Frequently referred to as the “breadbasket” of the world, Russia and Ukraine have, until recently, accounted for more than 25 percent of wheat exports worldwide. Many Arab countries, which for years have been major importers of Russian and Ukrainian wheat, face serious risks of food insecurity. Put simply, a wheat crisis is set to spiral out of control in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). There are dire implications for regional stability and, by extension, global security.
This war has basically ended Ukraine’s global wheat trade for the short to medium term. First, Ukraine’s government has banned wheat exports. The Russian military has also destroyed or blockaded Ukraine’s grain storage facilities and maritime and port infrastructure. Amid this conflict the Russians have also mined the Black Sea. About 80 percent of Ukraine’s grain exports went through its Black Sea ports—Chornomorsk, Mykolayiv, Odessa, and Pivdennyi. “Russia’s attack on international maritime trade has been one of the most under-analyzed aspects of this crisis,” explains Dr. William Lawrence, an American University professor of international affairs.
Additionally, the West’s financial warfare against Russia complicates payments for wheat imports from Russia given that banks are now reluctant to finance them. Ultimately, this means that certain countries in the Arab region are now increasingly susceptible to hunger and widespread social and political upheaval. Although highly dependent on food imports to feed their citizens and expatriate populations, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states are in a relatively strong position to deal with new circumstances as supply dwindles and prices spike because of their vast financial resources. Yet poorer Arab countries with economic crises and/or ongoing conflicts will find themselves far more vulnerable.
Along with the global COVID-19 pandemic and the bumpy recovery from it, the Russian invasion of Ukraine disrupted regional economies further and underscored how MENA countries must diversify their sources of wheat and other grains and implement other badly needed reforms. “According to the IMF and the World Food Program, among the most vulnerable MENA countries are Syria, Tunisia, Libya, and Djibouti, along with other countries in the Horn of Africa,” explained Lawrence. Nonetheless, these institutions’ main focus is currently on Egypt, Lebanon, and Yemen’s short-term needs.
Dependent on Russia and Ukraine for 85 percent of its wheat imports in 2021, Egypt must cope with what could become “an existential threat to its economy” as the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv rages on. Lacking an agricultural sector capable of producing wheat and oilseeds, Egypt is the top importer of wheat worldwide. “After eight years of working assiduously to put Egypt’s economic house back in order, the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi is now similarly vulnerable to skyrocketing food costs that are reaching budget-breaking levels,” explained Dr. Michaël Tanchum, an associate senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, in a report published by the Middle East Institute in March 2022.
For tens of millions of Egyptians, bread is a staple food, meaning that shortages of this commodity can fuel instability in the country. After all, soaring prices which led to the 2008 protests played a role in sparking Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring, which ended Hosni Mubarak 30-year rule.
“The immediate thinking goes back to the bread riots of the Sadat era,” explained Tarek Radwan, an independent analyst and Egypt expert. “That’s certainly a huge concern. We use that as an indicator for potential civil unrest. But the fact of the matter is that we’re operating in a very different political climate in Egypt in which dissent is essentially criminalized.” As he explained, due to the Egypt government’s highly authoritarian nature, there is a “rebuilt wall of fear and intimidation keeping a lid on what would have essentially been a lot more public outpouring of that anxiety” both before and after the war in Ukraine erupted.
Mindful of how much rising food prices can impact Egypt’s political economy, officialdom in Cairo, including President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly quickly came out with statements to assure that public that a food security crisis would be averted. They stressed how April and May are the harvest seasons, which does constitute fortunate timing. On March 12, Egypt’s Minister of Trade and Industry Nevine Gamea announced a ban on the country’s exports of cooking oil, corn, and green wheat for a three-month span. The Egyptian government is also taking steps to diversify Egypt’s sources of wheat beyond Russia and Ukraine, turning to other countries such as Argentina, Bulgaria, Canada, France, India, Paraguay, and the United States. Recently, a large shipment arrived from India, which, according to Lawrence, could delay the worst for perhaps two months.
Of course, based on the notion that Egypt is “too big to fail”, Cairo is counting on external support from both GCC states and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which are helping the country with its finances. Yet Egypt’s already inflated external debt is set to grow as the country borrows this money from abroad. “About a third of its gross revenue is going to be just dedicated to debt servicing which is a problem,” said Radwan. “Already we’ve seen subsidy cuts, public service cuts, and we’ve seen the price of bread has gone up at least 50 percent depending on what quality bread we’re talking about. This increased debt burden on top of reduced services will fuel some grievances to put it simply.”
This is not only due to international attention shifting even further away from Yemen toward Eastern Europe, but also because of the Southern Arabian country’s dependence on wheat imports against the backdrop of 30,000 Yemenis struggling to survive with famine conditions. Reliant on Russia and Ukraine for 50 percent of its wheat imports, disruptions to this supply are already exacerbating Yemen’s dire situation.
As the Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen’s economy has collapsed following more than seven years of a gruesome conflict and the doubling of food prices since last year. Although the fragile two-month truce which began last month represents some rare good news out of Yemen, the impact of the war in Ukraine is already impacting Yemenis in significant ways. This is particularly so in Houthi-ruled parts of the country where gasoline prices increasing by at least 50 percent since the beginning of February will make the struggle to survive even more nightmarish. According to UN-supported assessments from earlier this year, at least 17 million Yemenis live with high levels of food insecurity, underscoring how increases in wheat prices amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine could quickly harm millions more. Furthermore, the global food crisis influences the outcome. The World Food Program recently announced that it is already cutting rations to the 13 million Yemenis it had already projected to feed this year.
