How the Ukraine war is driving food insecurity in the Middle East

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7 min read
02 June, 2022
In-depth: Russia's invasion of Ukraine has led to soaring food prices amid significant disruption to the supply of staple grains, with the risk of political unrest, migration, and acute hunger.

The Middle East is particularly vulnerable to the wide-ranging effects on global food prices and supplies caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The history of food security in the region could portend catastrophic consequences if this state of affairs persists and worsens, with the possibility of political unrest, migration, and even famine.

With the United Nations warning that the global food crisis could last for years if not addressed, countries across the Middle East have different challenges in responding to rising food insecurity.

"Even during the pre-Covid-19 era in Iraq people were protesting for 'income and bread'. Almost three years later, the situation has worsened"

Iraq

The global increase in the price of food due to the Ukraine war is having its effects on Iraq. Unlike several other states in the region, Iraq imports most of its wheat from the United States and Australia.

Still, some in Baghdad are worried. Mahdi Damad al-Qaisi, an advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture, recently said that "other countries that rely on Russia and Ukraine may now resort to the countries Iraq imports from. The concerned authorities must take precautions, including us in the Ministry of Agriculture, because our agriculture is limited, especially in terms of wheat". 

The populist Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr recently urged Iraq's parliament to put aside "partisan, sectarian, and ethnic speculations" and facilitate the passage of an emergency bill on food security that Iraq's incumbent caretaker government recently put forward.

Sadr is arguably more capable than anyone of rallying the poor in Iraq and understands how essential stable food prices and supplies are for the millions who subside on very little. 

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Many impoverished Iraqis still rely on the country's national ration card for basic foodstuffs. And with the rise in food prices and food shortages caused by the Ukraine war, they will become even more so dependent on it.

This international issue arguably couldn't have come for a worse time for Iraq. This year, its own wheat production has been markedly reduced since the government had to cut irrigation for agricultural land to preserve dwindling water supplies

Food prices and shortages could become a rallying issue, especially if the government fails to devise adequate measures to alleviate the situation. In 2019, Iraqis railed against corruption in massive popular demonstrations that swept across the country.

Another larger wave could come. Even during that pre-Covid-19 era, people were protesting for 'income and bread'. Almost three years later, the situation has worsened, and the worst has yet to come. 

"Syria's most fertile land is in the northeast and east, the country's breadbasket. But even there, residents are fighting against hunger and thirst"

Syria

In Syria, the food situation is dire. "Many, many people are really hungry. They don't have even one meal a day," a nun working in the country recently told journalists.

With the economy so bad, she added, some people even look back at periods of the brutal war that devastated the country and lament, "at least then we had some food to eat and we could feed our children". 

Syria's most fertile land is in the northeast and east, the country's breadbasket. But even there, residents are fighting against hunger and thirst, and villages lack basic necessities, such as bread and water.

In the northwest, the situation is dire. Millions of displaced Syrians live in cramped camps in Idlib province. Many of these Syrians rely on humanitarian aid delivered through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.

However, keeping that border open requires authorisation from the United Nations Security Council. With the next vote coming in July, there are fears that permanent Security Council member Russia will refuse to renew the mandate to provide aid, a move that would worsen the already grave situation in Idlib and possibly fuel more conflict. 

A rise in food prices is thought to have been one of the many factors that sparked the revolution in Syria in 2011, an uprising that ignited a civil war that raged for over a decade and left around 500,000 dead.

In the year before the revolution, the average basket of food went up by about 30 percent while the price of staples like wheat increased by 100 percent.

wheat mill
Bread prices, especially subsidised bread for the poor, have been an essential part of the social contract in Egypt. [Getty]

Lebanon

Syria's western neighbour Lebanon is also facing a dire situation. An estimated 90 percent of the country's wheat and cooking oil, and a substantial amount of its grain, imports come from Ukraine and Russia.

But even before the war in Ukraine and the horrific August 2020 Beirut port explosion, the Lebanese government considered importing wheat for the first time in six years amid fears the coronavirus pandemic would threaten its food security.

