Last month Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, made a six-country tour of the Middle East. Although media coverage was dominated by China’s supposed 25-year Iran deal, perhaps more intriguing is what was happening on the other side of the Gulf, in the United Arab Emirates.
During Wang’s stay in Abu Dhabi, a joint venture was announced between China’s Sinopharm and the Abu Dhabi-based technology company, G42 Healthcare, to produce a ‘Made in UAE’ version of the former’s COVID-19 vaccine, branded Hayat Vax. It has the potential to revolutionize the region’s vaccine rollout.
For Jonathan Fulton, a China-Middle East expert at Zayed University in the UAE, the deal was more significant than the stories coming out of Tehran. He tweeted that “Iran has minimal value in connecting to other countries, which is the core of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China’s investments in the UAE link it to the rest of the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and the Med. That the UAE and China are working on such a serious issue – vaccine manufacturing and distribution – indicates the level of political trust that Beijing has in Abu Dhabi. It’s a big deal.”
The matchup between Sinopharm and G42 goes beyond the two countries. Both Beijing and Abu Dhabi are keen to increase their international influence. After two decades of China’s “peaceful rise”, Beijing seems eager to take on a role commensurate to its size as the world’s second largest economy. Meanwhile, the UAE has become a more proactive regional power during the past decade, seeking to increasingly flex it’s soft-power muscles.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given both countries an opportunity to do so. As the virus rampaged across the world last year, China launched its “Health Silk Road”, providing medical guidance and equipment. The UAE also dispatched medical and food supplies, not only to other countries in the region, but further afield as well. Then, in November, the Emirati Government took advantage of the UAE’s position as a global logistics and transport hub to announce its Hope Consortium, coordinating the storage and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines around the world.
The G42-Sinopharm tie-up should help towards this. Sophie Zinser, a Chatham House fellow, has written that the UAE and China have an advantage over Western countries and pharmaceutical companies “since they see developing countries as potential customers rather than passive recipients of aid. A consumer-driven attitude, combined with a proven, effective, low-cost vaccine, may offer life for populations around the world.”
The partnership between Sinopharm and G42 has been in place for some time now, at least on pandemic timescales. The two began working together last year when Sinopharm secured approval to begin Stage III trials for its vaccine, with the UAE becoming the first ever Middle East nation to take part in such a scheme, with G42 taking the lead. Abu Dhabi had the advantage of its cosmopolitan character, with 200 nationalities living there, enabling Sinopharm scientists to examine the jab’s performance across a broad spectrum of people.
The results of being at the forefront of such research, as well as building up this partnership, is partly realised in the success of the Emirati vaccination programme. By the end of March, the UAE had administered the second largest number of vaccinations per 100 people.
Viewed more broadly, the Sinopharm-G42 deal will tap into the UAE’s ambitions for its healthcare sector. The UAE’s leadership sees such commercial tie-ups as a way of helping to diversify the country’s economy away from a reliance on oil production and revenues. The construction of a plant eventually producing 200 million vaccine doses each year, as well as a research and development hub for biotechnology, is proof of the importance the UAE places on developing a high-tech, innovative life sciences industry.
At the same time, the deal helps shed light on wider health challenges and efforts being made to resolve them. Since 2000 the number of new hospitals, doctors and nurses has grown significantly, through both public and private sector spending. The greater supply has also coincided with changes in the main health problems faced by the UAE’s population. As the country has become both older and richer, the UAE’s residents are facing similar health risks to those in other, similarly wealthy countries. Further developing an Emirati medical research industry is therefore very much in the country’s long-term interest. Forging ties with China can only help.
Guy Burton is an Adjunct Professor at the Brussels School of Governance and the author of China and Middle East Conflicts.