Cash-strapped Lebanon has been reliant on Russia and Ukraine for roughly 90 percent of its wheat imports. Therefore, this war in Eastern Europe threatens to greatly exacerbate Lebanon’s already dire food security crisis against the backdrop of rising global oil prices. Mired in a serious economic crisis that has plunged about 75 percent of the Lebanese population into poverty with the Lebanese pound devalued about 90 percent against the US dollar since 2019, the implications of worsening food inflation are extremely serious.
The nearly bankrupt government in Beirut has sought to address wheat shortages with regulations that require Lebanon’s citizens to only use wheat for making flatbread in addition to seeking alternative sources of wheat in countries other than Russia and Ukraine. Yet the sustainability of these strategies is in question and without the state restoring Lebanon’s strategic grain reserves, the Russian invasion of Ukraine will severely hinder the Lebanese population’s ability to access wheat. Yet due to the August 2020 Beirut port explosion, Lebanon lost about 80 percent of its wheat storage capacity. “We don’t have silos and we don’t have money,” according to Ghassan Bou Habib, vice president of Wooden Bakery, which serves as one of Lebanon’s largest bakery networks. “Bread will become a luxury item—it will become an expensive commodity.”
For the small Mediterranean country, soaring bread prices have much potential to increase widespread discontent and fuel riots, especially within the context of rising energy prices further compounding Lebanon’s major economic problems. According to the IMF, without a new, swift food intervention, new swaths of the Lebanese population could be experiencing food insecurity and hunger within weeks.
Assistance from the Gulf
Less-impacted than the less-wealthy Arab states such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Yemen, the oil- and gas-rich monarchies of the Gulf have stepped up to play a role in helping the region deal with the rising food prices resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With stakes in the stability of Egypt and other countries across the Middle East and North Africa, GCC members have deposited billions to Egypt’s central bank and made large investment deals with the country soon after the war in Ukraine erupted.
“The Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, intervened at a crucial time as they provided Egypt with USD 22 billion in investments and huge financing at a time when the country is suffering from a deep financial crisis exacerbated by the war, which led to an unprecedented wave of inflation in the country,” explained Mohamed Saied, an Egyptian journalist and analyst.
While GCC members were quick to financially assist Egypt amid growing concerns surrounding the food security picture, experts believe that they will also be assisting other Arab countries facing similar crises stemming from disruptions to the supply of wheat supplies of Ukraine and Russia to the region. As explained by Anna Jacobs, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, “Gulf states will likely play a larger role in supporting struggling economies across the Middle East and North Africa, as they have done in Egypt.”
With Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Doha stepping up their financial support for Egypt and possibly some other Arab countries, there are geopolitical implications of this assistance as the Russian invasion of Ukraine hits food security hard throughout the MENA region. Considering Qatar’s role in helping the Egyptians 14 months after Cairo and Doha resorted diplomatic relations following the historic al-Ula summit, food security-related issues are likely to further consolidate the Egyptian-Qatari rapprochement. At the same time, it remains to be seen how the Saudis and Emiratis use their leverage over Egypt via these deposits and investments to push Cairo’s foreign policy in ways that serve Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s own interests. “At the same time there has been a push for Egypt to provide greater collateral directly or indirectly for this steady stream of grants and loans since the mid-2010s, more tangible return in the form of real estate or other commercial assets,” said Lawrence. “And the Tunisian press is reporting that Russian foreign minister Lavrov is planning a two-day trip there, in advance of President Saied travelling to Moscow in part to address his country’s food and economic crisis. The problem is that Moscow’s ability to support MENA countries amidst the war is decreasing, not increasing. Egypt is even turning to Israel to try to replace absent Russian tourists.”
With Egyptians growing ever more dependent on wealthy GCC states to deal with their economic problems, officials in Cairo have not successfully addressed the origins of Egypt’s economic troubles which are more compounded by the war in Ukraine’s direct impact on the country’s financial health.
Food security was a major issue in MENA countries for many years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Yet both the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have greatly exacerbated food insecurity across the Arab world. As warfare in Ukraine rages on in its third month, the consequences continue radiating outwards with the arid MENA region suffering from the resultant major disruptions which are causing food prices to surge.
The extent to which this part of the world is increasingly environmentally stressed only adds to the severity of the MENA region’s food security crises against the backdrop of other serious issues such as poor waste management, water scarcity, and air pollution. The adverse effects are naturally hitting hardest the most vulnerable in the poorer Arab countries, representing a grave threat to such communities as well as relative political and social stability which were already tenuous at best in much of the region.
Policymakers must seriously consider scenarios entailing greater refugee migration, starvation, and hunger riots in MENA, especially if Russia’s war in Ukraine carries out throughout this year. Countries such as the United States can play useful roles in terms of assisting regional governments manage these looming crises in various ways. By deploying new technologies and innovations, the US can help Arab countries become better positioned to thwart waste, distribute food, and manage strategic food reserves.
The Biden administration has already laid out its plans for helping increase smallholder farmers’ productivity in the MENA region, making contributions in humanitarian food and nutrition assistance to the tune of several billion dollars, and improving agricultural market systems by making local private sectors more vibrant. Looking ahead, the US must work closely with other industrialized, wealthy countries to make large collective contributions to international institutions such as the World Food Program to better assist countries such as Yemen which are experiencing terrifying levels of hunger and overall food insecurity that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only worsened this year.
Ultimately, food insecurity across the greater Middle East poses many types of threats not only to countries of the MENA region, but also to the United States. Instability and turmoil resulting from famine, hunger, and general food insecurity can undermine Washington’s own security interests, especially as terrorist organizations and extremists can exploit such chaotic conditions. Thus, it is imperative for officials in Washington to take food insecurity in MENA countries particularly seriously before such situations worsen even further.