This is a brief summary of my webinar talk. Please see the full video at the end.
Why are we talking about vaccine diplomacy?
Manufacturers are not able to produce as many vaccines as needed, which has slowed- and in some cases stalled- vaccination campaigns across the world, including in many MENA countries. While some developing nations were able to secure significant vaccine stocks early on- most notably in the MENA region, Morocco, which had reached agreements with China’s Sinopharm as early as August 2020- it is now mostly developed countries that are in the lead. Canada, for example, has pre-purchased enough vaccines to cover 200 percent of its population; and the United States secured a striking 1 billion doses.
This raises questions about the moral duty of wealthier states toward poorer countries. In light of this amassing of vaccine doses and the ongoing difficulty in manufacturing them, many are wondering how wealthy states will allocate their excess stocks. This is why we are talking about vaccine diplomacy- or the use of vaccine stocks as a soft power tool to advance foreign policy goals and promote diplomatic and other interests.
In terms of access to vaccines, in the MENA region, there are: 1.) Countries that have struggled to secure stocks or implement vaccination campaigns e.g. conflict-stricken countries like Libya, Syria, and Yemen. 2.) Countries that have secured vaccine doses early on, and that have already launched successful campaigns- such as the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Israel. 3.) Countries in the middle, that previously struggled to secure and administer doses, but that are on their way to catching up, such as Algeria, Tunisia and so on.
The ensuing race to secure stocks has resulted in rising tensions between key players: On one side, we have China and Russia, and on the other, the European Union (EU). Russia and China are treating vaccine diplomacy as a zero-sum game; and they have made it clear that their vaccine manufacturing has a political as well as a commercial goal. Both used high profile vaccine supply and licensing deals with various MENA states to gain influence in the region.
Russia went a step further and attempted to create doubt about western vaccines through comments by public officials. Though it has less manufacturing capacity than China, Russia has pledged 600 million doses to foreign countries including in the MENA region. It is worth noting that Russia has not yet controlled the outbreak within its own borders. On the other hand, China has managed to limit the outbreak domestically. Controversially, Beijing has adopted an aggressive approach to vaccine diplomacy. Perhaps most notably, it now requires that people be vaccinated with its own vaccine before they can obtain visas to visit.
This is problematic for the European Union, a major partner of many MENA countries and the largest vaccine producer globally, which also boasts more advanced vaccine technology. However, domestically EU vaccination has been slower than anticipated. The problem is that stocks are limited as manufacturing has not been assigned to other countries. The fear within the EU is that, due to these limitations, the door is open for Russia and China to gain influence in the MENA region at the expense of EU influence. And indeed, this is currently a very real possibility.