The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s head economist, Maximo Torero, predicted in mid-March warning that the world may “easily fall into a food crisis” in the wake of Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned that the crisis in Ukraine could “plant the seeds for political instability and unrest around the globe.”
With the conflict in Ukraine cemented in global headlines, the prospect of an acute food crisis unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is likely to have profound political and security implications for the region. What is the current situation for the MENA countries at risk of political turmoil and humanitarian disaster?
The MENA region is heavily dependent on both Russia and Ukraine for wheat imports.
The MENA region is heavily dependent on both Russia and Ukraine for wheat imports. In addition, flour, barley, sunflower oil, grains, and fertilizer are all essential commodities that will become severely restricted. Supply chains connecting the region to Eastern Europe’s bread basket are linked to shipping lanes from the Black Sea, and will be disrupted well into the foreseeable future.
A Dire Situation for Conflict Zones
Many observers have noted that the Arab Spring uprisings in late 2010 were in part due to drought and bread prices. Several countries in the region subsequently fell into brutal and intractable civil wars. Jan Egeland, the Secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, noted in April that the Ukraine crisis has a “knock-on effect of stretched funding” for the UN’s World Food Program, which leaves people in conflict countries highly vulnerable.
Even prior to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Syria was faced with an extreme food crisis. This situation is now even more compounded.
The International Rescue Committee recently noted on March 15 that – after 11 years of war – Syria is dealing with rising poverty and 12 million people are at risk of hunger. In the areas under the control of the Bashar al-Assad regime, people have been forced to stand in long lines for food and supplies. Prices continue to rise as local criminal gangs and militias thrive off a black-market economy at the expense of the people.
In Assad regime-controlled areas, people have been forced to stand in long lines for food and supplies.
Russia’s long-term military presence in Syria and influence on the Assad regime will be tested in the coming years as the global sanctions on Russia are unlikely to be lifted even after the Ukraine war ends. This spells a great deal of uncertainty for Assad and might force him to accelerate the restoration of ties with other Arab countries.
Even in the areas outside of the regime’s control, there is a huge gulf between the armed opposition leaders and the impoverished people who live under their thumb. The leadership of certain factions of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army in northwestern Syria has come under scrutiny for its corruption and detachment from the reality the local people are living.
In the Gaza Strip, which is constantly trying to recover from oppression at the hands of the Israeli government, Palestinians are now reporting hardships and rising poverty related to the rise in prices of basic commodities such as wheat, flour, rice, and cooking oil. This comes as tensions are again rising between the Palestinian factions in Gaza and the Israelis.
Yemen and Libya are two other countries that are faced with a grim struggle this coming year. The situation in Libya is particularly serious as Russia has secured its own share of influence in the country. With the shaky ceasefire still in place, the Libyan government has to transition away from Russia and Ukraine and secure wheat supplies from other countries, such as Argentina and Brazil.
Yemen has not seen donor pledges for humanitarian relief met.
Yemen, which has suffered from civil war and severe food shortages since 2014, has not seen donor pledges for humanitarian relief met. Auke Lootsma, the Resident Representative for the UNDP in Yemen, told Al Jazeera, “The outlook for next year looks very bleak for Yemen. This is the bleakest situation we’ve had so far in the country.”
Food Prices and Political Instability
Lebanon is another country feeling the food price pinch. The country receives around 90 percent of its wheat and cooking oil from Russia and Ukraine. In late March, The Financial Times quoted a local university lecturer, Fadia Hamieh, saying, “Supermarkets are hoarding basic goods, then selling them at higher prices.” She also remarked, “Every time I go to buy things for the family, I get depressed. We have had to cut down on so many things.”
Lebanon is due to hold its parliamentary elections on May 15. Lebanese students and youth are gearing up to try to make a dent in the power held by the country’s corrupt political elite. Many are mobilizing to bring about change as Lebanon has been powering through nonstop crises since the October 2019 protests began. The food crisis is likely to impact the Lebanese ruling system and cause some of the parties’ influence to further wane. The government recently announced it would attempt to secure some 50,000 tons of wheat from India.
The food crisis in Lebanon is likely to impact its ruling system.
Jordan is on the frontlines of several long-term crises in the region. The kingdom has a front row seat to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is now hosting 670,000 Syrian refugees, and working to strengthen ties with regional countries to prepare for the Iranian nuclear agreement. As Amman plods forward with normalizing ties with Damascus, it will be keen to ensure that public discontent is subdued. The Jordanian government hosted a food exhibition in March and the US Ambassador to Jordan, Henry T. Wooster, also reiterated the US’ commitment to trade ties and to ensuring that food supplies to Jordan continue.
However, Jordan remains in a precarious position as it works to counter hardships from climate change and drought in the coming years.
Jordan’s neighbor, Iraq – still struggling to form a government after the October 2021 elections – is also in a difficult situation in terms of achieving food security. Iraq’s Agriculture Ministry noted that Iraq’s wheat production will decreaseby an estimated 500,000 tons from the previous year. Rising food prices have already sparked a number of protests across Iraq.
Egypt – the largest population in the Arab world – is a major importer of wheat: the Nile country depended on Russia and Ukraine for between 30 to 50 percent of its wheat imports in 2021. Egyptian and Russian officials have offered reassurances that economic and trade relations between the two are stable and have indicated this includes wheat shipments to Egypt.
Egypt is a major importer of wheat.
However, Egypt is receiving substantial funding from the wealthy Arab Gulf states. Qatar sent $5 billion, the UAE delivered $3 billion, and Saudi Arabia followed suit with $15 billion in funding to Egypt’s central bank and agricultural production in order to help stabilize food prices.
Food Security in 2022 and Policy Challenges Beyond
World markets are rapidly adjusting to supply chain limitations and the situation leaves the MENA region countries at risk. This comes at the same time as aid organizations are experiencing budget cuts and a lack of funding.
Even if the war in Ukraine ceases relatively soon, the fallout from the conflict will haunt food prices and pose a new challenge, not only for global food supply chains, but also for international diplomacy and security.
MENA countries are likely to begin to challenge the Western-imposed sanctions against Russia in order to secure some relief. China, with its large wheat and grain stockpiles, is also well positioned to gain local geopolitical favors by introducing more supplies to the region.
For now, the United States appears to be allowing its regional partners to maintain a certain amount of diplomatic distance from the Russia-Ukraine war. How long this can continue is uncertain, especially as the conflict has the potential to unfold unpredictably and with little warning. Furthermore, a new era of political instability in MENA could see both friendly governments and adversaries fall, with the likelihood that the existing conflicts may metamorphose and take on new dimensions.