Where is the Expanded BRICS Heading?

June 2024

On 1st of January 2024, BRICS, a group of developing countries and emerging markets, expanded in a historical step from five to ten members. This enlargement as well as other developments have further boosted the profile of BRICS which more and more sees itself as a vanguard of a new multipolar world order representing the «Global Majority». In late May 2024, the Swiss Institute for Global Affairs (SIGA) attended the BRICS Academic Forum in the Russian capital Moscow to better understand where BRICS is heading and what geopolitical impact this might have.

Still from a trailer announcing the BRICS Academic Forum with skyscrapers in Moscow, Russia, that are known as Moscow City in the background (source: https://t.me/pokoleniebrics/356)

BRICS stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The group which originally only comprised the first four countries was established in 2009 with the main goal to cooperate on global economic issues and to challenge the state in global financial institutions in which these countries, despite their respective economic weight, only had limited influence.


While the number of BRICS member countries remained, after the single addition of South Africa in 2010, for more than a decade the same, in summer 2023, BRICS announced the formal invitation of six additional countries. These six countries were Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Argentina. While a major shift in Argentinian politics in late 2023 caused the newly elected Argentinian government to withdraw its BRICS accession plans before they became effective, on 1st of January 2024, Russian president Vladimir V. Putin welcomed the other five countries as new full members of the organisation. [1] He did so as Russia took over the annually rotating chairmanship of BRICS for which Russia chose the motto «Strengthening Multilateralism for Just Global Development and Security».

How BRICS Works

To push this agenda and the newly enlarged BRICS forward, Russia is, during its current chairmanship in 2024, hosting over 200 events. These events include, inter alia, meetings of ministers of economy, trade, industry, health, education, and tourism, but also many more formats ranging from a meeting of heads of space agencies to a BRICS Bakery Cup. This exemplifies how broad the scope of topics discussed in BRICS has become and the numerous, sometimes more, sometimes less formal formats of the group.


The culmination of Russia’s current BRICS chairmanship will be the BRICS summit planned for 22nd to 24th of October 2024 in the Russian city of Kazan, where heads of states of BRICS are set to agree on and announce major decisions and future plans of the group.


Borrowing the picture of climbing mountain summits, all BRICS countries have BRICS Sherpas [2] and Sous-Sherpas that are tasked to help their countries reaching new heights. These BRICS Sherpas are officials of the highest echelon of each BRICS country which is one of the signs of the importance those countries attach to BRICS and its future.


These BRICS Sherpas and Sous-Sherpas also receive inputs from other BRICS formats that they then channel to BRICS leaders. One example are recommendations of the BRICS Academic Forum, which «is about bringing ideas to leaders,» as the Russian hosts put it at the start of the latest such forum that was held in Russia’s capital Moscow between 22nd and 24th of May 2024.

Pavel Knyazev, ambassador-at-large of the Russian Foreign Ministry and one of Russia’s BRICS Sous-Sherpa, receiving the written recommendations from the BRICS Academic Forum in Moscow (Franz J. Marty, 24th of May 2024)

The BRICS Academic Forum brought numerous delegates from BRICS countries as well as some additional guests together to discuss an array of topics, from BRICS’ role in global trade and politics, to how Western sanctions affect the global economy, over energy to artificial intelligence to only name a few. The atmosphere of the forum showed that BRICS member states, old and new alike, are in general enthusiastic and see the group, as some put it, as «the organisation of the future» in a new multipolar world order.


However, the forum also revealed that various issues, including core ones, remain challenging to tackle and showed an uneven participation of new members, which means that it still remains to be seen how the new members and potential other candidate countries integrate into BRICS.

Brave New World

One view echoed by most delegates at the BRICS Academics Forum in Moscow was that there is a «new world order» in which BRICS represents a «new vision of international politics», as one delegate from a new members state phrased it. Main cornerstones of this new order are, as mentioned by all delegates at the BRICS Academic Forum, multilateralism, respect for national sovereignty, and to take decision only based on consensus amongst all members that all have an equal say.


Given the new major geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West, it did not come as a surprise that Russian representatives, at times with stark language, contrasted this «new world order» with the old system which, according to Russian statements, is allegedly characterised by undue U.S. American dictate and sanctions. While delegates from other countries were less confrontational and often not directly naming the United States of America, also they advocated for a new order that shall no longer be dominated by Western countries.


That said, delegates underscored that BRICS is neither directed against the West nor anyone else nor that the group aspires to replace established international organisations like the United Nations; the group rather sees itself as providing alternatives and leading an evolution — not revolution — of the global order.


One common notion at the forum and of BRICS in general is that the Global South or Global Majority that was marginalised in the past is on the rise, has already overtaken the G7 (the group of the seven nations that so far mostly determined the global economy, namely the United States of America, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy), and, thus, should play a larger role. While exact figures slightly vary depending on the source, the expanded BRICS did, already in 2022, indeed not only account for about 46% of the world’s population (the G7’s share is less than 10%) but also for slightly over a third (35.6%) of the Gross Domestic Product of all countries on the planet thereby already surpassing the G7’s share (31.6%) whereas this gap is expected to further widen in favour of BRICS in the coming years. [3]


If the vision of some BRICS delegates, who noted that numerous additional countries want to join BRICS [4], should come true, BRICS could become an unprecedented bloc of non-Western countries that would not only due to the sheer size of population and economies, but also due to the amount of natural resources in the respective countries, have an ever bigger impact on global trade and supply chains of countries around the globe than the original BRICS.


Whether or to what extent such a scenario will unfold remains, however, to be seen. While the integration of the new BRICS members was, at one point of the forum, described as «smooth», «harmonious», and a success and the Iranian and Ethiopian delegations were very active and optimistic, the other three new members were mostly absent. As far as it could be determined, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt were only represented by one panel speaker each and there was reportedly only one attendee from Saudi Arabia who only stayed for one of the three days of the forum. These countries apparently also did not take part in the BRICS Think Tanks Council meetings in which BRICS delegates during the forum negotiated the exact text of their recommendations to BRICS leaders behind closed doors. They were also neither represented at the press conference presenting the results of the forum nor the closing session.

Closing Session of the BRICS Academic Forum in Moscow with representatives from (from left to right) Russia, Brazil, China, Ethiopia, India, Iran, and South Africa; notably absent were the new BRICS members Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia (Franz J. Marty, 24th of May 2024)

Assessing what this apparent lack of representation of a majority of new members at the BRICS Academic Forum means is difficult. While one potential explanation is that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt might, after all, not be that interested in BRICS, another possibility is that these countries might, all the more given the sheer number of BRICS events, simply have chosen to selectively partake in BRICS events and skip the BRICS Academic Forum.


The latter would, amongst others, be supported by the fact that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates did participate in a meeting of BRICS foreign ministers on 10th and 11th of June 2024 as well as in the BRICS Sherpa and Sous-Sherpa meeting in early 2024 ; that Egypt hosted a BRICS meeting on global grain trade in February 2024; and that, on 2nd of June 2024, the official news agency of the United Arab Emirates touted the first meeting of the United Arab Emirates’ BRICS Steering Committee, a national format in which ministers and high-ranking officials of the Emirates discuss the country’s integration into BRICS.


The case of Saudi Arabia is then more peculiar and affected by more question marks. While some observers at the BRICS Academic Forum mused that Saudi Arabia might concentrate on events clearly focussed on energy resources and might therefore have skipped the BRICS Academic Forum, it is noteworthy that Saudi Arabia was apparently also absent at the above-mentioned BRICS Sherpa and Sous-Sherpa meeting. That said, the Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah was then, at the occasion of the meeting of BRICS foreign ministers on 10th and 11th of June 2024, at the venue in Nizhny Novgorod in Russia, but he was not on the official photo of the BRICS foreign ministers at this event, that also included additional meetings with high-ranking representatives of non-BRICS countries. With respect to this travel of the Saudi foreign minister, a Saudi press communiqué explained that the kingdom was «participating in the meeting [in Nizhny Novgorod] as an invited country to join the [BRICS] group». Given that Saudi officials had earlier in 2024 indicated that the kingdom had not yet definitively decided on whether to become a BRICS member and there has been no clarification on the matter since then, the aforementioned still raises questions about the Saudi membership in BRICS.


In view of all this, one has to arguably await the coming BRICS summit in Kazan to better assess to what extent the new BRICS members have integrated into the group and how actively they are participating in it — which, in turn, will likely have an impact on whether and when additional countries will join BRICS.


Another challenge is that the diversity and differences of political and economic outlooks of BRICS member states paired with the strict adherence to the principle of unanimous consensus makes reaching specific results far from easy. One issue exemplifying this are efforts of BRICS for alternative ways to settle international payments that should, in contrast to current common international payment arrangements, not be based on the U.S. dollar and not be Western-dominated. While BRICS countries in principle agree to create such alternatives and this has been highlighted as a priority, for example, in the declaration of the last BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, in August 2023, discussions at the BRICS Academic Forum in Moscow in May 2024 indicated that finding a solution remains, arguably amongst others due to differing political views of BRICS members, difficult.


Various panelists stated that efforts to settle more debts between BRICS countries in local BRICS country currencies instead of U.S. dollar are positive and have yielded some results, but also that they do not manage to resolve the issue and can at most be temporary solutions. This is all the more the case as trade imbalances between BRICS member states would regularly result in the amassing of foreign currencies in some BRICS member states that could not be easily used for other purposes. For example, settling some of the trade between Russia and India in Indian Rupees, has already led to Russia ending up with large surpluses of Indian Rupees that it cannot easily use. And while some participants of the BRICS Academic Forum talked about a common BRICS currency as a potential solution, others described the creation of such a common currency as «virtually impossible». As such, delegates at the forum acknowledged that creating or revamping alternative tools for settling international payments remains challenging.


