisia may have fallen foul of the United States, with greater political acrimony between the two, it is still very much economically bedded with the Europeans, adding that he won’t jeopardize its ties with the EU for that.

And like the others, Campling has broader reservations about the BRICS project, pointing to what he calls the central tension at the heart of it, namely the protracted border disputes between China and India.

This, he suggests, makes the bloc more of an ad hoc alliance than a cohesive unit that can direct global trade, politics and finance in a way similar to that of the IMF or the World Bank, and thus questions the claim that the BRICS could become an alternative economic bloc.

Essentially, I don’t see it offering a lasting alternative until the core tension between India and China is resolved, and I don’t see it being resolved, meaning there is nothing really holding it together. leaving little room for a more sustained role, he said.

Abouaoun says what is really missing is a regulatory model that other countries can accept beyond the defense of the multipolarity of the BRICS blocks. Scratch beneath the surface and there seems to be an absence of substance an opinion shared by Yerkes.

At this point it doesn’t look like much more than a potential counterweight to Europe and the United States, and without a core ideology, particularly with members with very different economic philosophies, it doesn’t seem likely it would be a strong competitor, he said.

Despite the consensus on the BRICS outlook, O’Neill disagrees with others when it comes to the question of whether the world needs another economic bloc, arguing that the goal should instead be to strengthen each economy, rather than act collectively.

Yerkes, Campling and Abouaoun seem less averse to the idea of ​​a new bloc, recognizing that US unipolarity appears to be on the wane. However, they point out that the value of the block will depend on its composition and intentions.

Indeed, with the likes of Saudi Arabia potentially in its ranks, the BRICS could reach new levels of financial and diplomatic influence, transforming the international arena.

Historically, the dominance of the West, and its various international bodies and institutions, has been extremely selfish, producing contradictory outcomes that have led to a world that is more volatile and more irregular and increasingly dependent on debt, Campling said.

All this has been pushed in the interests of Europeans and the United States. Perhaps we should look to the 1970s and the Non-Aligned Movement made up of many of those supposedly seeking to join the BRICS for inspiration.

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