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Contesting Hegemony: The Rise of BRICS and the Crisis of US-led Western Hegemony in the MENA Region
The Korean Journal of International Studies 21-3 (December 2023), 409-446
Published online December 31, 2023
© 2023 The Korean Association of International Studies.

Muhammed Kürşad Özekin and Engin Sune  [Bio-Data]
Received June 22, 2023; Revised October 19, 2023; Accepted December 5, 2023.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0) which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Abstract
This study examines the possible role of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) as a counter-hegemonic alternative to the longstanding US-led world order, (US), particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. As a non-western area, the MENA region presents an illustrative testing ground for the assessment of the thesis of Western hegemonic decline and its contestation by the BRICS and intra-regional leaders such as Turkey and Iran. By analyzing the current situation in the MENA region in the context of declining US power and its relative retrenchment from the Middle East, the study evaluates BRICS countries and other regional leaders’ engagement in a “competitive game” to occupy a leading position in regional issues, which in turn moves regional dynamics towards a more balanced configuration. Even though the study proclaims that the rise of BRICS generates new geopolitics in the region, a counter-hegemonic structure is not forming because BRICS nations are not yet in a prime position to mould the norms, ideas, institutions, and rules of the current regional order. Therefore, this study conceptualizes the rise of BRICS as a “within-system” challenge, unveiling the changes in power politics and geopolitical equations in the MENA region that are triggered by this power shift.
Keywords : Western hegemony, hegemonic transition, MENA, BRICS, counter hegemony
INTRODUCTION

There is a growing contention in academia that the alleged decline of the US-led hegemony parallels the ascendance of BRICS countries on the international stage (see inter alia Stuenkel 2015; Kiely 2015; Cooley and Nexon 2020). Against this backdrop, the debate over the ‘decline of the West’ and the ‘rise of the rest’ seems to have polarized international relations scholars into two broad camps. While some critical scholars (Bond 2015; Fontes 2015; Kiely 2015) see the very success of BRICS as being deeply entwined with the prevailing US-led capitalist order, others (Van der Pijl 2006; Bello 2014; Desai 2013; Stuenkel 2015) who embrace a more enthusiastic stance celebrate the rise of the BRICS as a possible challenge and alternative to the US-led and Western-dominated global order, as they seek to have more power and influence in global governance, with demands for the established powers to alter rules and standards accordingly. Indeed, given their rapidly growing economies, BRICS nations are expected to play an increasingly prominent role in today’s world, challenging a position traditionally held by the US and its Western allies. Nevertheless, while the increased economic, political, military, and even cultural presence of the BRICS countries on the world stage is widely acknowledged, whether these rising powers of the Global South constitute a counter-hegemonic alternative to four centuries of Western dominance is still highly debatable. In this regard, this study evaluates BRICS’s role as a counter-hegemonic alternative to the longstanding US-led Western dominance in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. As an area of great power competition and a microcosm of the world order’s transformation, the MENA region presents a perfect testing ground for assessing Western hegemonic decline and its contestation by BRICS countries and regional leaders such as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Monarchies. Briefly stated, in the context of US decline and its relative retrenchment from the Middle East since the mid-2000s, BRICS countries and other regional leaders have engaged in a “competitive game” to occupy more dominant position in regional issues, striving to move regional dynamics towards a more balanced configuration pursuant to their interests.

Mostly dwelling on these recent developments in the MENA region, this study presents a nuanced analysis of the complex dialectical relationship between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces in today’s world. The first section sets the stage by discussing the rise and decline of the US-led Western hegemony and its implications for both the modern world system and the Western-sponsored order in the MENA. Broadly, this section draws on theories of systemic cycles of accumulation (or hegemonic transitions) and hegemonic stability, applying them to the power reconfiguration taking place in today’s world in general and in the MENA in particular. The second section focuses on the global power shift accompanying the rise of BRICS countries and the future of the Western-sponsored modern world system. The main concern here is to present the swift development of BRICS countries into dominant actors in the international economy and evaluate their positions in the midst of the declining US-led world order. This section analyses BRICS countries’ potential at the global and regional levels by emphasizing their interest formations, foreign policy priorities, and geostrategic alignments towards the MENA region. Following this, the third section assesses the rise of BRICS in the MENA region by analyzing selective economic indicators on trade and investment. This section reveals that as traditional power centers no longer have monopolies on patronage, the role and involvement of BRICS in the MENA has increased. Accordingly, the fourth section scrutinizes the repercussions of the rise of BRICS on geopolitical and geostrategic equations in the MENA region. It shows that the rise of BRICS in the MENA triggers radical transformations that challenge long-standing geopolitical equations. Among these are the formation of a new security frameworks, the rise of new regional powers, the evolution of alternative developmental trajectories for countries in the region, and new incentives for South-South cooperation. Based on these findings, the final section evaluates whether or not the fast-growing BRICS countries in the MENA—in their quest for a more inclusive and multipolar world governance—really constitute a counter-hegemonic alternative to the long-lasting dominance of the West. This section reveals that the rise of BRICS does not mean that an alternative hegemonic structure is necessarily forming, since they are not yet in a prime position to mold the norms, ideas, institutions, and rules of the current order. In short, the last section demonstrates that even though increasing involvement of the BRICS in the MENA generates new geopolitics in the region, a counter-hegemonic structure is not forming as they pose merely a “within-system” challenge.

The existing literature lacks a comprehensive study of the rising presence of BRICS in the MENA region, due to the difficulty of evaluating the role of such a complex and diversified actor such as BRICS in a region as wide-ranging as MENA. Cognizant of the difficulty of such a task that encompasses multiple actors in a far-reaching region, we intend to delineate a complete evaluation of the decline of US-led Western hegemony, the rise of BRICS, and the reverberations of these concurrent developments in the MENA region. Even though BRICS is not a monolithic unit, this study approaches the rise of BRICS in a contextual fashion demonstrating how the involvement of these new rising powers in the MENA region alters intra-regional geopolitical balances. Therefore, this study goes beyond the bilateral relations between various countries in the MENA region and members of BRICS by detecting common patterns in forms of relations. Using numerous examples from each BRICS member, this study portrays an overall picture of the changing geopolitical puzzles in the MENA region. Notwithstanding, the selected examples also acknowledge the divergences among BRICS countries that limit the capacity of BRICS to form a counter-hegemonic bloc. Accordingly, this study presents an extensive appraisal of the MENA region overall, as reflections of the rise of BRICS are presented through various cases from countries in the region.

THE RISE AND DECLINE OF US-LED WESTERN HEGEMONY

The expression “world hegemony” refers to the power of a leading actor to execute governing functions over a system of sovereign states. Sociologist and world-systems theorist Giovanni Arrighi (1994, 2007) presented an original reading of the capitalist world economy’s historical development as a succession of world hegemonic episodes; each of them was more extensive than the previous one and culminated in systemic chaos and hegemonic transition. Arrighi’s (1994, 6-7) conceptualization of systemic cycles of accumulation put the notion of hegemony on a stable ground by giving special emphasis to historical systematic changes in the capitalist world economy. From a macro-sociological historical perspective, Arrighi’s systemic cycles of accumulation constitute an explanatory theory of how the West has emerged as the dominant economic, political, military, and ideological power since the early sixteenth century. The systemic cycles in the capitalist world economy, as put forth by Arrighi and Silver (1999, 22-23), are organized in concert with four main century-long periods of world hegemony divided into successive phases of expansion and crisis. Each cycle begins with a phase of expansion in which a hegemonic state consolidates its worldwide leadership on the productive, financial, commercial, ideological, and military levels. In this first stage, the hegemonic state exercises its governmental functions over the system of sovereign states not only through pure domination but also intellectual and moral leadership (Arrighi 1993, 366). A dominant state becomes hegemonic when it leads the system of states in the desired direction and controls inter-state competition by defining the political, juridical, economic, and military norms that guarantee the operation of the capitalist world system. Borrowing from hegemonic stability theory, the absence of a central, supreme political authority in the international arena carries the risk of disarray, in turn creating the need for hegemonic leadership from a country that ensures the efficient working of the international economic system so that other countries feel secure in embracing the basic mechanisms of the capitalist world system (Gilpin 1987; Kindleberger 1986). A state achieves hegemonic status if it claims with credibility to be the motor of universal interests, drags other states on its path of development, and keeps liberal values in the system by providing the international public with the goods required for the stable functioning of the capitalist world economy (Kindleberger 1986, 292).

Hegemonic leadership has its limits, as increases in volume and density in the capitalist world system tend to exacerbate rivalry amongst the system’s units that are beyond the established order’s existing regulatory capabilities. Over time, the initial phase of expansion gives way to the second phase of hegemonic crisis and systemic chaos, in which the foundations of global leadership begin to deteriorate and the system-wide demand for ‘order’ – a new set of norms and rules of conduct within the older order or a substantially new one – becomes increasingly general among rulers and subjects of the capitalist global capitalist system. In this second phase, that of crisis, economic stagnation, and decreases in world production and trade shares first weakened the hegemon’s productive and commercial bases and later undermined its financial and ideological dominance. As Arrighi (1994) and many others (Gill 1991; Wallerstein 2002) put forth, further evolution in this process compels the hegemonic power to resort to system-wide financial expansion as an easy source of profit and prosperity, as during Britain’s belle époque of 1896–1914. But such evolution also has a contradictory impact on the intensification of inter-state and inter-enterprise competition and on social conflict, thus escalating systemic disintegration. This eventually leads to a hegemonic crisis and systemic chaos characterized by a lack of clear international leadership, the erosion of hegemonic legitimacy, and the rise of centrifugal tendencies in the capitalist world system.

Regarding US hegemony, the end of World War II ushered in a new era of worldwide US political, economic, military, and cultural supremacy. Given its highly competitive industrial base, its competency in new technologies, and its capital reserves, the US became the undisputed hegemon of the capitalist world system and dictated the terms of the post-war world order. This post-war hegemonic order had two main objectives: promoting the expansion of capitalism and free trade and preventing the spread of communism (Tozzo 2018, 21). To avoid a further global depression and international conflicts, the US and its Western allies formed an international regulatory regime by restoring liberal values in the system, established global regulatory institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank which provided legal and institutional structures for international public goods such as security, free trade, financial stability, global public health, and knowledge production. Preventing the spread of communism and promoting Western-centric liberal democracy were also of paramount importance, as old European powers no longer had the military and financial capability to deter Soviet expansionism. The US supported the rebuilding of Western Europe and Japan as bulwarks against the Soviet Union and formalized an international defensive pact (NATO), and an intergovernmental institution (the UN) committed to global peace and security.

Overall, the leadership of the United States has effectively contributed to global stability and prosperity through the establishment of a rules-based liberal international order. Within the economic realm, the United States' hegemonic position has entailed assuming leadership responsibilities in the international financial system, acting as a lender of last resort, shouldering the costs associated with asymmetric trade liberalization, and providing support for the reserve currency (Ikenberry, 2001). As the US hegemony in the economic realm rests on factors such as the dominance of multinational corporations and financial centres, some scholars assert that such leadership responsibilities contribute to the broader interests of transnational capitalism (Van der Pijl, 1998). In the realm of security, the United States' hegemonic status has been credited with safeguarding the global commons and providing security guarantees, stabilizing conflict-prone regions, preventing counter-hegemonic changes, and lowering the chance of conflicts and arms races (Gilpin, 1982). As the hegemonic power, the United States possesses the capacity to frame security threats and establish the legal framework that shapes the international response to these challenges, further solidifying its hegemonic status (Mattern, 2007).

Within this framework, the MENA region holds particular importance by the virtue of its vast oil resources and geostrategic location, both of which bear considerable economic and political implications (Kamrava, 2018a). Controlling the constant supply of energy resources into the world capitalist system also consolidates the financial hegemony of the US, since oil denominated in dollars compelled all nations to acquire dollars through entry to the U.S. financial market (Hinnebusch and Miyagi, 2015, 47). Historically, the key pillars of the US foreign policy in the region have encompassed the guaranteeing of the safety and security of the State of Israel, the assurance of unimpeded and free flow of oil to international markets, and the containment of challenges originating from the region that pose risks to Western interests (Hudson, 2013). In this regard, the US hegemony in the MENA region is based on the reproduction of several complex factors such as: its military predominance as a generator of crises and legitimizing Western control; dominance over the world oil resources and ensure its circulation together with the financial capital; and limiting the possibilities for the formation of any counter hegemonic setting (Hinnebusch and Miyagi, 2015, 44).

As consequence of these core interests, the US policy makers, since the early part of Cold War, viewed the MENA region both as a source of power and as a material prize. Several American presidents, such Eisenhower, expressed clear concerns on the potential negative impact of political instability in the region on both American and world economy, namely in terms of increased oil costs or disruptions in supply (Bakkour, 2016). Therefore, successive American administrations have maintained a keen interest in MENA affairs, with oil interests taking precedence. The United States' attitude to the MENA region was rather straightforward, having been largely determined during the Cold War period. Under the pretext of Middle Eastern uniqueness, democracy was not prioritized, and as long as oil continued to flow via the corporate structure, the US has even continued to back the authoritarian and dictatorial regimes in place (Zunes, 2020). Indeed, not only is American control over these resources a necessary component of its power, but it also serves to keep threats to the US-led Western hegemony from materializing and growing at the same time. Whilst becoming increasingly committed to Israel as the region's sole democracy, the US concurrently forged alliances with indefensible regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt as its traditional allies as part of the larger cause of anti-communist containment. At one time or another the US has collaborated with one or more of these states to safeguard the uninterrupted flow of oil and to prevent any regional or extra-regional power from achieving regional hegemony. Within this framework, the US hegemonic presence has been also demonstrated by its ability to employ coercive measures, whenever necessary to achieve its strategic aims, irrespective of UN authorization and the inclinations of regional states and populations. Particularly, since the proclamation of the Carter Doctrine in 1980, which expressly provided a justification for the US military intervention in the Persian Gulf, Washington has progressively exercised increasing militarism throughout the region (Zunes, 2020). Since then, the US has operated a wide variety of regional network military bases and installations, spanning from Tunisia (Bizerte-Sidi Ahmed Air Base) to Bahrain (US Fifth Fleet and Naval forces Central Commend), from Turkey (Incırlik Air Base) to Oman (RAFO Thumrait Air Base). As a reflection of the rising militarism, the US forces have also intervened in several civil conflicts, most notably the Lebanese conflict in 1982; launched attacks against multiple sovereign governments, including Iraq twice (1991, 2003), Libya twice (1986, 2011) and Sudan (1998); freed occupied Kuwait in 1991; engaged in multiple conflicts with Iranian forces in the Gulf, including the tanker wars of 1987-1988. Even though this asymmetrical military dominance of the US was further deepened after the 1990s with the demise of the Soviet Union, the consequences of US actions, including military interventions like the Iraq war and the global financial crisis, combined with the ascent of the BRICS, have reignited speculation about a shift from unipolarity toward a global multipolarity (Hinnebusch, 2013, 75).

