As countries continue to face the detrimental economic and health impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been high demand for vaccines. More than 1.4 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, which is only 9.7 percent of the global population. The gap between the supply and demand of vaccines has created a new currency for international diplomacy in which the provision of vaccines has become a tool of soft power used by countries to enhance their influence and revamp their image internationally.
When it comes to vaccine diplomacy, Russia and China have taken the lead in using vaccines as tools of global influence, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. As Western countries joined the vaccination race and adopted a “my nation first” mindset, Russia and China decided to engage, instead, in a race to provide vaccines to others. Because of the slow rollout of vaccines by Covax, the worldwide initiative to distribute vaccines equitably, poor and emerging countries have struggled to obtain doses for their populations. China and Russia have taken advantage of this to strengthen their global presence, boost relations with countries, and present themselves as “saviors” of the emerging world.
Vaccine diplomacy has been deployed in several ways across the across the Arab world and Turkey. Some countries have purchased vaccines, while others have received them in the form of donations or political transactions. The Russian and Chinese vaccine strategy has adapted to the social and political gaps present in the Middle East and North Africa and exposed some countries as fragile, others as resilient, and others as “anti-fragile”—able not only to endure disasters but to be strengthened by them. In this context, Russia and China have tailored their policies to the political and economic specificities of each category.
The first category involves fragile countries characterized by weak governance systems and economic and political instability, such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. China and Russia have supplied their vaccines to these countries, offering cheaper and more widely available options than their western counterparts. China had already provided fragile countries with medical supplies as part of its “mask diplomacy” efforts last year. As for Russia, it has been less focused on donating vaccines than on brokering business deals. It has sold its Sputnik-V vaccines to the private sector in many countries to help speed up their vaccination campaigns.
As for the second category of states, which consists mainly of countries with closer ties to Europe that are more stable and resistant economically, such as Tunisia and Morocco, vaccine diplomacy efforts have been employed on a different scale. The Western countries’ reliance on distributing vaccines through Covax and their focus on their own domestic vaccination campaigns have created a delay in responding to the needs of their friends in the Middle East and North Africa, creating perceptions of Western failure in this regard. China and Russia have viewed this as a golden opportunity to promote an anti-Western narrative and foster new forms of collaboration in the Maghreb countries.
For instance, Morocco anticipated such a delay. It engaged early on with China by actively participating in the third phase of the clinical tests of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, then bought millions of doses. Algeria, in turn, didn’t rely on its Western counterparts, but rather capitalized on its historical relations with Russia and ordered the Sputnik-V vaccine. Russia also took advantage of this to restore its relationship with Algeria and discussed the possibility of producing its vaccine in Algeria. Tunisia authorized the Russian vaccine, despite initially hesitating to order it. It was left with no other alternative, however, after repeated delays in the shipment of the AstraZeneca-Oxford and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.
Then there is the third, “anti-fragile,” category, a term the author Nassim Taleb first used to describe countries that gained strength under stress. This can refer to places such as the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, which have benefited from vaccine diplomacy and reached a win-win outcome. China and Russia have used a new approach, relying mainly on two options: striking licensing deals to produce vaccines in these countries and providing preferential visa regulations for those vaccinated with Chinese or Russian vaccines.
After taking the lead in vaccinating its population, the UAE became the first Arab country to sign an agreement with China to manufacture Hayat-Vax, a collaboration between Sinopharm and the Abu Dhabi-based technology company G42. Likewise, Turkey agreed with Russia to start the joint production of the Russian vaccine on its territory. China also decided to provide preferential visa regulations for those vaccinated with the Sinopharm vaccine. This has given the UAE the opportunity to open safe travel corridors with China, reviving the two countries’ economic and commercial activities.
Russia and China’s approaches to supplying vaccines to the Middle East and North Africa have worked because they have been flexible and have been adapted to different political and economic realities across the region. For this reason, the relationship between Middle Eastern and North African states and Russia or China could emerge stronger in a post-pandemic world. However, diplomacy is not without risks and it will be interesting to see whether both the Russians and Chinese will win the vaccination race in light of the hesitancy of many people to be vaccinated and the uncertainty surrounding the efficacy of their vaccines. Will they be able to maintain their influence even after Western countries become fully vaccinated and return to the Middle East and North Africa?