Such differences and the adherence to the consensus system also caused delegates to in general describe the closed-door sessions to formulate recommendations for the BRICS summit as taking «long hours», including «heated discussions», and even «threats of walk outs». Nevertheless, all delegates underscored that the diversity of BRICS should be seen as a strength and that, despite manifold differences, common ground can and is being found.


That the finding of such common ground often comes at the price of specificity or that more detailed commitments are regularly only made on uncontroversial, easier, and less significant issues [5], is seldom explicitly acknowledged but evident. This is also shown by the fact that BRICS has so far achieved only very modest results in having the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank voting quotes revised in a more favourable way for BRICS — which was one of the few concrete core objectives of BRICS since its very inception in 2009 — and that the establishment of alternative BRICS bodies, namely the Contingent Reserves Arrangement (a BRICS IMF so to speak) and the New Development Bank (a BRICS World Bank), while certainly a notable achievement, has not managed to set off the former shortfall. To be fair, such problems are not specific to BRICS and arguably affect practically any larger and broader international organisation and forum. 

Future of BRICS

In view of all this, it still remains to be seen where BRICS will be heading. This is all the more the case, as there is still uncertainty whether and, if so, how BRICS should evolve from its current form which is at times described as a flexible «club mechanism» into a more agile and decisive organisation. While some advocate for steps forward, including, for example, a BRICS Strategic Manifesto, BRICS institutions like a BRICS Secretariat that so far do not exist, or even some form of a common economic space, such issues are only rarely and, if so, mostly superficially discussed.


While one of the recommendation of the latest BRICS Academic Forum to imminently establish a more strategic BRICS Roadmap might change that, at the time of writing it was not clear what such a roadmap would encompass and whether and to what extent it would be radically different from past talks about strategic roadmaps that did not fundamentally evolve BRICS (see e.g. this report from 2013).


However, given that the announcement of the historic expansion of BRICS in August 2023 also happened fast and came as a surprise to many, it cannot be ruled out that a major further development of BRICS could occur in a similar fashion.


That said, even if there should be no fundamental change and BRICS should mostly continue to work as it has in the past 15 years, the group has already had and continues to have undeniable impacts on various aspects of global trade and politics. As such, and especially as heavyweights like Russia and China continue to push for BRICS becoming even more relevant and a delegate at the BRICS Academic Forum described the group as much more energetic when compared to 10 years ago, the question is not so much whether but rather to what extent BRICS will influence the future — not only of its own members, but also other countries.

Franz J. Marty

[1] While there have been suggestions to call the enlarged group BRICS Plus and this is sometimes also done, it is noteworthy that at the BRICS Academic Forum in late May 2024 practically no one used the term BRICS Plus and people continued to only refer to BRICS, even though the acronym is not accurate anymore. In this regard, it should also be noted that the term BRICS Plus creates confusion as it has been and sometimes is still being used to refer to a platform of cooperation between BRICS and non-BRICS emerging markets and developing countries.

[2] Sherpas are an ethnic group native to Nepal and Tibet. Given the outstanding mountaineering and guiding skills of many Sherpas, the term has not only become synonymous for mountain guides in the Himalayas but is also used as a general metaphor for someone guiding someone to extreme heights.

[3] The cited figures were taken from «Expansion of BRICS: what are the potential consequences for the global economy?», Bulletin de la Banque de France, January-February 2024 (https://www.banque-france.fr/en/publications-and-statistics/publications/expansion-brics-what-are-potential-consequences-global-economy).

In this regard, it is noteworthy that the expansion of BRICS only slightly changed these statistics as BRICS’s population and economic weight remains vastly dominated by the biggest of its old members, especially China and India.

[4] How many countries actually want to joint BRICS is not easy to determine. Different sources indicate different numbers from 15 to around 40 countries. That said, it is often difficult to discern whether statements from officials of non-BRICS countries about a potential accession to BRICS indicate a concrete will to join the group or might rather only express a vague interest to explore options.

This was reflected in a report of the Russian newspaper Izvestia in the wake of the meeting of BRICS foreign ministers on 10th and 11th of June 2024. While Izvestia reported on a list of 28 BRICS candidate countries (29, if Palestine, which is only recognised by some countries, is counted), it also mentioned that not all of these countries have submitted an official BRICS membership application request and that it is not yet clear whether, when, and in what form any of these countries might join BRICS. According to the list obtained by Izvestia, the mentioned countries are: Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Belarus, Bolivia, Chad, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Honduras, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Morocco, Nigeria, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Palestine, Senegal, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe. (https://iz.ru/1712179/anastasiia-kostina/kandidatskii-maksimum-nazvany-vse-pretendenty-na-prisoedinenie-k-briks)

[5] Examples for such uncontroversial issues from the latest BRICS Academic Forum include the pooling of statistical data and indexes, efforts to increase tourism between BRICS states, and common research and norms on air quality in cities in BRICS states.

Kommentar schreiben

Kommentare: 0