Previously, the government bought wheat from Lebanese farmers for above-market prices but shifted to relying on privately owned mills to import wheat, primarily from Russia and Ukraine. 

Then the explosion happened. Aside from killing over 200 people, injuring 6,000, and devastating the capital, the explosion reduced the capacity of Beirut's port to import wheat by about a fifth or even less.

The blast destroyed the port's enormous grain silos, the only such silos in the country. Lebanon doesn't have any grain reserves (even the port silos, which could hold up to 120,000 tonnes of grain, were used for temporary storage and only had 15,000 tonnes in them when they were destroyed), not even a three-month reserve that aid agencies recommend, and that was before the global food supply chain was disrupted.

In April, the Lebanese government disbursed $15 million in credit to resolve bread shortages for just a few weeks. 

"We don't have any silos and we don't have money," said Ghassan Bou Habib, the vice president of one of Lebanon's largest bakery networks. "Bread will become a luxury item – it will become an expensive commodity." 

The national currency continues to plummet (Lebanon pays for food imports in dollars), the Deir Ammar plant in Tripoli is out of fuel, and six bread mills are reportedly not operating. 

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Egypt

Egypt is home to the Middle East’s largest population and is also the biggest wheat importer. An estimated 60 percent of Egypt's grain is imported, with pre-war Russia and Ukraine accounting for 80 percent of those imports.

A month into the Ukraine war, Egypt introduced a three-month price cap for non-subsidised bread as part of an effort to counter soaring prices.

Bread is the most critical staple in the Egyptian diet, especially for the tens of millions of poor who depend on subsidised bread for subsistence.

Bread prices, especially subsidised bread for the poor, have been an essential part of the social contract in Egypt.

When former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat accepted the IMF's condition to eliminate food subsidies in return for securing loans, the price of food rose by 50 percent, and riots immediately broke out across the country. Sadat swiftly conceded not to implement the IMF demand.

While the situation in Egypt is worrying, analysts do not anticipate any major food supply issues anytime soon since Egypt has enough strategic reserves to last about a year, giving Cairo some time to find alternatives to its heavy dependency on Russian and Ukrainian imports. 

"An estimated 60 percent of Egypt's grain is imported, with pre-war Russia and Ukraine accounting for 80 percent of those imports"

Yemen

Yemen has been at grave risk of widespread food insecurity verging on famine for almost eight years now. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Russia-Ukraine war "threatens to further exacerbate the food insecurity emergency".

IFPRI notes that Yemen relies heavily on imports, including wheat. As with many countries, it imported a large percentage of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Furthermore, the report noted that 12 percent of Yemen's imports come from the Middle East and North African countries, which "reexport flour and other processed wheat products made from Black Sea-sourced products”.

Thus, Yemen's exposure to the current crisis extends beyond its direct imports from Russia and Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine also threatens processed products such as fortified wheat flour and Ready-to-Use Supplementary Food (RUSF) that are often sourced from other MENA countries (Egypt, UAE, Turkey), which import wheat from Russia and Ukraine, IFPRI says.

Global food shortages arguably couldn't come at a worse time for Yemenis. The World Food Programme recently reported that the "current level of hunger in Yemen is unprecedented and is causing severe hardship for millions of people".

Around 17.4 million Yemenis are food insecure, despite ongoing humanitarian assistance, the report noted. That number is expected to increase to 19 million by December 2022.

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The Gulf

North of Yemen, in the wealthy Gulf states, the difference is night and day, with these states having proven well-prepared for such a disruption in the market and supply.

Gulf states have been preparing for an emergency, with water-efficient agriculture, hydroponic farming, and energy-efficient desalination plants. They have also invested in buying farmland in developing countries oriented towards exports such as Sudan, Kenya, and Ethiopia.

Qatar, for example, was the 24th most food-secure country in the world last year, following a three-year embargo by its neighbours aimed at strangling it economically, with other Gulf states not far behind.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon