President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa is a man known to be committed to due process, often to the annoyance of many South Africans. This has earned him a number of nicknames, including “Ramapostpona”, the one who always postpones matters. Flip-flopping in its international relations in the recent past, including its position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has not made things easy for Ramaphosa’s government. In April, he announced erroneously that South Africa was withdrawing from its membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC) only to apologise later; South Africa remains in the ICC.
So, when the announcement was made last week at the 15th BRICS Summit regarding the six new member states, the general reaction in South Africa was less than excited for a number of reasons. Egypt, Argentina, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Iran joined Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in BRICS, raising the membership to eleven. Many in South Africa questioned the criteria applied by BRICS when accepting new members, especially regarding the human rights records of the Middle East states.
Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, for example, has presided over one of the biggest crackdowns on human rights in the country’s history. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented a range of egregious human rights abuses in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia claimed that rogue elements within its security apparatus killed Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was lured into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul by Saudi intelligence officers with a close relationship to Bin Salman. His body was dismembered and dissolved in acid before his remains were poured down the drain. The CIA laid the blame firmly at Bin Salman’s door.
Moreover, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have conducted a brutal war in Yemen killing scores of innocent people and creating one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. According to the UN, 60 per cent of the estimated 377,000 people killed in Yemen between 2015 and the beginning of 2022 died as a result of indirect causes such as food insecurity and the lack of accessible healthcare.
Iran has jailed and sentenced scores of human rights activists and journalists. More were arrested for protesting against the death last year of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a young woman who was arrested for not wearing a headscarf properly. Her head was banged several times against the police van; she succumbed to her injuries and died. Javad Rouhi was one of the protestors sentenced to death on charges of “corruption on Earth”, it was reported by the Iranian judiciary’s Mizan Online news website.
Egypt has also joined BRICS. The most populous Arab nation ranks amongst the worst in the world when it comes to human rights. The regime has jailed scores of civil activists and journalists since 2011. The independent Committee for Justice has recorded that more than 50 political prisoners died in custody in Egypt in the first eight months of 2022.
However, notwithstanding the human rights records of these countries; their inclusion in BRICS could change geopolitical realities around the world. Egypt and Ethiopia have been at loggerheads for some time due a dispute regarding the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the River Nile. Ethiopia is one of the new members of BRICS and has been accused by Egypt of disturbing the flow of the Nile with potentially devastating effects for Egyptians downstream. There have been a number of interventions to reduce tensions between these countries, which have yielded positive results. The inclusion of Egypt and Ethiopia in BRICS is likely to encourage a dialogue between Cairo and Addis Ababa and a solution to the issue of the dam.
With Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iran earlier this year brokered by China, the kingdom’s inclusion in BRICS alongside the Islamic Republic will almost certainly add to the momentum. It is much needed. As the Sunni custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Saudi Arabia blames Shia Iran of stirring up regional sectarianism. The two have been at loggerheads for years. The execution of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr in 2016 increased the acrimony between Tehran and Riyadh. Following his death, Iranian demonstrators broke into the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, smashed furniture and set it on fire before the police restored calm. Saudi Arabia responded by expelling the Iranian ambassador and suspending diplomatic ties.
Throughout his first term in office, Ramaphosa backed a Commission of Inquiry into the Allegations of State Capture, known in South Africa as the Zondo Commission. The commission was involved in the investigation of corruption by individuals, civil servants and politicians at a very high level. Central to state capture in South Africa was the Gupta family. The Guptas migrated to the country in 1993 and amassed a fortune which they used to bribe politicians and civil servants for government contracts and tenders. From the moment that Jacob Zuma became president in 2009, the Guptas began to plunder from the South African government on an unprecedented scale. Ramaphosa based his presidential tenure on the eradication of corruption and state capture. The Gupta family fled from South Africa to the UAE in 2018, since when the government in Pretoria has failed to extradite them to face corruption charges. Last month, though, Atul and Rajesh Gupta were arrested in Dubai and South Africa has applied for them to be handed over to face justice. The UAE has refused the request, claiming that South Africa failed to submit the correct paperwork.
The UAE’s membership of BRICS could help strengthen relations with South Africa and resolve this judicial stand-off. Moreover, given that the Financial Action Task Force, the inter-governmental anti-money laundering and illicit finance agency, has added the UAE to its money laundering “grey list” — a major reputational hit to the Emirates — extraditing the Guptas to South Africa could help to repair its image. If the Guptas are returned to South Africa, it could be a big win for Ramaphosa as South Africa heads towards the presidential election next year.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.