In reality, the roots of this turbulence in the hegemonic position of the United States can be traced back to the 1970s when various contradictions began to erode the economic, political, and ideological strength. In the words of Arrighi and Silver (1999, 278-279), the indisputable US power eventually entered a terminal phase of hegemonic breakdown and systemic chaos. From the early 1970s, evidence for the decline became increasingly obvious. Defeat in Vietnam, the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, the long-term economic and political effects of the 1973–1974 oil crises, the weakening Dollar, and the vanishing ties between the US, Western Europe, and Japan, and the subsequent rise of new powers are all evidence of this gradual decline. Over time, market saturation and capitalist competition lowered profits, thus eroding the productive and commercial foundations of the US-led hegemony. Indeed, the oil shocks in 1973 and 1979 and the US defeat in Vietnam revealed the initial indications of the limit of US power. As the US international balance of payments increasingly deteriorated, the US was forced to remove the nominal link between the US dollar and gold under the Bretton Woods fixed exchange rate regime and became increasingly less capable to manage the system's common interests.

From the 1980s to the mid-2000s the extent of the decline was relatively slow thanks to the financialization of the global capitalism and counteractive strategies taken by the US to scale down the effects of its loss of ascendancy. The shift from material to financial expansion, accompanied by the global restructuring of neoliberal policies such as privatization, deregulation, trade liberalization, and financialization, during the 1980s and 1990s, played a significant role in the restoration of profit rates. Besides, the dissolution of the Soviet Union left the United States unchallenged on the global level and created a power vacuum in the regions such as the Middle East, leading to militarization of the US foreign policy and its imperial overstretch, which eventually accelerated the hegemonic decline of the US-led Western hegemony.

Some scholars, such as Raymond Hinnebusch (2014), have referred to the period from 1990 to 2010 as "the age of U.S. hegemony" in the Middle East. But the 2000s and early 2010s saw an erosion of the US' unrivalled hegemonic role both around the world and in the MENA region, as well as a decline in EU relative influence, as they increasingly encountered economic difficulties and clashing interests of rising powers. Coupled with the catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Great Recession of 2008-2009 served as a stark reminder of the US power limitations and the hubris of US policy making. Beginning with the Obama administration, the United States has aimed to reduce its footprint in the Middle East in favour of a "pivot to Asia" toward China, which is seen as the next big global rival. Indeed, the lasting effects of global economic crisis has further undermined the US economy, along with core economies in Europe and Asia, and revealed the weaknesses of the US-led hegemony in global financial markets, threatening its status as a lender of last resort. As for the core economies, this crisis has led to a process of cyclical recovery (though in a prolonged period of economic stagnation), and has driven de-globalization and inward turns from many countries as evidenced by President Trump’s trade policies. The lingering economic stagnation has been compounded by the debt crisis of the Eurozone and rising skepticism about the future of the EU (Tozzo 2018). Furthermore, the outbreak of COVID-19 has not only exacerbated sluggish global trade that has dragged on since the 2008–2009 crisis but also undermined further the US-led Western hegemony and the very foundations of its liberal international order (Norrlöf 2020).

At the same time, the crisis has accelerated a process of tectonic shifts in the world’s economic and political order (Ünay 2013). The pole of the world economy has moved from the advanced countries of North America and Western Europe to the rising economies of the East and South. The BRICS group was formed against the backdrop of the 2008 global economic meltdown; its members have transformed themselves into economic, political, and diplomatic powerhouses of the non-Western world. Representing over 3.2 billion people, or over 42 per cent of the world’s population, BRICS countries today boast a nominal GDP of US\$18.8 trillion, about 23 per cent of gross world product, and 40 per cent of global gold and hard currency reserves in 2019 (Burton 2019). This transformation has in turn caused further changes to the world’s political and economic map, opening new spaces for emerging powers to assert their respective policy formulations in line with their own distinctive values and worldviews, making them more able to shape the current world order to benefit their own geopolitical interests. Unlike the short-lived post-Cold War period, in which US supremacy and centripetal forces predominated, the current international system is characterized by a new configuration of power relations, an intensification of inter-state and inter-enterprise competition, and increased centrifugal forces. The new millennium’s opening decades saw a widening of the cracks in the US global leadership and a shift from Western political, economic, and cultural predominance to a multipolar system of global economy and governance (Nuruzzaman 2020; Stuenkel 2015).

THE RISE OF BRICS AS EMERGING POWERS IN THE US-LED CAPITALIST WORLD ORDER

Over the last few decades, BRICS countries have increased their presence in economic, political, security, and cultural terms, while the US and Europe’s relative strength as traditional power centres has seemed to recede. While the decline of the US-led hegemony dates back to the early 1970s, this process has become more apparent since the 2000s, as the global economy’s dynamic pole has leaned eastwards, particularly towards the BRICS countries. As shown in Figure 1, the share of BRICS countries in world GDP (in nominal terms) has witnessed a steep rise from 8.1 per cent in 2000 to more than 24 per cent in 2019. In the same period, the US’ share dropped from more than 30 to 24 per cent. Evidence of US economic decline is clear when one looks at data starting from 1960. While the US accounted for almost 40 per cent of world GDP in the early 1960s, its share has fallen to less than one quarter. As the longstanding centre of the world economy, the participation of the EU in total world GDP remained stable at around 25 per cent during the 2000s. However, since the 2008 global crisis, it has fallen steadily, representing 17 per cent of world GDP in 2019, only one point above China.

The share of BRICS countries in world exports of goods and services has increased substantially, a structural change of historical significance. Over the last several decades, the global spread of production seemed to have brought about a ‘developmental’ rise for emerging countries such as BRICS. As shown in Figure 2, in 1970, the total share of the US and today’s EU countries in the world export of goods and services was approximately 52.1 per cent, but in 2019 it dropped to around 41 per cent (9.9 and 31.1 per cent, respectively). During the same period, the total value of exports from BRICS countries has not only grown, but their share in world exports of goods and services has also increased from 3 per cent in 1970 to 16.2 per cent in 2019, with a noticeable ascending dynamic between the years 2000 and 2019. Coupled with the delocalized activities of multinational corporations and the global spread of manufacturing operations, all these shifts in the world economy have translated into a transition in international political power and a potential challenge to the US-dominated post-war international order.

Especially since the mid-2000s, BRICS countries have transformed themselves into a powerful political and diplomatic platform influential in global affairs and have sought to reshape global governance toward a more balanced and multipolar configuration (Ünay 2013, 84-85). Driven by grievances against the US-led global economic order, BRICS countries have translated their economic might into political influence, curbing Western dominance over the global economic, political and financial architecture. As explicit in several BRICS summit communiqués and official documents, member countries often coalesce around common political strategies designed to get a stronger voice and increased decision-making authority in the economic and financial institutions of the global governance architecture. For instance, there was an explicit call at the BRICS summit in 2019 for a transformation of the international trade/finance architecture and structures of global governance toward a just, equitable, and representative multipolar international order; the goal was increasing the voting power and representation of emerging economies in global governance platforms such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN. Similarly, during the ninth summit in Xiamen in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other BRICS leaders attacked the US Dollar’s dominance as an international currency. Putin said: “We are ready to work together with our partners to promote international financial regulation reforms and to overcome the excessive domination of the limited number of reserve currencies” (Nuruzzaman 2020, 8).

At the UN, BRICS countries have frequently adopted common political rhetoric around the notions of multilateralism, equity, and greater participation for the developing world. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, China and Russia routinely consult on votes and initiatives on issues such as promoting national sovereignty, criticizing the Western-dictated doctrine of responsibility to protect, opposing Western interventions and calls for regime change in Libya and Syria, and vetoing US-sponsored proposals on Iran’s nuclear program and sanctions on Venezuela, Yemen, and Iran. Between 2006 and 2018, Russia and China voted in the UN General Assembly the same way 86 per cent of the time, while China and the US agreed only 21 per cent (Cooley and Nexon 2020).

Along with contesting Western hegemony from within the existing institutions, BRICS countries have carried out a notable degree of institutionalization to curb US dominance over global economic and financial systems. The New Development Bank (NDB) was created to finance infrastructure projects in BRICS and other emerging economies, while the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CSA), a countermeasure to the IMF, was founded to provide protection against global liquidity and short-term balance of payment pressures (Nuruzzaman 2020, 8). As Bello (2014) asserts, both the NDB and CSA “aim to break the global North’s chokehold on finance and development.” Alongside these collective efforts for alternative institutionalization, member states have created an array of new regional security organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, and the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism, as well as economic institutions including the Russian-backed Eurasian Economic Union and the Chinese-run Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

BRICS AND CHANGING REGIONAL DYNAMICS IN THE MENA

All these changes taking place over the last two decades not only reveal the strong desire of emerging countries to play a larger role in world politics, but they also signal the making of a new and multipolar world order in which traditional power centers no longer have a monopoly of patronage. In the current context of the US hegemonic decline, this scenario’s impacts have been increasingly felt throughout the MENA region. As the relative retreat of the West from the region has created a power vacuum, BRICS countries—primarily Russia and China, and to a lesser extent India and Brazil—have increased their presence in economic, political, and security terms, positioning themselves as alternative partners or patrons, at the expense of key Western interests.

Accounting for 41 per cent of the world population and more than 25 per cent of global GDP, BRICS has become not only the main engine of world economic growth but also the main trading partner and investor for the countries in the Middle East and Africa. Thanks to their rising economic and political power, the BRICS countries have re-established a certain presence in the MENA, challenging the Western-dominated economic order in the region. Particularly starting from the early 2000s, the economic ties and trade volume between BRICS and MENA region have deepened exponentially.

Whereas BRICS’s total exports to MENA countries have increased almost tenfold in the last twenty years, total imports from the MENA to BRICS countries have risen more than eleven-fold (see Figures 3 and 4 respectively). This growing trade has at the same time been accompanied by the rising trade compatibility between the MENA and BRICS. As shown in Table 1, BRICS countries are considered to be the top 10 economies that trade with MENA countries bilaterally.

Beside the increasing trade volume, the economic clout of BRICS countries in the MENA has also been reflected in the realm of foreign direct investment (FDI) as BRICS countries increasingly become major investors in the MENA region. Particularly over the last two decades, the BRICS countries have been instrumental in shaping patterns of global investment, emerging not only as major recipients of FDI but also as increasingly significant outward investors. As shown in Figure 5, the total share of BRICS in world outward FDI flows has kept rising over the last two decades, reaching 16.6 per cent in 2020, up from 0.6 per cent in 2000. Concordantly, the MENA’s FDI inflows have been increasing crowded out by BRICS countries, particularly China, Russia and India (OECD 2021). In fact, not all MENA states compile statistics on FDI inflows by country of origin, and those that do may vary in their methodology and degree of compliance with international standards. Despite the absence of comprehensive and bilateral official statistics, OECD’s (2021, 44) latest report on MENA investment trends reveals that MENA economies mostly attract FDI from Gulf countries and Europe while the share of Asia-Pacific has risen increasingly. For the period 2003-2019, Europe (the EU, EEA, the UK, and Switzerland) was ranked as the largest source of greenfield investment to focus economies in the region, followed by Asia-Pacific (particularly China and India) and eastern Europe (notably Russia and Turkey), respectively. Particularly since 2015, East and South Asia countries have invested more FDI in the eight focus economies than any other region, mostly due to Chinese megaprojects (OECD 2021, 45).

REFLECTIONS ON THE RISE OF BRICS IN THE MENA REGION

Following the acceleration of declining US hegemony in the wake of the global economic and financial crisis of 2008–2009, BRICS’s engagement in the MENA region has become overtly discernable. After a decade-long absence in the post-Soviet era, Russia noticeably increased its engagement and doubled down on the Middle East and Africa throughout the 2000s. Russia has benefited from old ties across the region as the formative experience of the Cold War serves as a reference point and, in some ways, shapes Moscow's ambitions in the present day (Bechev, Popescu and Secrieru 2021). Correspondingly, China had a negligible influence in the MENA region until the 1990s, except for being a supplier of cheap or hard-to-find weapons to countries like Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia (Scobell 2018, 12). Following the 1990s, Chinese involvement in the region grew exponentially thanks to rising demand for energy and imported commodities as China re-energized economic reforms and opening strategy. In this sense, China’s promotion of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative can be regarded as a further embracement of its involvement in the region. Launched in 2013, the OBOR initiative aims to increase China’s role in the international production and trade and to integrate the MENA region into China’s capital accumulation through ambitious infrastructural projects to serve as platforms for multi-track business (Ehteshami and Horesh 2018).

Similarly, as a newcomer to the region, Brazil has increasingly made its presence felt by mobilizing its soft power resources due to its ability to portray itself as a country without colonial past (Amar 2017). As a result of these efforts, Brazil has initiated the Summit of South American and Arab Countries, opened new embassies throughout the region and increased its presence in the Arab League as the first Latin American observer (Mohammed 2015, 81). Likewise, since the 2000s India increased its engagement with the MENA region, even though trade links between MENA and India have always been important. Since 2000, India has increasingly been involved in the various sectors, including chemical and food production, construction and telecommunications, in the MENA region, as India’s cumulative FDI to the MENA region reached to 5 per cent of the country’s total investments (Pigato 2009, XIX). Despite not being as geographically close to the MENA region as India, the region has always been a central concern for South Africa, especially in terms of trade and access to oil resources. Following the Arab Spring, South Africa has become more engaged as three of the affected countries from the uprisings were on the African continent (Jeenah 2015, 147).

The overwhelming presence of BRICS forged further transformations throughout the region which are explicitly observable in the following five key spheres. First, the rise of BRICS in the MENA challenges the long-standing geopolitical equations in the region. In the midst of the US-led world order’s continuing decline, the BRICS countries have used their economic and political leverage over Western politico-economic interests to transform global and regional dynamics towards a more balanced and diverse configuration. Capitalizing on their growing economic power, BRICS started to challenge unrivalled Western hegemony in the region by improving their status as alternative partners by offering pragmatic alliances. Particularly freed from the constraints of ideology, President Putin visited the UAE and Israel in the 2000s for the first time, and his efforts to strengthen ties with longstanding U.S. allies represented a dramatic shift from former Russian and Soviet policy (Vasiliev 2018). Moreover, the instability and the shifting geopolitical landscape brought about by civil conflicts in Libya and Syria, as well as subsequent US withdrawal from the region, have created possibilities for Russia to re-establish some of its old alliances and to forge new ones (Rumer 2019). Moscow’s bold use of military power on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as well as its proactive role in the post-Arab Spring setting, positioned it as an important extra-regional geopolitical and military actor along with (and alternative to) the US. Getting permission from Iran, Russia used Hamadan air base for its air operation against militants in Syria. Thanks to their intervention in Syria, Russia has also taken control of the Khmeimim airbase in Syria and has converted Tartus into a naval base (Bechev, Popescu, and Secrieru 2021). By reversing the course of the Syrian civil war, Russia not only reasserted its aversion to US-led patronage in the region and their regime change efforts through external intervention, but also presented itself as a key power broker and an alternative interlocutor for many countries in the region.

