Saudi Arabia eyes world stage after BRICS invitation

BRICS Summit in Johannesburg

By Yousef Saba and Hadeel Al Sayegh

DUBAI (Reuters) - Oil power Saudi Arabia's entry to the BRICS group of nations highlights its ambitious drive to become a heavyweight on the global stage, creating a counter to its decades-old alliance with the United States, once seen as ironclad.

The kingdom anticipates more cooperation with BRICS nations, its foreign minister said on Thursday, after the group invited Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Egypt and Argentina to join.

"We look forward to develop this cooperation to create new developmental and economic opportunities and elevate our relationship to the aspired level," Prince Faisal bin Farhan told a BRICS summit.

Saudi Arabia, one of the most powerful and influential Arab states, and its neighbour the UAE, have increasingly pursued their own paths after concerns that the U.S. is less committed to the strategic region's security.

"We're seeing Saudi disregarding U.S. interests in several areas: the Saudi-Russian oil market partnership, in Riyadh's tightening relationship with China, and in the kingdom's spate of refusals to crank up oil production when Washington asks," said Jim Krane, research fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute in Houston.

"It's been a long time now since Saudi Arabia emerged from under the U.S. shadow and the kingdom has been charting an increasingly nonaligned path that puts it at odds with U.S. interests."

China, Saudi Arabia's biggest oil customer, has led calls to expand the emerging market powers bloc - until now made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - to become a counterweight to the West.

Underscoring shifting geopolitics, Saudi Arabia hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping for a visit in December after U.S. President Joe Biden failed on a trip to the kingdom to convince it to boost oil output to tame high U.S. gasoline prices.

Krane said pricing oil in non-dollar currencies was Washington's biggest worry.

"China has been pressing Saudi Arabia to price oil in renminbi for some time," he said. "The Biden administration is pursuing this issue within the Abraham Accords framework. So the kingdom appears to be in the enviable position of "balancing" between Beijing and Washington, going with whichever side offers the biggest prize."

The Abraham Accords were U.S.-brokered deals that normalised ties between Israel and Gulf states the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

"The leadership sees BRICS as one of the important groupings that merits greater attention from Riyadh, given the importance of China/India in the global order," said Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa head at Eurasia Group.

"However, Riyadh is not exclusively focused on BRICs and is looking at G20 and other forums as key for Saudi Arabia’s strategy of increasing its geopolitical influence."

(Reporting by Yousef Saba and Hadeel Al Sayegh; Additional reporting by Sarah El Safty and Patrick Werr; Writing by Yousef Saba; Editing by Michael Georgy and Nick Macfie)