The war in Ukraine could have very serious repercussions on the Arab world. The countries of the Middle East and North Africa are the largest importers of wheat in the world. 80 percent of the grain needed to produce bread - a key element in the diet of the poorest - comes from Ukraine or Russia. The war in Europe risks plunging the Arab world into food shortages.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the front pages of all Arab newspapers have described catastrophic scenarios for the upcoming "bread wars".
"Europe fears it will lose its access to the Russian gas that heats the cold continent," writes the Independent Arabia newspaper. "Most of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, Egypt in the lead, fear instead for its main means of subsistence, bread".
The war in Ukraine reveals the strong dependence on food imports of all Arab countries, as noted by the FAO: Yemen, Libya and Lebanon respectively import 22, 43 or 60 percent of their total wheat consumption from Ukraine. The same goes for Iraq, which has been linked to the Oil for food program for decades, and for all the Maghreb countries.
- Nine months of reserves
Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world with about 13.6 million tons for year, which serve to bridge the gigantic gap between local production (which revolves around eight million tons) and consumption, which could reach 23 million tons, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report cited by Independent Arabia.
The Egyptian site El Ain tried to make the first predictions based on official data from the ministries of agriculture of Russia and Ukraine. It shows that if Russian and Ukrainian wheat exports were stopped due to the war, "692.5 billion loaves of bread would be lost in the year".
The spokesman for the Egyptian government, Nader Saad, has already announced that the state "will no longer be able to buy at the same price before the crisis", anticipating an increase in the price of bread. For "70 percent of Egyptians who receive five subsidized pieces of bread a day is devastating news," explains Al Rai Al Youm.
According to the government, Egypt still has nine months of reserves to feed its 102.2 million inhabitants. In Lebanon, on the other hand, writes the Nabd website, the last supply is sufficient for about a month and a half. After the explosion of 4 August 2020, the port of Beirut has lost its silos and it is no longer possible to store large quantities of grain. Trying to reassure the population, Economy Minister Amin Salam said on February 25 that work was underway to find another source of imports, including the United States, Canada, India and some European countries.
- Climate change further worsens the situation in the region
For Yemen, already on the brink of famine in 2021 according to the World Bank, after seven years of war, bread was already a luxury while most people cannot afford basic food. The war in Ukraine is about to deal the final blow.
Before the war began, Syria produced enough wheat to feed its population, but crops plummeted with the conflict and led to greater dependence on imports. The Damascus regime is a staunch ally of Moscow, which supported it militarily during the war, and so Syria also became dependent on imports from Russia. The government news agency Sana has already announced a rationing of the population.
David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, which deals with food emergencies around the world, explains in an appeal posted on Twitter that the UN organization itself is dependent on the Ukraine-Russia area, which "supplies half of the agency's cereals. . The war will thus have a dramatic impact ”on the reserves of the program and on the countries in emergency to which it must go to help.
- Lack of water
A factor that further worsens the situation is the impact of climate change on the region. Morocco went through the worst drought in its history in 2021 and the country is "dry", writes the weekly Tel Quel on the cover, explaining that this year the kingdom was unable to ensure the minimum of local production. Neighboring Algeria lost 40 percent of its production due to the arid climate. As in the Middle East, the main wheat suppliers to the Maghreb are Ukraine and Russia, preceded by France. In Tunisia, currently in a severe economic crisis, ships carrying grain refused to unload it in the port of Sfax because they had not been paid, Tunisian TV Nessma reported in December.
In Iraq, the effects of climate change add to water shortages: in 2018, the levels of the Tigris River fell dramatically after the construction of several dams in Turkey and this led to a sharp reduction in grain production. In 2022, due to the lack of irrigable land, Iraq will have to import even more wheat and due to the drop in oil prices, the state will have great difficulty in subsidizing bread for the poorest, explains The National.
An analysis by Rami Zurayk, professor of agriculture at the American University in Cairo, explained in 2011 the centrality of bread in the revolutions of the Arab Spring and why the countries of the region had come to be so dependent on imports:
‘’The so-called bread riots have occurred regularly since the mid-1980s, due to the policies proposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Among these were the reduction of agricultural subsidies and the encouragement of the production of fruit and vegetables for export, at the expense of investment in local grain production.’’
For governments in the region, the food crisis could soon become a major political as well as economic problem. The three words pronounced during the Arab revolutions eleven years ago were: freedom, dignity and bread. The 2011 Tunisian revolution began in many regions as a bread uprising, and the most recent revolution in Sudan in 2019, which brought down the dictator Omar al Bashir, began soon after the price of bread tripled.
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