A similar impact can be detected in Brazil’s regional rise as well. As Brazil increased its engagement with the region economically, it started to play an increasingly active role in strategic issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire and disputes over Iran’s nuclear program, sometimes standing at odds with the Western approach. Similarly, China’s involvement into the MENA region also had a tremendous impact on the settled geopolitical balances in the region. As part of its OBOR initiative, China founded the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and by the end of March 2015 almost 50 countries, including arch- enemies Israel and Iran, had filed applications to join as founding members (Horesh 2018, 1). Moreover, the historical allies of USA, namely the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have joined as members of the AIIB. The convergence between Saudi Arabia and China even goes beyond the AIIB as Chinese state-owned enterprises cooperate with the companies of Saudi Arabia as in the case of the construction of the transit system in Mecca by the China Railway Corporation (Scobel 2018, 14). One of the reflections of the increasing impact of China in the MENA region is the efforts to normalize the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia under the mediation of China on March 10, 2023. Acting as a mediator, China played a pivotal role in facilitating dialogue between these long-standing regional rivals, whereas the U.S. historically used Saudi Arabia and sectional differences as a balancer against Iran (Dorraj, 2020). This initiative signaled the rising Chinese influence in the region and was a test to its growing power. Since the terms of the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran include commitment to the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs, it reflects an acknowledgment of China's specific policy objectives. This diplomatic breakthrough was also crucial for the steady supply of energy necessary for China’s continued ascent, contrary to the long-standing US efforts to marginalize Iranian energy through various sanctions.

Second, as a subsidiary of the changing geopolitical balances, the rise of BRICS in the MENA region has triggered the formation of an immature new security framework. With its state-owned arm exporter Rosoboronexport, Russia has positioned itself as the no-strings-attached arms supplier for several MENA countries. MENA is a significant geography for Russian arms exports, accounting for 36 per cent of Russian defense deliveries in 2015 (Sladden et al. 2017, 8). As a result, Russia began to increasingly engage in regional negotiations, including the Arab-Israeli peace process, the P5+1 deal with Iran, and the Syrian civil war. Thanks to Russia’s military engagements in Syria and Libya, the Kremlin has increased its presence beyond the post-Soviet realm, reviving old historical alliances as well as constructing new ones. Russian military engagement throughout the region seems to have driven up its geopolitical stock and prestige as security provider, given its diplomatic initiatives in Syria, Libya and even in terms of the security of the Persian Gulf. Similarly, China has also disclosed initial signs of political and security engagement in the region in ways that stand at odds with Western interests. Favoring multipolarity, China has signed comprehensive strategic partnership agreements with various countries in the region including Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey. It has stepped up mediation efforts in discussions over the nuclear program of Iran, the Arab-Israel conflict, the Libyan civil war, the Syrian conflict, and the Gulf states’ blockade of Qatar (Kamrava 2018b).

In a similar vein, India’s increasing presence in the Middle East and especially country’s relations with Iran, has started to draw the attention of the West in recent years (Pant 2014, 155). During the Arab Spring, India kept silent regarding the uprisings in Bahrain and Libya and adopted a “wait and watch” approach by abstaining from the UN resolutions (Pant 2014, 156). While the UN debated over further sanctions on Libya, India manifested the principle of sovereignty, and together with Germany, Brazil, China and Russia it holds back from approving the UN resolution that imposed no-fly zone in Libya (Pant 2011). This emphasis on respect for sovereignty is a common principle embraced by BRICS states. As stated by Stephen (2014, 928), “integrated state capitalism of the BRICS and their isolation from liberal processes of transnational class formation vindicates their depiction as relying more heavily on sovereignty.” In this regard, the BRICS conceive sovereignty and non-intervention into the domestic affairs as a legal issue and therefore challenge practices stemming from of the principles of ‘responsibility’ to protect (Laidi 2012, 626-629); and therefore, provides a delicate security umbrella for the countries of the region.

Third, the growing engagement of BRICS countries with the MENA stimulated the rise of new regional powers. While the US and its Western allies remain the dominant actors, their hegemonic interlude has been challenged not only by powerful external actors but also assertive middle-sized regional powers. Most notably the increasing presence of Russia and China has bolstered not only competitive multi-polarity in the region, but also pushed regional actors to take a more independent stance in regional affairs, often outmaneuvering Western leverage.

In this regard, Western retrenchment from the region and its volatile responses to power shifts have fed doubts about Western patronage and encouraged many countries to get closer with “anti-status-quo” forces such as Russia and China. For example, as a counter-hegemonic actor, Iran has taken advantage of the US withdrawal from Iraq and the post-Arab Spring environment to expand its influence with its war-torn neighbors, particularly Iraq and Syria. Cultivating ties with its Lebanese ally Hezbollah and militia forces in Iraq and Syria, Iran was able to enlarge its presence in Mashreq in order to create a Shia corridor in the Mediterranean Sea (Beck and Richter 2020). Given its troubled relations with the US and its regional allies, Iran tends to use relations with Russia and China as a means to ease its isolation, put pressure on the West, and implant its influence across the region. Aligning itself with Russia and China, Iran has expanded its strategic outreach to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen based on common Shia networks.

Meanwhile Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly confident yet erratic rule, has deepened its presence across the region and followed independent policy agendas and interests, even at the expense of Western allies and their strategic concerns. Given the breakdown of trust in Turkey-US relations and the rise of anti-Western, Eurosceptic resentment in recent years, Turkey has steadily moved from a status quo state to one trying to mold the regional order according to its desires. The growing frustration with the West after the 2016 Coup Attempt greatly emboldened Eurasianist views among Turkish policymakers, making Turkey a more assertive interlocutor than ever before (Tol and Taşpınar 2019). Despite repeated warnings from the US and the EU, Turkish military operations in Syria and Libya have continued along with drilling operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. On top of these actions, the purchase of a Russian-made air defense missile system shows that Turkey is not a passive agency but a regional power seeking to rearrange the hegemonically engineered order to reflect its own interests.

Traditional status quo states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and the monarchies of the Arab Gulf, have also tended to protect and proactively pursue their interests by adopting more assertive foreign and security policies. The combined effects of US-Iranian rapprochement, military retrenchment from the Middle East, and a subsequent pivot toward Asia have raised significant concerns about the reliability of the US as an ally. Such a situation prompted the Saudis and other Gulf states to diversify their partnerships away from heavy dependence on the West. While the US and Western allies still hold a prime position, Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman has strengthened relations with Russia and China to in order to balance the West and its main geopolitical rival, Iran. 2006 signaled a transformation in Saudi Arabia’s traditional foreign policy as the King has visited China and India in January (Pigato 2009, 3). Saudi Arabia has also concluded twenty agreements with Russia, covering subjects as diverse as petroleum, trade, tourism, aviation, arms sales, space, and satellite navigation while furthering its economic and military ties with China by adding the fields of energy infrastructure, killer drones, and nuclear technology (Obaid 2019).

Fourth, the rise of BRICS states challenges the neoliberal norms and policies, as they aim to influence an alternative developmental trajectory for the MENA region by establishing new economic relations and serving as a model of state-led development. The outbreak of the global economic crisis in 2008 was ultimately a crisis of the center, posing a major political-economic challenge to the US and Western dominated capitalist world economy. As a result, BRICS countries began to rise as alternative power centers in the MENA region with their persistent involvement in the various fields of regional economy, further challenging the US-led neoliberal world order.

