Algeria’s BRICS gambit may not be such a risky bet
Earlier this month, Algeria officially applied to join BRICS, a bloc of what were once fast-growing emerging economies consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — a culmination of an expected, but ultimately puzzling, move.
Founded shortly after the 2008 global financial crisis, BRICS remains a grouping of somewhat unusual fellows. It is often hailed by a plurality of the Global South as an alternative to the so-called “Western system” which is essentially a part of the US-EU economic hegemony.
Since then, BRICS has come to symbolize a tectonic shift in global geopolitics and economic power, chipping away from a highly exclusive G7 toward a strange amalgamation that, on the surface, seeks equity and parity governed by mutual interests. However, the reality is a little different and, frankly speaking, quite disappointing. Indeed, the five original members account for over a quarter of the world’s land area, roughly 40 percent of its population and more than $26 trillion of gross world product, and all their economies are still growing. It would, therefore, be unwise to neglect or sideline this nascent group’s untapped potential, as well as its still rising economic and political power, in a world tilting heavily toward multipolarity.
A decade ago, it would have been difficult to imagine this emerging power bloc having any effect on the Global South, particularly across the Arab world, beyond mere platitudes or self-serving perfunctory gestures of diplomatic “goodwill,” so to speak. Yet, the BRICS nations have become an integral part of Algeria’s steady evolution from a primary cheerleader of the Non-Aligned Movement that obsesses over maintaining equidistant relationships in a world of constantly shifting poles. It may have served the North African country well in a bipolarized world throughout the Cold War and also helped resist Algiers caving to the Western “charm” during the brief unipolarity between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the US-led invasion of Iraq — a 1991-2002 civil war notwithstanding.
In recent years, however, that one-sided global order has mostly waned, creating the sort of environment or multipolar geopolitical landscape that Algeria believes it can thrive in, provided it aligns itself with the “right” partners. As Africa’s biggest gas exporter, reportedly supplying about 11 percent of the natural gas consumed in Europe, Algeria is brimming with potential, and is demonstrably capable of attaining the appropriate largesse to be a significant contributor to BRICS. By the end of the year, Algeria is expected to net close to a $50 billion windfall from energy exports alone, a figure that will likely rise as the frenzy of investments — expanding its fossil fuel extraction and export capacities — starts to bear fruit. As long as the war in Ukraine rages on, that is.
If managed well, Algeria could go from buying social peace at steep premiums to developing a $500 billion industrialized economy, outclassing Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa to becoming the largest on the African continent in about a decade. Joining BRICS would undoubtedly accelerate such a transformation given that all five members have fairly diversified economies despite being collectively, and derisively, called the “world’s commodity bloc.”
Beyond purely economic justifications, BRICS is no mere economic alliance of like-minded partners, but is also a political coalition that remains surprisingly well held together despite the odd combination of liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes. Such a dynamic is pretty attractive for countries fed up with or incensed by Western finger-wagging and reckless interventionism in favor of idealized versions of democracy, which come with all the cost and too few benefits, if at all.
Russia and China, the foremost pillars in the bloc, have welcomed Algeria’s intentions.
Thus, the move to join BRICS is almost a no-brainer for a number of reasons, from political to socioeconomic ones, the usual geopolitics and even Algiers’ regional ambitions that mostly involve securing recognition for the Polisario Front and getting an edge on Morocco beyond the Western Sahara to become a regional/continental leader. Additionally, Algiers’ move to go all-in with BRICS is also motivated by the West’s pervasive anxiety concerning Algiers’ refusal to discard its extensive defense/military ties to Moscow, while also ingratiating itself with some of its northern neighbors, and rolling the red carpet out for Beijing.
This tendency to view Algeria’s desire for a “place in the sun” as a kind of “loss” to the West demonstrates the latter’s flawed perceptions and faulty assumptions. They are a byproduct of a foreign policy that continuously views the world as two distinct halves. Put simply, to Brussels and Washington, and possibly London, a stubborn “you are either with us or against us” mentality often forces emerging countries to sideline their own interests in order to remain in thrall to the West’s security umbrella, deep pockets or both. That formula may have worked in a world of decades past since there were no viable alternatives to facilitate transformations from rentier states into regional behemoths, much like what Algeria is trying to achieve in the western Mediterranean and the Sahel-Saharan regions in order to capitalize on the rash of attention for its hydrocarbons.
It is a clever gambit amid a see-sawing of relations with the West, worsening tensions with neighbors, and gradually waning influence across the Arab region, even after a recent, competently hosted Arab League Summit. There is no greater endorsement for Algeria’s decision to apply for BRICS membership than the fact that Turkiye and Egypt also have expressed their interest in strengthening their ties to the bloc, or are seeking to join directly as well.
Furthermore, Russia and China, the foremost pillars in the bloc, have also welcomed Algeria’s intentions, though their comments are quickly modulated by insisting the issue is under consideration. Despite membership requests from Argentina and Iran, the bloc last had an ascension 11 years ago, which tempers any expectations of Algeria joining by next year to form a BRICS+, or some other, more fitting, acronym.
For now, it is a bit premature to predict how this will play out. At first blush, the benefits of Algeria’s accession are somewhat lopsided, favoring the North African country far more than the economic bloc. On the other hand, welcoming Algeria could also open the floodgates and see other countries join as well, which will result in the eventual BRICS+ countries controlling as much as two-thirds of the world economy, an alarming eventuality that the West cannot ignore.
Ultimately, the path ahead is murky and muddled, as countries double-down on the pursuit of their own strategic self-interests. In Algeria’s estimation, perhaps such a risky bet might safeguard its interests more than sticking to a stubborn solo act in a fast-changing world overshadowed by conflict, malign actor recidivism, climate change and economic woes, as well as compounding threats to global food, water and energy security.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group.