Russia, China expanding Middle East sway with COVID-19 vaccines

Moscow and Beijing using coronavirus shots in a soft-power move to extend influence in Middle East countries.

A worker inspects syringes of a COVID vaccine produced by Sinovac at its factory in Beijing [File: Ng Han Guan/AP Photo]

Russian and Chinese COVID-19 vaccines are being embraced by many countries in the Middle East – not just by those hostile to the United States, but also by its allies.

Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait purchased US vaccines, claiming their efficacy rate is higher, and Iraq has ordered vaccines from the United Kingdom’s AstraZeneca and the US’s Pfizer.

But the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Egypt, and Turkey have signed up for vaccines from Moscow and Beijing as well buying US vaccines, while Iran and the Palestinian Authority are relying on Russian and Chinese jabs only.

Iran’s economy has struggled since the US reimposed sanctions on it under former President Donald Trump and the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a diktat against the use of US and UK vaccines. Sputnik V was approved under special emergency-use authorization and Iran began rolling it out on Tuesday.

In the all-important publicity shots, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan both posted pictures of themselves being injected with their respective Chinese vaccines.

Over the last decade, Russia and China have slowly chipped away at US influence in the Middle East by signing lucrative arms deals, investing commercially, backing the US’s enemies in diplomatic forums, and – in Russia’s case – actively intervening in armed conflicts in Syria and Libya.

Now, some analysts say Russia and China wish to use vaccines in soft-power plays to present themselves as benign scientific leaders and extend their influence and prestige in a post-COVID-19 regional order.

Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine [Jorge Bernal/AFP]

Vaccine diplomacy

In recent years, Russia has strengthened a once-weakened foothold in the region by backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s civil war and reaffirming its relationship with Israel by tacitly allowing it to bomb alleged Iranian assets in Syria.

It has intervened in the Libyan civil war to support eastern-based renegade General Khalifa Haftar – who is also backed by Egypt and the UAE – in his fight against the UN-recognised Government of National Accord.

China, meanwhile, has in recent years signed commercial deals with Egypt, backed Iran against the US on sanctions, and has promised millions in aid and reconstruction to Syria.

The coronavirus vaccines, experts say, are Moscow and Beijing’s new tool to pull the Middle East deeper into their sphere of influence.

Sami Nader, an expert on the region who has visited China several times and kept a track of its expanding trade ties with Arab countries, said China’s engagement with the region has increased significantly in the last 10 years.

“It is now offering a helping hand to the people in the Middle East to win hearts and minds,” Nader said. “Don’t forget that China buys all its oil from the Gulf and needs to maintain excellent relations, especially with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

He noted that for Russia, however, “it’s a different ball game because it is intervening militarily in the region”.

“It is far more important for them to present themselves as a humanitarian actor. They have blood on their hands … They don’t want to be seen as a country that just supports dictators.”

While the UAE has so far received a total of three million doses of the Chinese vaccine, Turkey has agreed to buy 50 million.

Last month, China announced it would be a part of the roll-out of COVAX – a global initiative to provide vaccines to developing countries – while Russia has not.

Both, however, seem more focused on markets that can pay. Their vaccines are now being considered by European countries who say Pfizer and OxfordAstrezena have let them down by delaying vaccine supplies.

PR battle

While the vaccines made by US companies Pfizer and Moderna are rated about 95-percent efficient and have completed their third phases of clinical trials, there have been doubts over the efficacy of Russia’s Sputnik V, as well as the Chinese Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines.

A study in the Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, said Sputnik V had an efficacy rate of 92 percent, but the third phase of the clinical trials has not been completed.

The interim results of the phase-three trial of the Chinese vaccines conducted in Turkey, the UAE, and Brazil, on the other hand, have varied significantly.

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said while the Chinese vaccines might prove to be efficient, the interim results of the trial’s third phase have created confusion.

“State-owned Chinese company Sinopharm announced the efficacy rate of 79 percent for its vaccine,” said Huang. “The UAE said their trials revealed a success rate of 86 percent.”

He added: “Turkey is administering the other Chinese vaccine by Sinovac. They said it had proven to be 91-percent efficient but Brazil revised Sinovac’s efficiency to 50 percent. These results cause confusion and raise questions over actual efficacy.”

Chinese state media has written dozens of articles to counter doubts raised in the Western press over the efficacy of Chinese vaccines – boasting of the benefits of the Sinopharm and Sinovacs vaccines’ easy transportation and storage requirements.

Chinese health experts were quoted in local media accusing Pfizer of prioritising Western countries by developing a vaccine that required ultra cold-chain storage facilities that developing countries lack.

The Chinese vaccines, on the other hand, can be stored at 2-8 degrees Celsius, normal refrigerator temperatures.

These experts also stressed Chinese vaccines had been produced with “mature technology”, a dig at the experimental nature of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

China’s vaccines have been created by a more traditional technology that uses killed viral particles to expose the body’s immune system to the virus, prompting it to produce antibodies.

In comparison, Moderna’s and Pfizer’s vaccines use new mRNA technology that allows faster production. It injects a part of the coronavirus’s genetic code into the body, triggering it to make viral proteins and training the immune system to combat the contagion.

Meanwhile, China’s President Xi Jinping has said China would make its vaccines a global “public good”, suggesting an attempt to use them to present a more positive narrative around a pandemic first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

‘Affordable around the world’

While the cost of the Chinese vaccines is still not clear, Russia has lauded the relatively low costs of its vaccines – which can also be stored at regular refrigeration temperatures.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which is responsible for the global production and distribution of the Sputnik V vaccine, confirmed the cost to Al Jazeera.

“The price of Sputnik V is less than $10 per shot, making it affordable around the world,” said a senior RDIF official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

It is cheaper than the US vaccines, which are being sold for $20 to $33, but more expensive than the UK’s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which costs a mere $4 a jab.

A woman is assessed before receiving a COVID vaccine at St Paul’s Church in Abu Dhabi, UAE [Khushnum Bhandari/Reuters]

‘Deepening trust’

Polina Vasilenko, an independent Russian analyst, told Al Jazeera that – unlike the US – Russia has the ability to negotiate with almost all of the countries in the Middle East.

“Russia’s vaccine policy has become a contribution to deepening trust with permanent partners in the region,” she said.

She added that preparations were under way for the transfer of technology to establish the production of Sputnik V in Turkey and Egypt, as well as to conduct clinical trials in Saudi Arabia.

Another major beneficiary of the Russian vaccine has been the Palestinians. Even though Israel is leading the race to inoculate its people, it has only recently sent 2,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine to be administered to Palestinians in the occupied territories.

But the PA has reportedly already received 10,000 doses of Sputnik V and is set to receive 50,000 more soon.

War-torn, cash-strapped Syria on the other hand is still waiting for a final answer from Russia on whether it can provide the vaccine for free.

Source: Al Jazeera