The BRICS, the ‘85 World’ and the Future of the Middle East

Afshin Molavi

When the British economist Jim O’Neill dubbed the fast-growing, large, emerging market economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China as the BRICs in 2001, few could have imagined that an acronym invented by a Goldman Sachs banker could today become a potent symbol of rising multipolarity in a world formerly dominated by Western powers. But that is exactly what has happened.

The grouping added South Africa a decade later to become the BRICS. These countries account for some 40 percent of the world’s population, almost a quarter of global GDP and some 16 percent of total exports. To be sure, China is the economic heavyweight, inflating the numbers, but the BRICS should not be weighed by the size of their economies or the value of their exports. And nor should the concept, in my view, be confined to the BRICS alone.

Indeed, if we take the traditional, so-called “global South” countries across Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, we would be looking at some 85 percent of the world’s population and more than half of global economic output. Several Middle East and North Africa states play a key role in the future of this “85 World,” notably Saudi Arabia as a major crude supplier across Asia as well as the United Arab Emirates, a vital nexus state that links Asia to Africa and the broader Middle East through its thriving air and sea hubs. Morocco has also emerged as a major Africa trade and finance hub.

To understand the future of our world, it is vital to understand some of the deeper structural trends driving it. The first would certainly be demographics. The Western world is not just a minority, but a minority by far. India – with roughly two births per second – is well on its way to surpassing China as the largest populace in the world, and it recently surpassed France to become the sixth largest economy. Africa is set to double its population by 2050, creating a continent of some 2.4 billion people, with more than a billion urban residents.

This 85 World has experienced three transformational trends over the past two decades: rapid urbanization, unprecedented connectivity and growing middle classes. To varying degrees, countries from Latin America to Africa to Asia have also experienced better macroeconomic management and improved infrastructure.

To be sure, challenges abound across developing countries in the 85 World. One only need to watch the harrowing scenes of African migration to Europe to see the failures of African governments to provide well for their people. Or just glance at illiteracy and poverty rates across India and Pakistan to see the multiple failures roiling South Asia.

Still, despite these failures, another parallel (and sometimes intertwined) picture has emerged of rising growth and opportunity driving higher expectations and new confidence across the emerging world. Companies from the 85 World are challenging Western multinationals globally, from Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways in commercial aviation to Tata Steel and Sabic in industry to Huawei and Tencent of China in smartphones and technology.

The Western-dominated commercial order is no longer, well, so dominant. Here, a caveat is in order. America, for all of its current dysfunction in politics, remain the most potent and innovative center of economic dynamism in the world. It’s also worth noting that the US benefits from rapidly urbanized and increasingly connected middle classes rising across the emerging world. After all, these billions of consumers have helped lift American companies’ bottom lines and tech-company valuations through the roof and into the clouds.

That’s why Donald Trump’s threats – and actions – to derail the world trading order have not only spooked US allies, but also most of corporate America. President Trump may have rattled leaders across the world, but he has handed an opportunity for the BRICS to become more relevant. The BRICS should consider itself part of the broader 85 World and Middle East states should see their future growth in the Indo-Pacific region, from the Arabian Sea to the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.

We got a snapshot of this new order when the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, visited the UAE ahead of his latest Africa tour. Xi’s visit reflected the dynamic growth of a relationship of two countries that speak the same language: connectivity and trade. The relationship, however, is far from just bright lights and glitzy receptions. It’s a $55 billion trade relationship – more than double the size of the US-UAE trade relationship – and increasingly a strategic one spanning coordinated energy and infrastructure investments in the UAE and across the New Silk Road from Africa to Asia to the Middle East.

Dubai has emerged as something of a “Hong Kong West” for China, a major re-export hub for Chinese goods across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, leveraging Dubai’s extraordinary sea and air connectivity to the world via its ports and airports. There are some 4,000 Chinese businesses operating in the UAE, principally in Dubai, and nearly 200,000 Chinese residents.

The Dubai-China commercial relationship has been growing rapidly over the past decade, but the broader UAE-China relationship began to take strategic depth after the visit of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed to Beijing in December 2015. The fact that President Xi chose the UAE as his first foreign visit of his second term reflects the elevated strategic nature of the relationship following Sheikh Mohammad’s visit – and it also reflects a picture of a commercial order once dominated by the West facing new challenges, new alliances and new challengers.

Afshin Molavi is the co-director of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact. He is also a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.