Since 2000s, the Kremlin has pursued active energy diplomacy and Russian state companies such as Gazprom, Rosneft, and Rosatom have launched significant projects in key markets such as Turkey, the oil and gas fields of the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq, the eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt, in addition to nuclear energy infrastructure in countries like Iran, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey (Sladden et al. 2017, 7). Similarly, given its ever-increasing thirst for energy, China became the biggest global importer of oil in 2014 at 6.1 million barrels per day while the Middle East accounted for 52 per cent of this figure with 3.2 million barrels per day (Scobell 2018, 13). China gives special priority to the region, since MENA countries account for almost half of China’s total oil and liquefied natural gas imports. In a similar vein, as MENA accounts for almost 65 per cent of Indian oil imports, it is one of the most important regions for the Indian economy (STATISTA 2020). As a result, in the mid-2010s China and India have become one of the largest consumers of Iranian crude oil, challenging US initiated Western economic sanctions which were designed to discipline the so-called illiberal “rogue states”. In this regard, the rise of BRICS as alternative partners in the MENA and this extension to the field of regional economy generated room for the states of the region to resist the neoliberal world order.

Even though MENA’s energy resources form the top priority for BRICS, economic interactions with the region go beyond energy trade since the region is also valuable as a source of market and investment opportunities. In this sense, China’s OBOR initiative can be regarded as further involvement of the country in the MENA region. By mid-2019, with 21 MENA countries, China concluded agreements to incorporate them in joint OBOR projects for both economic and wider strategic reasons (Lons et al. 2019). Trade volume between China and the MENA has significantly increased in recent decades, making China one of the largest trading partner of the region (Lons et al. 2019). Underpinned by the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) and the OBOR, China has also become the largest investor in the region, worth \$212 billion dollars from 2005 to 2020 (American Enterprise Institute 2020). In line with the OBOR’s connectivity goal, China has undertaken ambitious trade and infrastructure projects – high-speed railroads, ports, industrial parks, gas and oil pipelines, and motorways – to establish an economic corridor from China to the Gulf and the Mediterranean.

This overwhelming economic presence of BRICS in terms of investment gives the regional powers the capacity to circumvent the rules dictated by the US-dominated neoliberal world. During the course of international sanctions, Iran was able to access international markets thanks to the involvement of BRICS countries. As early as the 1990s, when Iran decided to integrate into the global economy with Rafsanjani’s first five-year development plan, Brazil has become a major partner in the cement, sugar, and paper industries of the country (Hunter 1992, 90). In the following decades, as Western firms started to withdraw from the Iranian economy, China, India, Brazil and Russia have become the biggest trading partners of the country (European Commission Directorate 2016). This process in turn challenged US hegemony in the region, constraining its ability to control and discipline the countries of the region that do not adjust themselves to the US-led world order.

BRICS economic involvement in the region also challenges the hegemony of the U.S. Dollar as the global currency. Even though it is not fully developed, trade in local currencies has long been debated among BRICS and between BRICS and MENA countries. In 2006, China and India agreed with Iran to conduct oil transactions in local currencies. Similarly, in January 2012, India and Iran agreed to carry the transaction of Iranian oil exports with rupees. Furthermore, the barter agreements between Iran and India, exchanging oil with other commodities, helped Iran to conduct commercial activity during the U.S. sanctions (United States Government Accountability Office Paper 2013, 144). Even though this challenge to the hegemony of the US Dollar is limited since trade with local currencies and the barter system are still underdeveloped, it sheds light on the possible challenge of BRICS to the Western-led neoliberal world order in the MENA region.

Last but not least, the rise of BRICS in the MENA region creates new grounds for South-South Cooperation (SSC). Given their historical legacies of contesting Western hegemony through communist, socialist or non-aligned discourses, BRICS countries easily associate themselves with traditional or revamped notions of Third Worldism. Particularly over the last several decades, BRICS countries have positioned themselves as agents of SSC, challenging the established practices adopted by traditional donors such as OECD-Development Assistance Committee (DAC) members, transforming the governance mechanism and institutional architecture in the realm of international development cooperation (Gomes and Esteves 2018). Unlike the hierarchical donorship practices and vertical notions of cooperation that traditionally predominated North-South relations, BRICS countries adopt a supposedly horizontal form of SSC targeting capacity building, technical support, business partnership, trade, and humanitarian assistance based on the principles of non-intervention and no conditionality (Chenoy et al. 2016).

At the collective level, formal and jointly owned institutions of the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingent Reserve Agreement have particularly offered new platforms for international development cooperation not only for BRICS member states but also for the Least Developed Countries (LDC) of the wider global south. Having an authorized capital of US\$ 100 billion, the NDB has provided resources and technical assistance for infrastructure and sustainable development in the form of loans, aids and similar sort of financial instruments (New Development Bank 2021). More recently NDB has expanded its global reach in late 2021 with the admission of Bangladesh, Uruguay, the UAE and Egypt. Particularly, the admission of the UAE and Egypt signifies the BRICS’ increasing willingness to extend its development partnerships with major economies in the MENA region over the coming years.

As a part of its efforts to strengthen SSC, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Iran in 2016, where he underlined India’s efforts to solve the financial problems between European and Iran related with the payments of oil imports. With the help of India, Iran was able to sidestep EU sanctions, which prevented insurance companies to provide guarantees to the transportation of oil (US Energy Information Administration 2015). By leveraging its relationships with the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, India has assisted in mitigating sanctions and easing the US's maximum pressure policy. As a result, Indian firms—similar to their Russian, Chinese, and South African counterparts—are under the close scrutiny of the U.S. government and investigated under the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act for contravening Western-led sanctions on Iran (Dubowitz and Grossman 2010).

Amongst BRICS members China is the loudest supporter of the SSC, emphasizing it throughout its policy towards MENA region. Developed around the principles of social harmony and balance of Confucius, Beijing presents itself as a benevolent and progressive rising power capable of transforming the world into a more cooperative and diverse structure (Taylor and Zajontz 2020, 278). This philosophy is well represented in the “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” document, which is the most detailed official document on the OBOR initiative, as the word “cooperation” appeared 98 times (Shichor 2018, 43). This rhetoric on cooperation is further reinforced by the policy practice as OBOR aims to finance and construct infrastructure, mining, telecommunication, agriculture, manufacturing and other commercial enterprises across 20 African countries (Taylor and Zajontz 2020, 281). Through the capacities of the Silk Road Fund, the AIIB and NDB, China channeled large amounts of finances to ventures in the region and aims to develop infrastructure, which in turn is expected to stimulate existing markets (van der Merwe 2019, 210). In this regard, the infrastructure laid down by OBOR is believed to reduce Africa’s marginalization and underdevelopment (Yiwei 2017). The emphasis on SSC through these economic initiatives by China is also supported by a concomitant active cultural policy, creating the image of a morally upright external power. Similar to the other BRICS members, China has been publicly addressing the Palestinian problem. In China’s Arab Policy Paper, published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2016, it is stated that “China supports the Middle East peace process and establishment of an independent state of Palestine with full sovereignty, based on the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.” This foreign policy perspective made a grand, albeit symbolic, gesture emphasizing China’s role as a powerful yet benevolent actor focused on the problems of the region and seeking mutual benefit (Scobell 2018, 13). Following the paper, president Xi Jinping visited Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the headquarters of the Arab League, where he stated that that China is “following the path of peaceful development, an independent foreign policy of peace and a win-win strategy of opening-up” (China Daily 2016), echoing South-South cooperation.

