After his visit to Moscow and Saint Petersburg last June, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune faced a fierce communication campaign from the opposition and foreign media. The linchpin of the campaign? The BRICS countries’ rejection of Algeria’s verbal candidacy because of the country’s poor economic performance.
The anonymous but widely circulated article contained some irrefutable truths. Algeria’s GDP per capita is USD 3,700, a far cry from the USD 7,000 of South Africa or Brazil. The gap becomes even more apparent when it comes to GDP, with Algeria generating only USD 165 billion per year, three times less than South Africa, which is the weakest BRICS economy, and 100 times less than China. In terms of purchasing power parity, however, the Algerian economy does better, with a GDP of USD 600 billion and a per capita GDP of over 13,000, which is close to South Africa’s economic performance, especially since Algiers manages an area twice the size of Pretoria and has nearly half the population.
Akram Kharief is a project manager for peace and security at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s North Africa Office in Tunis and a co-founder of MENA Defense, a regional publication specializing in defence and security issues.
More than 40 countries have expressed interest in joining the BRICS group of nations, according to recent comments from South Africa’s top diplomat in charge of relations with the bloc. Algeria officially applied for BRICS membership on 7 November 2022, and is awaiting a positive decision at the Johannesburg summit in August 2023. However, it is important to note that the BRICS is not a formal alliance, and member countries may have different priorities and interests that could limit the extent of their cooperation with Algeria on certain issues.
The anti-BRICS media campaign has achieved certain objectives, insofar as it prompted President Tebboune, who visited China between 17–20 July, to actively seek Beijing’s support. During his visit, Algeria submitted a request to become a shareholder member of the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) with an amount of USD 1.5 billion. This was declared by President Tebboune during his meeting with President Xi Jinping. At the end of his visit to China, Tebboune openly stated that Algeria had sought to join the BRICS in order to open up new economic opportunities. The North African country is rich in oil and gas resources and is seeking to diversify its economy and strengthen its partnership with countries such as China.
Why Does Algeria Insist on Joining the BRICS?
President Tebboune, who is running for a second term in December 2024, has achieved very little domestically, with virtually no visits to the country’s interior, nor inaugurations of major projects. Seriously affected by COVID-19 in November 2020, he had several months of treatment in Germany, followed by long months of convalescence in Algeria, preventing him from travelling anywhere. It was only at the end of 2022 that he resumed his travels, so (at least vis-à-vis the population) he needed a strong narrative to mark his return to the diplomatic stage: the multipolar world and non-alignment. Tebboune’s task is made all the more difficult by the fact that his predecessor, Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika, used his history as a “great” diplomat as an argument to assert his authority before the people and his detractors. In the absence of major projects and domestic appearances, Tebboune has no choice but to use diplomacy to try and win over domestic public opinion and make people forget the lack of results achieved during his first term.
Algeria’s membership of the BRICS could offer it increased opportunities for trade, investment, and technological exchange with member countries, which could lead to greater economic growth and diversification and open up new export markets for the country.
On the economic front, Algeria is counting on BRICS membership for the simple reason that, according to Algiers, there will be only one country in North Africa able to represent and channel the organization’s trade, and which has sufficient natural resources to maintain an industry and guarantee stable financial revenues. It also hopes to take advantage of its proximity to Russia, the world’s biggest energy player, to influence hydrocarbon prices, and to benefit from Russia’s political weight within OPEC+ and the possible creation of a gas OPEC.
Algeria also attaches great importance to disconnecting its economy from traditional international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and to gradually moving away from the dollar. A red light went on in Algiers after US senators campaigned in 2022 and 2023 for the application of CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) against Algeria for its alleged proximity to Moscow.
This threat, linked to Algeria’s use of the dollar as an international exchange and reserve currency, has prompted Algiers to look for alternatives such as the BRICS New Development Bank or a common currency between these countries, backed by gold, of which Algeria holds the largest reserves in Africa, amounting to 176 tonnes.
Algeria’s membership of the BRICS could offer it increased opportunities for trade, investment, and technological exchange with member countries, which could lead to greater economic growth and diversification and open up new export markets for the country. However, the BRICS countries have high levels of public debt, China and Russia are under harsh economic sanctions, and their place in the global order is contested. All this could also pose a risk for Algeria if the member countries experience economic instability.
The risk of a deterioration in relations between Algeria and the EU–US duo is quite possible because of the rigorous solidarity within the group, which could put Algiers at odds with them. Because in 2021, the total value of trade in all products between Algeria and the EU reached EUR 31.395 billion. This trade, which includes Algerian hydrocarbon sales to the EU, resulted in a trade surplus for Algeria of EUR 6.099 billion. As for trade between Algeria and the United States, its volume will exceed USD 3 billion in 2021, compared with USD 1.82 billion in 2020 and USD 3.61 billion in 2019, making Washington Algeria’s seventh-largest trading partner.
To balance its membership of the BRICS and maintain its relations with Western countries, particularly the USA, Algeria could pursue a ‘multi-alignment’ strategy, which involves diversifying its foreign relations and maintaining friendly relations with a variety of countries and groups.
In conclusion, the potential benefits and risks of BRICS membership for Algeria are complex and multifaceted. While joining the group could offer Algeria new opportunities for economic growth and political influence, it is important to carefully consider the potential risks and weigh them against the potential benefits. Ultimately, Algeria’s decision on whether or not to join the BRICS will depend on its strategic objectives and its assessment of the potential benefits and risks associated with membership.
A Bumpy Road Ahead
To balance its membership of the BRICS and maintain its relations with Western countries, particularly the USA, Algeria could pursue a “multi-alignment” strategy, which involves diversifying its foreign relations and maintaining friendly relations with a variety of countries and groups. This approach would enable Algeria to pursue its strategic interests, while minimizing the risk of being seen as aligned with any particular power or group. It is up to Algeria to make it clear that its membership of the BRICS is primarily economic in nature, and does not represent a political shift away from Western countries.
This “multi-alignment” could also apply to the economy. The rapprochement between Algiers, Rome, Lisbon, and above all Berlin is a sign that Algeria is betting heavily on an energy tie-up with part of the EU. The cyclical crises between Algiers and Paris should not obscure the fact that at any moment a truly strategic economic relationship could be built between the two capitals. Membership of the BRICS does not necessarily mean a divorce from all Western approaches and countries. It could maintain an active and constructive role in international organizations and forums where BRICS and Western countries are represented, such as the United Nations. Algeria could therefore pursue economic and diplomatic cooperation with Western countries, while exploring new opportunities for cooperation with the BRICS. It is important that Algeria is transparent and open in its communication with Western countries about its relationship with the BRICS and its strategic objectives.
In the end, Algeria’s membership of the BRICS is highly probable, but it is based on the President's political ambition rather than on a clear economic strategy. While this does not represent a danger for the country, it could further complicate its relationship with the West. Even so, Algeria’s economic gamble could be a winning one, as it builds ties with the world’s most dynamic countries. However, the political future and internal factional struggles may represent a risk to Algeria’s relations with the rest of the world, given the degree of antagonism between various Algerian factions. The all-powerful army, reputed to be very close to Moscow, is sponsoring the initiative, but pro-Western and especially pro-French forces could take a dim view of a move away from the Euro–Atlantic constellation.