“The inequitable distribution of vaccines is not just a moral outrage,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, said at a press conference in late March. “It’s also economically and epidemiologically self-defeating.” As of April 8, the world’s 27 richest countries, which account for 11 percent of the world’s population, have used 40 percent of the world’s vaccines for COVID-19. Tedros, in contrast, called on the international community to come together and combat the pandemic “everywhere at the same time.”
Like many other experts, Tedros has noted that allowing COVID to spread unchecked in the Global South gives the coronavirus the opportunity to transform into dangerous new variants, an alarming turn of events that Brazil, South Africa, and the United Kingdom have already experienced. These mutations, in turn, can blunt the effectiveness of vaccines—even in wealthy countries that have inoculated their populations. Even so, disparities in the availability of vaccines persist.
Within the Arab world, vast gaps in the sizes of economies have exacerbated this deadly trend. Whereas the energy superpowers of the Middle East have deployed their impressive financial resources to secure vaccines for their populations, Arab countries battered by an ongoing global recession have far fewer avenues to secure a limited supply of doses. Libya, Syria, and Yemen, which must also contend with civil wars, can barely devote attention to the most basic aspects of public health, let alone organize sophisticated campaigns to vaccinate millions of citizens.
Few countries have inoculated as many of their nationals as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which leads the pack in the Arab world. As early as March 16, Emirati officials reported that they had vaccinated 52 percent of the population; as of April 15, the UAE had administered 97 doses for every 100 residents according to Our World in Data. Khaleej Times, a Dubai newspaper, called the UAE “a role model for vaccine rollout” that “got it right from the beginning.”
A number of circumstances unique to the UAE will make its successful anti-COVID campaign difficult to replicate elsewhere in the Arab world.
The UAE’s commendable achievement notwithstanding, a number of circumstances unique to the country will make its successful anti-COVID campaign difficult to replicate elsewhere in the Arab world.
As this writer noted in an article for The Diplomat, Emirati leaders started building partnerships with major producers of vaccines well before other Arab governments acted. Last year, the UAE hosted clinical trials for a vaccine developed by China National Pharmaceutical Group Corporation, better known as “Sinopharm.” On December 9, before the Sinopharm vaccine had even completed its clinical trials, Emirati authorities approved it for use—making the UAE the first country in the world to authorize a Chinese vaccine. Since then, the cash flow from the UAE’s substantial oil reserves has enabled the country to accumulate a variety of doses.
Though the Sinopharm vaccine gave the UAE a crucial head start in inoculations, Emirati officials have also deployed the AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Sputnik V vaccines. Only the wealthiest countries in the Middle East can afford such a wide range of vaccines, while their poorer neighbors have had to scramble and outbid one another for the few doses that remain.
Statistics on vaccinations reflect the disparity in the availability of vaccines in the Arab world. Our World in Data indicates that Bahrain, another country with sizable oil reserves, has administered 64 doses per 100 residents as of April 15; Qatar, a fellow energy superpower, has used 42 per 100 residents. Algeria, Egypt, and Sudan, which lack the same kind of financial firepower, have given just 0.2 doses per 100 residents, and Our World in Data puts Mauritania at 0.1. Syria, mired in civil war since 2011, stands at fewer than 0.1 doses per 100 residents.
As vaccines pour into the Middle East’s richest monarchies, resource-poor Arab countries have raced to secure what doses they can. In a more bizarre episode, Syria only succeeded in landing a supply of Sputnik V after a complex transaction involving a prisoner swap with Israel.
Despite these hurdles, some Arab countries without access to Bahrain or the UAE’s wealth have nonetheless overseen promising campaigns to vaccinate their populations. According to Our World in Data, Morocco has managed to administer 24 doses per 100 residents as of April 15—more than richer countries such as Saudi Arabia—by moving fast and early to obtain vaccines like the UAE. Since coming close to exhausting an initial supply of vaccines earlier this year, though, Morocco has encountered major difficulties in trying to acquire additional doses from abroad.
In a handful of cases, Arab regional powers with easy access to vaccines appear to be making the most of their neighbors’ hardship.
In a handful of cases, Arab regional powers with easy access to vaccines appear to be making the most of their neighbors’ hardship. The UAE has donated vaccines to Egypt, the Seychelles, and Syria. While Emirati leaders might have meant the shipments as pure charity, the UAE’s historical attempts to build a sphere of influence in the Arab world suggest otherwise. Egypt has become a close ally of the UAE, and Emirati officials, who began cultivating ties with the Seychelles long ago, also seem eager to repair their once-frayed relationship with Syria.
The UAE may soon discover that its vaccine-based diplomacy has limits. Though a regional power, it remains a purchaser of vaccines, not a producer. The UAE—and any other energy superpower that copies its idea—can only continue to offer doses to allies as long as suppliers are still willing to sell them. China, which has supplied the bulk of the UAE’s vaccines, may grow reluctant to provide more doses if the UAE just redistributes them and takes all the credit.
A more transparent, viable initiative to increase the availability of vaccines throughout the Arab world might involve a partnership between the region’s energy superpowers and major producers of vaccines, such as India and South Korea. COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, a similar program supported by the United Nations and better known as “COVAX,” has already begun to close the gap. Through COVAX, Yemen received a shipment of 360,000 Indian-manufactured AstraZeneca doses in late March. The Arab world, however, requires much greater action.
Ultimately, wealthy countries in the Arab world and throughout the international community must work to inoculate neighbors that lack the same level of access to vaccines. As Tedros observed, “the inequitable distribution of vaccines” threatens every country, whether rich or poor.