How global high flyers get vaccinated in the UAE

A string of tycoons, politicians and royalty have descended in recent months on the United Arab Emirates, where friends in high places have helped them secure early access to coronavirus vaccines.

British financier Ben Goldsmith and executives at SoftBank are among those to benefit from swift inoculation against Covid-19 as members of the ruling family and government officials have used its plentiful vaccine supplies to help some non-residents get the jabs.

Goldsmith, an adviser to the UK government and the son of financier Jimmy Goldsmith, said he had travelled to the oil-rich Gulf state before tighter coronavirus measures were enforced in December and decided to stay rather than returning home to lockdown.

Goldsmith and his wife received the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine on the invitation of a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. “It was never our intention to get vaccinated, but when the opportunity presented itself we gratefully took it,” he told the Financial Times. “The UAE is vaccinating anyone who asks for it — we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.” Only UAE residents are routinely eligible for the vaccine. 

With more than 6m jabs having been administered to its 10m population, the UAE has steered one of the world’s fastest vaccination programmes. The UAE, which ran phase 3 trials for the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine and plans to manufacture it, has enough supplies to vaccinate its entire population.

At some stage, the UAE is expected to set up a formal vaccine tourism programme, but at the moment, excess jabs are being given to well-connected non-residents. In the UAE, only senior officials and royals can secure exemptions for non-residents, said three people familiar with the process. This is known locally as ‘vaccine wasta’, the use of influence to get jabs.

A small group of SoftBank executives decamped from London to the UAE in January, according to two people with direct knowledge of the trip. Members of the group, including Rajeev Misra, who runs the Vision Fund, received the jab during their time in the country. As non-residents, they would have relied on government approval or connections to access the vaccine. SoftBank declined to comment.

SoftBank’s Vision Fund has an office in the financial centre of Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign Public Investment Fund is a major investor in the fund.

Abu Dhabi officials have also offered vaccines to a select group of non-resident business people who work with the emirate. The UAE offered senior officials at Italian energy company Eni, including chief executive Claudio Descalzi, a free BioNTech/Pfizer jab “for business purposes”, the company said. “It’s much safer just to get them vaccinated,” said one official in Abu Dhabi, who has helped several non-residents to get inoculated. “It’s tough to get it done, takes a few days.” 

Wealthy vaccine tourists often arrive in private jets and have stayed at upmarket Dubai beach hotels, such as the Mandarin Oriental, the Four Seasons Jumeirah and the Bulgari resort, said one business person who made the trip and secured the vaccine.

“People with connections came here and got vaccines that were provided on a ‘friends and family’ basis,” said an investor briefed on the process. “Sheikhs have [ access to] their own stashes — it’s all around the majlis for jabs,” he said, referring to the traditional Gulf place of gathering. The generosity has even extended to family members of some executives.

Clockwise from top left: Claudio Descalzi, Ben Goldsmith, Mark Machin and Rajeev Misra

Mark Machin, formerly head of Canada’s largest pension fund, had to resign last month after it emerged that he had travelled to the UAE in violation of Canada’s lockdown advice to receive the vaccine. Two sisters of King Felipe of Spain are also facing a backlash in their country after local media reported that they had received the vaccine in Abu Dhabi.

There has also been an influx of Indian, Pakistani and Lebanese nationals seeking access to the vaccine, several people in Dubai said. Some wealthy foreigners have legally opened offshore companies so they can apply for residency and receive a vaccine, said one financial adviser.

One Lebanese banker said they and several of their friends used influential contacts to help them get doses of Sinopharm in large vaccination centres in Dubai. Politicians from Lebanon, as well as more distant countries, such as Georgia, have also travelled to the UAE to get the vaccine.

Some UAE residents have also encouraged their families to visit for three weeks to receive two vaccine doses. Overseas families of residents are not officially eligible for jabs. In these cases, some used influence to secure vaccines, others paid for jabs sold by private clinics through a grey market that emerged in January, two people aware of the trade said. That illicit trade has since stopped, they added.

During the early chaos of the UAE’s vaccination process in December, some benefited from good fortune. One Dubai resident took a house guest along when he joined the rush for a free dose of Sinopharm. His friend showed his passport and was accepted. “He just chanced his luck and got lucky,” he said. 

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