Algeria and BRICS – dreamor eventuality?

Hafed Al-Ghwell

As Algeria aspires to join BRICS – a coupling of the leading emergent economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – questions arise whether this North African nation is prepared for such an endeavor. Its exclusion from the list of countries invited to join the bloc in January next year hints that it may be too soon for Algiers. However, it is a curious gambit that warrants an assessment of whether BRICS membership would actually yield strategic advantages for Algeria, or merely usher in a set of new complications.
After all, becoming a BRICS member constitutes a major foreign policy reorientation that carries significant ramifications for Algeria’s national trajectory. It also puts a fascinating spin on the emerging global scenario, with profound implications for the Maghreb region. In Algiers’ view, signaling the intent to join an agenda aimed at empowering emerging and developing countries – as demonstrated by a willingness to invest up to $1.5 billion in the New Development Bank – caps off a new strategy of international engagement. In a way, the bid comes at a strategic moment when Algeria is re-evaluating its economic model, pivoting from an energy-based economy to promote diversification and modernize its industries.
Besides, Algeria has yet to fully capitalize on a sudden elevated status vis-a-vis European energy security, making it quite appealing to an emerging bloc with grand ambitions of rivaling the G7, and the enhancement of South-South cooperation. Yet, a continued dependence on fossil fuel revenues and a persistent stance on some geopolitical rivalries will limit, and may even hamper, Algeria’s BRICS dream.
The horizons of this ambition must confront the immediacy of the challenges the Algerian economy faces, including high unemployment rates, fluctuating oil prices and protracted fiscal deficits. Perhaps before going all-in on BRICS, Algeria could instead seize the opportunity presented by an evolving macroeconomic dynamic, to modernize industries, amplify exports, create jobs and embrace digital transformations.
While Algeria currently enjoys a stable economic outlook in the short to medium-term, uncertainty looms over the longer term, leading the country to actively seek foreign investments as a catalyst for its diversification and modernization efforts. The dramatic increase in pensions, public wages and retirement benefits in Algeria’s 2023 budget is indicative of the country’s troubling reliance on hydrocarbon revenues. It leaves Algeria vulnerable to price fluctuations that often bring fiscal headaches and social unrest. Needless to say, a strong economic foundation is vital to Algeria’s recent foreign policy pivots to raise its regional profile, protect its national security and project influence in the near-abroad as well as on the African continent. Since President Abdelmajid Tebboune began his tenure in December 2019 after the ousting of Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, he has worked to decouple Algeria’s foreign policy from isolationism that characterized its diplomacy in the 1990s and 2000s. In just three years, the Algerian Foreign Ministry has since made several surprising shifts and demonstrated uncharacteristic initiative, underscoring the North African country’s efforts to participate more actively in global and regional affairs.
Thus, Algeria’s pursuit of BRICS membership transcends mere economic perspectives and signifies its intent to shed a legacy of cautious diplomacy to re-emerge on the global stage, in pursuit of its geopolitical aspirations. Currently, the country enjoys relative domestic political stability and near-term economic strength, primarily driven by higher energy revenues and increased demand for Algerian gas following the war in Ukraine. Since the government can concentrate on foreign policy and has room to maneuver until the presidential elections in 2024, it is well-positioned to address internal sociopolitical challenges, and pacify the populace through expanded benefits and subsidies, thus reducing the risk of economically driven unrest. However, to make the most of a potential ascension, Algeria must exhibit greater flexibility in its foreign policy and adroitly navigate complex relationships among BRICS partners. The country’s improved economic performance, largest-ever budget for 2023, and stable political landscape offer an opportune moment to adopt an active foreign policy and propel Algeria toward its desired influence on the international stage. In the context of geopolitical strategy, Algeria’s potential BRICS membership could provide a fresh impetus to its role in Africa. As Africa becomes progressively indispensable in global geopolitics, Algeria could leverage BRICS collaboration as a conduit for promoting South-South partnership, fostering African regional integration, and advancing its influence on the continent.
Yet, leaning toward a BRICS-oriented foreign policy might necessitate dramatic policy reorientations. BRICS, a coalition rooted in shared economic interests and mutual ambitions of multipolarity, will require Algeria’s diplomacy to be agile, and its policy frameworks to be inclusive and flexible, capable of negotiating multifaceted interests. For instance, Algeria’s long-standing affiliation with Europe could become quite complicated, especially if Algiers ventures to move beyond energy cooperation into new domains. Algeria, therefore, will have to delicately balance its growing relationship with BRICS and its existing ties to Europe, leaving it to navigate a dynamic, yet uncertain, terrain of diverse strategic interests. Closer to home, Algeria’s potential induction into the BRICS could fundamentally recalibrate the power dynamics within the Maghreb region, thereby amplifying its influence and challenging its neighbors, particularly Morocco, given their shared turbulent history and contentious issues. This repositioning could intersect with Algeria’s existing geopolitical strategies aimed at stabilizing its turbulent neighbors, Tunisia and Libya, through discounted gas and electricity exports. Such initiatives are part of Algiers’ calculated endeavors to contain regional instability spilling into its own borders.
Elsewhere, Algeria took on a rather proactive and assertive role in brokering an agreement between rival Palestinian factions, reinforcing its commitment to the nonaligned movement, and presenting itself as a regional powerhouse alongside Mediterranean interlocutors such as Egypt and Turkiye.
This projection of diplomatic influence, coupled with potential economic aid, was designed to encourage undecided fellow Arab countries to eschew normalization. The jury is still out on whether Algiers managed to achieve its aims, or merely delayed the inevitable. Nevertheless, any diversion in foreign policy, even if minimal, exposes Algeria to heightened security risks, particularly the possibility of renewed tensions with Morocco over mutual relationships with Sahelian, sub-Saharan as well as other North African countries. A key potential flashpoint lies in Algeria’s support for the pro-autonomy Polisario Front, which could potentially exacerbate geopolitical tensions beyond the Maghreb.
Simultaneously, any decision to deploy military forces abroad might attract the ire of terrorist groups linked to such conflict zones, creating a potential threat to Algeria. Therefore, while Algeria’s BRICS bid could offer a platform for expanded regional influence and strategic partnerships, it also comes with an intricate web of potential risks and challenges. The real diplomatic finesse would lie in balancing these countervailing forces while navigating toward a position of regional prominence. Ultimately, Algeria’s BRICS dream faces a multitude of opportunities and challenges that could precipitate a significant reshaping of its national and international narratives. On one hand, such a move might accelerate the nation’s economic diversification, bolster its geopolitical ambitions, and position it as a key player in the complex dynamics of the Maghreb, hence elevating its status on the global stage. On the other hand, Algeria could find itself grappling with the delicate task of balancing its strategic alliances and adapting to new regional and international settings ensuing from BRICS membership.
To some extent, Algeria’s ambition can be perceived as an endorsement of multilateral international order – an approach that might simultaneously augment its global influence yet challenge its historical ethos of nonalignment, dating back to the nation’s independence. It introduces a paradox: the need for securing a place in a robust multilateral group while preserving its nonaligned foreign policy stance, which is at the heart of Algeria’s global posture. Therefore, while strategically tenable, the actualization of Algeria’s BRICS aspirations primarily pivots on how the country addresses its internal challenges, reconciling its policymakers’ ambitions with the realities of an evolving global order. This potential leap could redefine not only Algeria’s status quo but also its footprint across the African continent and beyond.