BRICS AND ITS LIMITATIONS FOR A COUNTER-HEGEMONIC SETTING

As the US-led Western hegemony and the very foundations of its liberal international order have faltered, the pole of the world economy has moved North America and Western Europe to the rising economies of the East and South, which was apparent in the rise of BRICS as new powers in the MENA. However, the decline of Western primacy has not resulted in an apparent hegemonic transition, as many argue. Despite the recent BRICS activism in global and regional settings, it is not a cohesive power bloc that seeks to build an alternative world system with its own sets of rules, institutions, and currencies of power. Rather, the BRICS group represents emerging powers with diverging internal make-ups, economic structures, foreign policy orientations, and security engagements – a point that clearly contradicts the relatively homogeneous political and economic systems and values of post-war North America and Western Europe.

This is manifested in MENA, as BRICS countries have not yet developed a coherent group identity to shape and drive unified group actions. As discussed above, whereas Russia and China have jointly vetoed several Western-sponsored UN Security Council resolutions, particularly on issues related to Syria, Libya, and Iran, Beijing has refrained from direct confrontation with the established powers and has not forged a full and long-term alliance with Moscow.

Compared to Russia, China keeps its distance from MENA conflicts and follows a pragmatic and relatively low-profile foreign policy in the region, based on the principles of non-interference and developmental peace. China’s involvement in maritime security, the establishment of a military base in Djibouti, and the prospective militarization of Iran’s Kish Island and the Pakistani port of Gwadar may appear as a Chinese attempt to seek a strategic equilibrium with Europe and the US. Nonetheless, it should also be noted that the US is still the indispensable power in the region and China has been careful not to provoke the US when it comes to delicate issues such as Iran. More importantly, there is a certain degree of convergence between the US and Chinese interests as China’s energy and economic interests become more reliant on the American security architecture that ensures unrestricted navigation through the Suez Canal and the Straits of Hormuz (Horesh 2018). As another member of BRICS, Brazil has also developed a balanced foreign policy framework with the established powers in the MENA. Despite its emphasis on the sovereignty of the states, Brazil promoted a common discourse with the Western powers on humanitarian issues. In the case of Syrian civil war, Brazil has tried to find a balance in between policies of Responsibility to Protect and non-intervention into the internal affairs of nation states (Mason 2014, 2). While the Security Council has intensively condemned Syrian regime’s violent reactions against protestors, BRICS vetoed or abstained, as in the case of Brazil, the draft resolution. However, in order to find a common ground with the established powers in the MENA region, the Brazilian permanent representative explained the abstention by stating that Brazil emphatically condemns abuses on human rights in any country they occur. (Galindo, Baeza and Brun 2014, 130). Similarly, India is involved in the region without any intensive commitment to political and security issues.

More importantly, uncertainties and challenges surrounding the BRICS grouping are much more evident in its internal cohesion as well as its expansion process. At first, a crucial ambiguity in this regard pertains to the institutional and operational dynamics of the group. The BRICS group’s institutional structure is indeed nowhere near as cohesive as that of the Group of Seven (G7) members. Up until now, the BRICS grouping has mostly functioned on the basis of a consensus-driven approach, downplaying divergences among its member nations. As of now, there has been limited effort to formally institutionalize these arrangements, such as the establishment of a secretariat that might operate independently. The BRICS organization is entirely dependent on the collective determination of its members to uphold regular meetings that are centered around annual summits and common declarations. These declarations represent the sole official and formal documents pertaining to the cooperation. However, the low or non-existent institutionalization of the group and the lack of established rules, standards, and procedures pose significant challenges to the decision-making process within the group, as more recently reflected in the period of BRICS expansion.

Indeed, the recent expansion of BRICS at the 15th Summit held in Johannesburg on August 22–24 not only highlights an emerging tectonic shift in the geopolitics of the MENA region but also raises questions regarding the BRICS’ potential as a counterweight to the G7 and the US-led liberal international order. With the accession of six new members, including four from the MENA — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran — as well as Ethiopia and Argentina, the BRICS grouping has dramatically extended its political, economic, and geostrategic footprint. While this strengthens BRICS’ visibility and weight in international politics, it also poses further problems for the group's cohesion and institutionalization (Burton, 2023).

The incorporation of six new members, each possessing distinct characteristics, maintained the group's operational logic: the group’s functioning is predicated on its members' perceptions of the global situation, upholds autonomy for individual strategies and initiatives, and does not seek to establish institutionalization within the group. Despite the fact that all five members had stated their support for growth prior to the summit, China was the main push behind a larger BRICS membership. A larger BRICS would suggest more states were willing to follow it, which is significant given China's escalating global rivalry with the US. For China and Russia, as two prominent members of the group, the expansion of the BRICS serves as a counterweight to the unipolar global system that the United States and its Western allies have long been perceived to dominate. In contrast, India, Brazil, and South Africa have shown greater caution towards the idea of a larger BRICS, as they are concerned about the potential dilution of their respective influences. They instead bargained for a more robust stance from China and Russia in support of broader UN reform, particularly within the Security Council.

Likewise, an additional challenge also lies in the distinct characteristics and motivations of the six newly admitted members. Indeed, the inclusion of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt would perhaps be less contentious compared to Iran. While some in the West may see Iran’s admission as the BRICS taking a more confrontational stance, the membership of Saudi Arabia and the UAE may have comparatively fewer political connotations. For Iran, the BRICS membership would not only challenge the United States’ portrayal of Iran as a pariah state but also offer it a measure of security and economic relief from its confrontation with the West. On the other hand, traditional American allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE are drawn to BRICS membership because of its potential for economic diversification and a multidimensional foreign policy strategy (Burton, 2023). In recent years, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pursued more autonomous foreign policy objectives and sought opportunities for economic diversification, but neither has shown any desire to sever ties with the West, and they persist in enhancing their enduring security cooperation. Egypt is mostly motivated by economic considerations, as it perceives the BRICS nations as prospective providers of much-needed resources, given its existing levels of public spending and mounting public debt.

Furthermore, the selection of the six additional members has the potential to introduce fresh obstacles to the internal unity of the organization. Apart from the long-standing tension between China and India, the BRICS may potentially encounter repercussions arising from Iranian-Saudi disagreements, as well as tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia concerning the sharing of the Nile waters. Thus, whether BRICS+6 can serve as a platform for addressing those issues is still a subject of inquiry, given the recent role of China’s involvement in fostering enhanced relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, a close assessment of individual members reveals that at the heart of BRICS’ lack of coherence lies the political, economic, and strategic heterogeneities of member states. BRICS is not a monolithic group, regarding the divergencies in their domestic political and economic structures. While politically more authoritarian Russia and China follow state-led growth models, whether in the form of market socialism or a mixed economy, while democratic regimes in India, Brazil, and South Africa adhere to the principles of a liberal market economy and pursue a relatively defensive foreign policy and economic strategy. This heterogeneity hinders the development of a cohesive and collective world order vision and any long-term convergence in foreign policy goals.

Overall BRICS, as a newly formed global power bloc, seeks to democratically reform the US-led liberal world order by increasing their voting power in the UN and Bretton Woods institutions and thereby reduce the dominance of the United States over global political, economic, and financial systems. However, BRICS’ capacity to overhaul the US-led liberal world order is severely limited by the group's internal composition, political and ideological heterogeneity, the lack of general agreement on foreign policy objectives, and more importantly its inability to provide global public goods such as security, a stable currency, a functioning global trading system, and any coordination of overall global governance; all of these are necessary prerequisites for the development of an alternative international order. In turn, this makes MENA countries wary of the value of BRICS as a reliable alternative power bloc. Despite instrumentalizing BRICS as a balancing mechanism in their relation with the West, MENA countries are aware of its limitations as a provider of international public goods and therefore carefully manage their relationships, preferring issue-based cooperation over fixed alignments.

