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Vaccine Diplomacy: COVID and the Return of Soft Power

Pandemic diplomacy as a foreign policy tool – from Western powers to the UAE.

April 30, 2021

For decades, Western powers have won the plaudits of do-gooders at home and influence abroad by skillful use of aid diplomacy – whether sending cash, medicines or food to poorer countries.

The current health crisis, with uncontrolled outbreaks and new variants in countries like India and Brazil, makes Covid diplomacy a public health imperative as well as a foreign policy tool.

Cold War players losing soft power

Unfortunately, the soft power the United States, United Kingdom and Western Europe once enjoyed has largely fallen by the wayside this century. This is largely the result of the failure of U.S. and European military interventions to bring about stability or lasting resolutions to conflicts in the Middle East or Africa.

Russia flops, too

Not that NATO’s longtime adversary has made a better show of it. Where once the Soviet Union sent doctors to provide lifesaving medical help across the developing world, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is now little more than a small-town bully.

It uses its armed forces to threaten and intimidate neighbors and exploit conflict zones like Syria to showcase military hardware and abet war crimes.

As both of the former Cold War blocs discredit themselves, new global players have emerged to meet the humanitarian challenges of a new, multipolar era.

UK cutting aid

Despite being the primary destination of refugees fleeing conflict, climate change and poverty across the Middle East and Africa, European leaders have slashed development spending.

One of Boris Johnson’s first acts upon taking office was to cut the UK’s overseas aid. The UK is ending support for safe waters delivery and polio eradication in African and other poor nations.

France losing ground in Africa

France is also realizing that its aggressive, hard power approach to combating Islamist militancy in Francophone Africa has diminished its standing among its African partners.

An opinion poll from the French Council of Investors in Africa (CIAN) has seen French standing steadily decline over the past three years.

Africa steps up its game

Frustration with international efforts to ensure Africa gets its fair share of Covid-19 vaccines has pushed governments and health officials across the continent to undertake a historic shift towards local research, development and production of vaccines.

Enter the Emirates

As Sir Jeremy Farrar of the UK’s leading medical research institute the Wellcome Trust points out, the world is over-dependent on giant vaccine producers like India. It needs to diversify the supply chain to include smaller nations.

The UAE has put itself forward as one of those new producers, developing its own Hayat-Vax vaccine as a partnership between UAE tech firm G-42 and China’s Sinopharm.

UAE: Vaccine leader

Hayat-Vax has passed clinical trials and is waiting on the results of a final trial. In the interim, the UAE has already vaccinated nearly 90% of its population – well ahead of the UK or Israel, the two countries usually cited as the world’s top vaccinators.

That means much of its new vaccine production is earmarked for use abroad, particularly in Africa.

Arabia and Africa

In an updated version of the legendary CARE packages sent to hungry Europe by America after 1945, the UAE is increasing its profile in Africa by sending 100 million food packages to families in countries like Sudan, Uganda, Angola and Egypt.

The UAE has also made substantial contributions to Covax, the WHO-run campaign to deliver vaccines to developing countries.

Soft power opportunity

Contributing to the global Covid response has obvious benefits as a soft power strategy. Robert Yates, director of the Chatham House Global Health Program, told The Globalist: “This is how to win friends and influence people, especially if done with the WHO. If the UAE become a giant manufacturing center for global vaccines, the potential benefits for the UAE would be immense.”

Anyone remember the BRICs?

Twenty years ago, all the global buzz was about the BRICs. Alas, Brazil, Russia and India have since reverted to an ugly, nationalist, authoritarian mode of government. They have also badly flubbed their responses to the pandemic.

China, while getting richer, became more tyrannical.

China’s failure to accept that it had given birth to the killer virus at the end of 2019 and its silencing of the WHO in January 2020 lost the world key weeks when the virus could have been tackled before it became a pandemic.

As much as the Chinese detest it, the responsibility for both cover-up acts – one of omission, the other of commission – will be with them forever.

Conclusion: The UAE leading the way?

Meanwhile, smaller, nimbler nations like New Zealand, the UAE or Israel have shown how to tackle the pandemic.

Indeed, for the first time since 1945, the Middle East has produced a soft power player in the shape of the UAE.

If the Emirates can wean themselves off fossil fuel dependency by becoming a regional hub for new medicines, the potential for the region would be immense.


The current health crisis makes Covid diplomacy a foreign policy tool across the globe..

UAE, using vaccine diplomacy, is meeting the challenges of a multipolar era.

The indifference of the superpowers has pushed Africa to take on local research, development and vaccine production.

For the first time since 1945, the Middle East has produced a soft power player — the UAE.

As much as the Chinese detest it, the responsibility for covering up the emergence of COVID will be with them forever.

Smaller, nimbler nations like New Zealand or Israel have shown how to tackle the pandemic.

By sending 100 million food packages to families in Sudan, Uganda, Angola and Egypt, is UAE becoming the new aid superhero?