Weighing up options: Will Algeria join BRICS?
Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune spoke at a press interview recently about the possibility of Algeria joining BRICS – the primarily economic organisation which comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. This would be a hugely significant and vital move, and needs discussion.
To start with, the president's statement should be put in context. Algeria's relationships with external partners – especially the EU - have been in crisis for a long time. Algeria's EU relations have been shaken further in recent years by Algerian demands for a review of its Association Agreement on trade with the EU and the rupturing of relations with certain countries, like Spain.
See-sawing relations with France have only added to the mounting tensions. All this has opened the door wide to the idea of seeking new partners which could help Algeria to secure a strong position for itself in a world currently reshaping itself in the wake of three crises: the pandemic, the Ukraine-Russia war, and the ramifications this war is having on two major global concerns: energy and food security.
"All this has opened the door wide to the idea of seeking new partners which could help Algeria to secure a strong position for itself in a world currently reshaping itself"
In this context it is entirely legitimate for Algeria to seek a stronger position – the country has the potential to transform from a rentier state into a regional influence across the western Mediterranean and the Sahel-Saharan regions through using its gas reserves. These regions form a vast area in which myriad powers are active, from those trying to maintain the status quo (including the EU, NATO, and the US) and those who are seeking to forge a new state of affairs (France, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Spain).
New horizons have opened up for Algeria, especially in the energy sphere. The country aims to use the current situation to advance its position – something that is vital if it is to avoid being subsumed in a quagmire of external debt, forced economic restructuring and regression.
Algeria has opened discussions on multiple strategical topics, appointing envoys to support its potential areas of influence such as the country's response to the world's current energy related crises. It has also just signed a series of deals with Italy promising increased exports of gas - now the paramount goal for the European states.
Algeria is striving to use its deal with Rome to ensure its future place as the main supplier of gas to Europe, by increasing its exports and ramping up exploration to secure larger reserves. For the longer-term strategy it has signed an agreement on the construction of a gas pipeline from Nigeria, which will pass through Niger and end up in Algeria – a key step in Algeria's bid to build its regional power in this field and secure its new position.
Algeria could benefit in many ways through joining the BRICS bloc, but three central goals stand out. The first relates to Algeria forging a new position for itself in the changing global landscape. Becoming part of the BRICS partnership and strengthening relations with China and Russia, the two pillars of BRICS, will allow Algeria to consolidate an alternative path to that being taken by many other Middle Eastern states, who for instance, have chosen to normalise ties with Israel through the Abraham Accords.
By joining BRICS, Algeria could fortify its position and try to balance steps being made to secure Israel's advancement in the region. These steps are illustrated, for example, by Israel's rapidly escalating military and security cooperation with Morocco - on Algeria's western border.
Opinion: Normalisation with Israel seems to be going ahead, despite fierce public opposition in Sudan, Tunisia and Morocco https://t.co/o7ActXzdsy— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) February 13, 2020
The second goal is to transform Algeria from a rentier state to a regional influencer. This step is dependent on Algeria's ability to seize on the opportunities presented by changes to global energy markets. Europe is increasingly turning to the Mediterranean region to meet its energy needs because it wishes to wean itself off dependence on Russian gas.
Relevant here is the dilemma of a financial nature which Algeria has long suffered: the requirement that oil (and gas) be priced in USD, while imports are mainly in euros. For years, euros were the stronger currency, which led to enormous losses for Algeria. However, the new circumstances have seen Russia pricing its gas in roubles and the BRICS bloc discussing a new strategy to use national currencies for commercial exchange, instead of the major trading currencies (USD, the Euro, the Pound sterling). This could greatly benefit Algeria in generating the needed revenues to power the transformation of its economy over the next decade.
"Strengthening relations with China and Russia, the two pillars of BRICS, will allow Algeria to consolidate an alternative path to that being taken by many other Middle Eastern states, who for instance, have chosen to normalise ties with Israel"
The third goal relates to another repercussion of the Russia-Ukraine war: skyrocketing global wheat prices. Algeria, like other countries, is deeply vulnerable to the fluctuating price of wheat on the world markets, caused by the war between two of the largest wheat exporters. But Algeria is learning the lesson, and has been working on a strategy which could restore it’s historic position as a major food producer in the Mediterranean.
The strategy would rely on revenue from energy sales being invested in food production and security. In the foreseeable future, the plan relies on strong relations with Russia, the largest global wheat exporter, to open the door in the near future to activate this crucial strategy for Algerian food security.
These are the strategic goals Algeria has in mind when considering joining BRICS. Iran and Argentina are also considering membership of the bloc, likely for similar reasons, which would increase the effectiveness of Algeria taking the decision, rather than, as European analysts have suggested, placing Algeria in a strategic corner.
The European focus on its future Algerian relationship reflects its strategy of treating the Maghreb region (Northwest Africa) as a non-equal partner, making [European] security, and threats to Europe's southern flank (refugees attempting to enter Europe), the only framework on which all countries' relations should hinge, even when this entails losses to the Maghreb and benefits only to Europe. It acts as though we are living in a new phase of colonialism where Europe alone sets the new standards and norms, with no outside input.
One challenge will be how Algeria could take this step and embed it into longer term strategy, rather than it being taken as a short-term tactical move. Algeria could gain a lot from joining BRICS, but the move would need to be combined with a multifaceted strategy with steps preceding, accompanying and subsequent to the decision to join. The truth is, that regional challenges loom which Algeria won’t be able to handle without an alliance which is international in scope.
The other issue posed may be Algeria's strategic relations with the EU: will these be derailed if it joins BRICS, or will the EU present itself as an alternative partner? Or will the partnership with BRICS force a change in power dynamics between Algeria and the EU, as well as its military arm, NATO? Algeria's desire to join BRICS raises all these questions. The country has the right to take this step and seek to make decisions that will be most beneficial to Algeria, and the region, in a world undergoing rapid and fundamental transformation.
Mohamed Si Bachir is a university lecturer and researcher who specialises in political and security studies. He has published widely in journals and magazines as well as a number of Arab newspapers and writes for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication.
This is an edited and abridged translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.
Translated by Rose Chacko.
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