Apart from its inability to act as a monolithic bloc, BRICS’s capacity to form a counter-hegemonic structure in the MENA region is also hindered by the fact that these rising powers have truly integrated into the global capitalist system, resulting in a strong dependency on existing global economic structures. As Robinson asserts, the dominant classes in those countries do not aim to a challenge the global economic relations led by the Western states; instead, they enhance consolidation of global capitalism (Robinson 2015, 5). BRICS members, to a certain extent, contribute to the stabilization of Western-led international capitalist relations through easing global circulation of capital. On this ground, BRICS are also referred to as integrated state capitalisms, which underlines BRICS’s internationally integrated capitalism but in a substantially less liberal form compared to Western countries (Stephen 2014, 925). In a similar vein, Robinson (2014) defines BRICS as transnational state capitalisms and asserts that the hegemonic competition between BRICS and the West “are better seen as struggles by emerging transnational capitalists and elites outside of the original transatlantic and trilateral core to break into the ranks of the global elite and develop a capacity to influence global policy formation, manage global crises, and participate in ongoing global restructuring” (Robinson 2014, 38).

Thus, the incorporation of BRICS into the global economic networks encourage these countries to support for further global economic integrations. Instead of forming a counter-hegemonic alternative, BRICS’s economic strategy to invest in the emerging markets of MENA region overlaps with the institutional setting of the Western-led neoliberal world order to a certain extent, as they contribute further to the integration of the region into global capital circuits.

Still, there is an inconsistency between the international policies of BRICS countries and those of the Western-led neoliberal world order. Even though BRICS are dependent on the existing institutional structures of global capitalism, they challenge its most liberal content since their local structures are incompatible with the liberal policies Western-led international institutions (Stephen 2014, 914). This incompatibility is well reflected in the foundation of G20 as an overarching institution, criticisms against the representation mechanisms in World Bank and IMF and against status of the U.S. dollar as an international currency (Becker 2014, 9-10). In this regard, even though BRICS are integrated into the global trade regime, their levels of trade protection are higher than those of other members of WTO (Stephen 2014, 926). This contradiction between neoliberal globalization and the various varieties of BRICS capitalism results in an antagonistic cooperation between the West and BRICS. Thereof, the rise of BRICS in the MENA region poses a within-system challenge to neoliberal global governance, instead of forming a counter hegemonic bloc outside of the existing structure.

Overall, regarding the inability of BRICS to act as a hegemonic bloc, the BRICS countries seem to pose a within-system challenge, both individually and as a group. They are not yet in a prime position to mold the norms, institutions, and rules of the current world order, but they are obviously working towards a common goal of transforming the world into a more inclusive and multipolar setting. Even though BRICS has challenged US-led hegemony and the Western-led order in the MENA, it is incapable of forming a counter-hegemonic structure. Thus, there is no real transformation in terms of global power structures overall, instead what transformation there is comes in terms of power relations within the global political economy. In other words, the real reaction by the BRICS is not to global structures but to the authority of West over those structures, resulting in the development of “new geopolitics of global capitalism” (Summers 2018, 34).

CONCLUSION

Analyzing the current shifts in the MENA provides empirical confirmation of rapidly changing power relations at the regional level. Although the US, along with its Western partners, still maintains control over the global and regional security architecture, it is increasingly unable to protect the region-wide political order and maintain the general context of rules, habits, expectations, and constraints in which regional actors operate. Concerning its hegemonic role in stabilizing the world system, the US seems to have lost it constructive power in solving regional crises in the MENA region, and even in Europe as reflected recently in the Ukraine crisis. This has become more evident in recent decades given the lack of US commitment to the post-war international order, its unease with global institutions, a hardening of geopolitical revisionism, and the rise of great power rivalry. Further destabilization to the foundations of US-led Western hegemony have come from President Trump’s “America first” policies, and the concurrent rise of centrifugal forces and populist nationalism across the world.

As the US and West gradually lost their sway over the international system, emerging global and regional powers have begun to mark their political and economic footprints on the world stage and fill the vacuum of global governance as pillars of a newly emergent polycentric world order. With the relative retrenchment of the US from the MENA, BRICS countries and other regional powers have engaged in a more “competitive game” to occupy more dominant positions in regional issues, striving to craft regional dynamics towards a more balanced configuration pursuant to their interests.

As this study reveals, the US-led Western political and economic hegemony has long been experiencing a “breakdown”. Though the US maintains its coercive power and military supremacy, it is increasingly unable to protect the Western-dominated regional order and maintain the general context of rules, habits, expectations, and constraints in which regional actors operate. To safeguard its longstanding position, the US replaced traditional, softer hegemonic practices with openly unilateral and exploitative leadership strategies serving its interests. This strategic shift was counterproductive in the MENA region. The US retrenchment from the Middle East and its increasing inability to influence unfolding events in the region have created a power vacuum and dragged regional actors further from the Western orbit of influence. As the US-led hegemony loses its influence, certain global and regional powers have in turn begun to coalesce around strategies aimed to attain more influence and decision-making authority over the regional issues. But this does not mean that an alternative hegemonic structure is necessarily forming. Rather, BRICS pose a within-system challenge as they do not constitute a unified power bloc capable of shaping the norms, ideas, institutions, and rules of the current world order. The US-led Western liberal world order was not only constructed on productive, commercial, financial and military supremacy, but also on ideological and cultural terms. The inability of BRICS in forming a monolithic unit, together with their diversified social structures, prevents these rising powers from generating an overall counter-hegemonic alternative in the MENA region. Despite their increasing economic and military engagement with the region, BRICS—due to their multipartite nature—are incapable of designing an institutional and ideological architecture for the region, which is an indispensable aspect of a hegemonic role.

Still, BRICS are obviously working towards a common goal of reshaping and transforming the world and the region into a more inclusive, multipolar place. Even though BRICS are incapable of forming a counter hegemonic alternative and merely pose a within-system challenge, they still trigger radical transformations in the geopolitical balances of the MENA. The development of alternative partnerships provokes new configurations in the security puzzle of the region, especially with the further military involvement of Russia in the MENA region. This change in security balances generates a space for middle sized powers, such as Iran and Turkey, to conduct relatively independent foreign policies in the regional context. As the hegemony of the US-led Western neoliberal world order is challenged, BRICS pose as a model for countries of the MENA region with their state-led development model and increasing economic and political engagement. With its seemingly less exploitative nature and emphasis on promotion of national sovereignty, the growing presence of BRICS in the MENA region bolsters incentives for South-South cooperation. Therefore, despite all the limitations in terms of constructing a counter-hegemonic unity, the growing prevalence of BRICS obviously poses a fundamental challenge to the long-term Western dominance of the region, which in turn will continue to reshuffle geopolitical balances in the MENA region.

Figures
Fig. 1. The BRICS’ Share of World GDP 1960-2019
Fig. 2. The Share of BRICS in World’s Export of Goods and Services 1970-2018
Fig. 3. BRICS’s Exports to MENA
Fig. 4. BRICS’s Imports from MENA
Fig. 5. The Share of BRICS in World Outward FDI Flows (2000-2020)
Fig. 6. Greenfield FDI to MENA focus economies by source region
Tables
Table. 1. Ranking of Economy's Total Exports and Imports between MENA and BRICS Countries
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