As the conflict continues between Russia and Ukraine, both the world’s key wheat exporters, Middle East countries relying heavily on wheat imports are likely to face further food shortages and price hikes
World food prices have remained high for years. Influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme weather and export restrictions by some countries, food prices surged 28 percent in 2021, marking the highest level in a decade, according to statistics by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
What’s worse, food prices could get even higher as the recent Russia-Ukraine military conflict might further disrupt global markets, limiting food supplies and damaging market sentiments.
On Feb. 24, the day when Russia launched the military operation, U.S. wheat and corn futures rose by their daily trading limits while soybeans rose to the highest since 2012.
Zhao Ping, vice dean of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade Academy, said that the conflict between the two countries would put the Black Sea ports, a major food export hub, under martial law, causing a disruption to the commercial supply chain and stopping the passage of grain shipments.
She added that the conflict seems not only to have a direct impact on the supply and demand of food in the short term, but in fact, it will also push up food prices and costs in the long run.
Experts have expressed concerns that food supplies in many Middle East countries could be impacted by the Russia-Ukraine conflict, given that they are the two major foreign sources of wheat imports for the region.
Cristian-Dan Tataru, a guest analyst for the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said in a recent report that in 2020, more than half of Ukraine’s wheat exports went to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
For example, half of Lebanon’s and 43 percent of Libya’s wheat imports came from Ukraine, he noted.
According to the Customs Service of Russia, in the first three quarters of the marketing year July 2021 to June 2022, Russia exported 18.2 million tonnes of wheat, and Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria and Azerbaijan remained the key importers of Russian wheat with a combined share of its overall exports at 66 percent.
Abeer Etefa, spokesperson for the World Food Program, worried that people in the MENA region could become more vulnerable if supplies are disrupted.
Experts warned that the fallout on food prices due to the ongoing conflict could drive millions more into “food poverty,” which in turn could threaten social stability in the volatile Middle East.
Financial Times columnist John Dizard warned that local and imported grain shortages have been cited as one of the reasons for the 2011 Arab Spring in the Middle East.
Tataru believed that the food prices have reached levels comparable to those before the 2011 political turmoil in the Arab world.
In war-torn Yemen, the wheat price has already seen a rapid rise due to the ongoing conflict. In Morocco, the conflict is set to exacerbate the inflation that has sparked protests.
In Tunisia, people might struggle to pay for food imports since it has been trapped in economic and social crises even before the conflict.
“If the war is prolonged, it will impact millions of people living in places such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Pakistan and Indonesia. That could have political consequences,” said Dizard.
In Egypt, the most populated country in the region and the world’s top wheat importer, government officials are closely following up the conflict and its possible impact on food prices.
Egypt’s cabinet spokesman Nader Saad said on Wednesday that the country is working on a plan to buy wheat from other regions, instead of Russia and Ukraine.