Pfizer or Sinopharm? The US or China? In the Middle East and North Africa, novel coronavirus vaccine orders are driven by diplomatic and logistical considerations, reflecting Beijing’s growing regional influence.
In recent days, the Israeli government made documents public that showed the extent of its collaboration with US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in its vaccination campaign, one of the largest in the world to date, with more than a quarter of its nine million inhabitants already vaccinated.
In return for swift delivery, Israel – with its vast digitised medical databases – is giving the company data on the efficacy and potential side effects of the vaccine based on indicators such as age and medical history.
This extensive cooperation is no surprise given that Israel is Washington’s main strategic ally in the region.
The Jewish state has also ordered millions of doses of the vaccine developed by fellow US firm Moderna, the least ordered vaccine in the region so far.
Other countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman, are also relying heavily on the Pfizer vaccine, developed by the US company in partnership with Germany’s BioNTech.
Iraq, Jordan, the UAE and Bahrain, on the other hand, hedged their bets by ordering from both Pfizer and Sinopharm, with the Chinese vaccine now deemed “completely safe” by the UAE.
For Yahia Zoubir, a specialist in relations between China and the Arab world, vaccine choice rests on considerations such as price and cold storage requirements – minus 70 degrees Celsius for Pfizer, but two to eight degrees Celsius for Sinopharm.
But politics are never far away, says the professor at Kedge Business School in France.
Since the start of the pandemic, the administration of former US president Donald Trump “closed in on itself, while China has deployed health diplomacy”, he told AFP.
“The Chinese have been much more active and much more cooperative.”
Beijing has exported millions of masks and gowns to the Middle East and North Africa and elsewhere, as well as providing respirators and holding online seminars with medical authorities in various countries.
“Today, with the new silk road, there is also a health silk road,” Zoubir said, referring to China’s globe-spanning infrastructure push – the Belt and Road Initiative.
“Health is becoming a part of China’s foreign policy, allowing it to expand its circle of friends” in a region that accounts for half of Beijing’s oil imports.
According to Jonathan Fulton, a specialist in Chinese-Middle East relations at Zayed University in the UAE, “there is a lot of pressure on [US] allies and partners not to cooperate with China”.