Putin’s war and a MENA food crisis

Summary: before the Russians invaded Ukraine, food insecurity was already an issue for many MENA countries but as of 24 February a bad situation got a whole lot worse.

A little more than a decade on from the Arab Spring revolts and at a time when authoritarian regimes in MENA could pat themselves on the back for a job well done in blunting street protests and wrecking democracy initiatives, a new challenge has emerged. And it could prove a far more potent one to Middle East dictators. It is the threat of a looming food crisis occasioned by Putin’s war in Ukraine.

A new report by Allison Fedirka director of analysis for the online publication Geopolitical Futures (geopoliticalfutures.com subscription only) lays out some stark facts as the war grinds on. She notes the huge reliance of North African and Levantine countries and Turkey on Ukraine and Russia for imports of grains and sunflower oil.

Egypt, which is already roiled by attempts to cut subsidies on food and has seen the size of bread shrink as the Sisi government attempts to stave off protests, imports 60% of its wheat and corn.  And of that amount, 86% of wheat imports and 40% of corn come from Ukraine and Russia. Before the war the government was talking of overhauling the bread subsidy. Now it will be scrambling just to cope with acute shortages.

Turkey, which has seen the lira collapse in value and is in the throes of a severe economic constriction is highly reliant on Ukraine and Russia for wheat, corn and sunflower oil imports. Last year the Turks imported a record 1.4 million tonnes of soft wheat from Ukraine, making it the second-largest wheat supplier after Russia.

The picture is equally grim for Tunisia where as we have discussed in newsletters and podcasts  the president, Kais Saied, pre-empted a fragile democracy last July in response to an economic and COVID crisis. As Fedirka notes:

Tunisia relies on Russia and Ukraine for about half its wheat imports and 60 percent of its corn imports. The Tunisian government is now unable to pay for incoming wheat shipments because of drastic price hikes. Widespread shortages of grain products have been reported.

Lebanon has been in economic meltdown for more than two years. It is state that is crippled by political paralysis, rampant corruption, a health system overwhelmed by the COVID pandemic and the August 2020 Beirut port explosion. Runaway inflation had already created severe food insecurity for the majority of the population. Putin’s war has piled on the misery in a country that sees 45% of its cereal imported from Ukraine and Russia.

Morocco food protest
Thousands of Moroccans staged nationwide protests in cities throughout the Kingdom on Sunday to complain about the soaring cost of living [screenshot: africanews]
Morocco, which has a relatively stable economy, has seen an uptick in protests against rising food costs. On 20 February thousands of Moroccans took part in nation-wide marches.  The choice of date by organisers was anything but incidental. On that same day in 2011 Morocco was rocked by street protests calling for democracy and freedom. The kingdom, as with other Maghreb countries, has suffered severe drought which has forced greater reliance on imported cereals and sunflower oil. A  government policy, in place for more than a decade, that saw an emphasis placed on growing food for export to Europe with a concomitant reduction on land used to grow cereals has further exacerbated an already challenging situation.

Syria imports 50% of its grains. Ukraine and Russia are responsible for 61% of wheat, 42% of barley and 20% of corn imports. The country, as Suhail al-Ghazi of the Center for Middle East Studies notes, was already facing financial difficulties purchasing Russian wheat with prices at their highest in 14 years. He adds: “Russia is facing unprecedented western sanctions that are hurting the economy and may be reluctant to simply send free wheat to Syria.”

Yemen, after seven years of war, faces an extremely dire situation. The World Food Programme says:

The current level of hunger in Yemen is unprecedented and is causing severe hardship for millions of people. Despite ongoing humanitarian assistance, 17.4 million Yemenis are food insecure. The number of food insecure people is projected to go up to 19 million by December 2022….2.2 million children under 5  (are) requiring treatment for acute malnutrition. 

Yemen imports 40% of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia and Reuters is reporting that panic buying has begun as prices rocket.

In her study Fedirka notes the other punch that has hit these countries hard: shortages and the rapidly rising price of fertilizer:

The market for fertilizers – especially nitrogen-based fertilizers – is already outpricing certain crops for production. Russian sanctions didn’t affect fertilizer exports simply because they were already off the market as of the end of last year, and there was no guarantee even absent a war that Russia would resume exports come May.

New sanctions have, however, dealt a major blow to fertilizers through Belarus, which provided 17 percent of the world’s potash fertilizer exports. Adding Russia to the mix brings that figure up to 30 percent of potash fertilizer that is no longer available on world markets.

There are other sources for fertilizer including Algeria but the challenge will be to get it to market in enough time and at a manageable price to service grain, corn and sunflower crops in 2021. Meanwhile, as Putin continues his war of attrition, spring planting due to start in Ukraine at the end of the month will be difficult if not impossible. Without the Ukrainian ‘breadbasket’ the crisis for MENA’s food insecure countries will deepen and with it the potential for unrest that could rival that which challenged authoritarian regimes across the region and saw the fall of dictators in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia in 2011.

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