Omicron: Mideast countries prepare for the new coronavirus variant


Countries in the Middle East are bracing for the omicron variant of the coronavirus by restricting travel, announcing lockdowns and closing airports. Meanwhile, international vaccine diplomacy is gaining momentum.

This week, most Middle Eastern countries reacted in one way or the other to the new omicron coronavirus variant.

So far only Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have recorded omicron infections. But amid omicron-related concerns, Lebanese health authorities have just announced a night curfew for people who have not been vaccinated or are without a recent negative PCR test, starting on December 17.

For three weeks, people in these categories will not be allowed to leave their homes between 7 p.m and 6 a.m. It is yet to be announced what kind of penalties are planned if the rules are violated.

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Health Minister Firass Abiad said during a press conference on Wednesday that “the new measures aim to limit socializing as Lebanese expatriates flood home for the holiday season.”

While Lebanon has yet to register an omicron case, covid-19 infections skyrocketed in the country after Christmas last year, bringing the health system to the brink of collapse.

Travel restrictions

Following the announcement of the new omicron variant in South Africa, the countries of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia have suspended air travel from up to two dozen African nations. Among them are South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Eswatini.

Morocco and Israel have even suspended all incoming international commercial flights for the next two weeks.

However, while imposing travel restrictions to protect the population has become a regular reaction for many countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned this week that “blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.”

International vaccine diplomacy

This comes as international actors have been increasingly focusing on vaccine diplomacy in the Middle East, using vaccine supplies as a tool to project soft power. Poorer countries are still heavily affected by the fact that, so far, only 13% of doses contracted by COVAX — the program meant to deliver vaccines to the world’s most vulnerable people — have been delivered.

“China and Russia have stepped up their efforts in vaccine diplomacy” in the region, Professor Eckart Woertz, director of Middle East Studies at the Hamburg-based German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA), told DW.

As early as last March, Wang Yi, China’s minister of foreign affairs, celebrated a new joint venture for vaccine production in the United Arab Emirates between the China National Pharmaceutical Group, which is generally referred to as Sinopharm, and the Emirati company Group 42, often abbreviated as G42.

The two companies envision producing up to 200 million doses of Sinopharm vaccine per year in the UAE.

“Morocco and the UAE are both trying to establish their countries as regional Sinopharm hubs,” said Woertz.

Early this year, Morocco signed a contract with Sinopharm and “hopes to turn into a vaccine distribution hub for West Africa,” Woertz and co-author Roie Yellinek wrote in a paper in March.

Russia, on the other hand, has already cut a deal with Egypt.

The underlying idea is that new production facilities for Russia’s Sputnik vaccine are to turn Egypt into the main distributor for North Africa.

Regional vaccine diplomacy

A second, equally important aspect of vaccine diplomacy is domestic politics.

“Successful vaccination rollouts can strengthen the position of beleaguered incumbents, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and King Mohammed VI of Morocco,” Woertz wrote in March, before Netanyahu was succeeded by Naftali Bennett.

However, given that the new coronavirus variant is unlikely to be the last, it is most probable that vaccine diplomacy will accelerate further in the near future.

“While the new omicron variant is by far too new to analyze its political scope, it is safe to say that vaccine diplomacy has entered the political dictionary and is there to stay,” said Woertz.

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