Wheat prices are rising worldwide. Especially hard hit are the Middle East and North Africa, which rely heavily on wheat imported from Russia and Ukraine. Wheat, however, is not the only food staple affected by the war. Russia and Ukraine also produce 20% of the world’s corn and 80% of its sunflower oil, the majority of which is exported to the Middle East and North Africa.
Overdependence on Ukrainian and Russian grains make even the smallest supply chain disruptions potentially catastrophic because rapid increases in the price of bread, the staple food of the region’s poorest citizens, have historically led to instability.
In 1977, riots broke out in Egypt after the government ended its subsidies of bread and other basic food staples. Rioting erupted there again in 2007 and 2008 after disruptions in the supply chain caused food prices to soar.
Months before the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia in 2010, food costs spiked. Without any noticeable solution by Arab leaders, Egyptians, Tunisians, Syrians, Yemenis, and others took to the streets demanding “bread, freedom, and social justice.” A few leaders were ousted; others took steps to reform. However, the decade that followed saw significant political infighting, civil war, and a failure to adopt economic reforms to address the region’s most intractable issues.
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Today, multiple countries in the Middle East are on the verge of a similar food crisis, made worse by a global grain shortage triggered by the war on Ukraine. Shortly after Russian invaded Ukraine in February, the price of wheat shot up to $12.09 per bushel—the price was $7.86 in January.
On multiple occasions, Russian warships have blocked Ukrainian cargo ships from leaving their ports in the Black Sea, stopping the export of tons of wheat and corn.
Russia and Ukraine have also implemented export restraints to preserve their domestic supplies of grain—a significant problem that exacerbates global food shortages. Russia, the third-largest producer of wheat, and Ukraine, the fourth-largest producer of wheat, together account for approximately 25% percent of global exports.
Egypt and Lebanon are the Middle Eastern countries most vulnerable to shortages due to their reliance on wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia. Lebanon depends on the warring countries for 95% of its grain imports, Egypt for 85.6% of its grain imports.
Egypt has its own domestic grain production, but not enough to feed its large population. Even with a relatively successful harvest in April, Egypt’s domestic supply will only cover 62% of its population. To fill the gap, the country will have to rely on its strategic reserve or find alternative suppliers. The Egyptian Ministry of Supply has stated that its domestic supply and strategic reserves will last only until February 2023. Cairo has requested aid from the International Monetary Fund. Meanwhile, it has banned exports of wheat, flour, and other commodities for another three months to ensure supply through the end of 2022. These efforts, however, have reduced supply elsewhere in the region, leading to grain shortages and higher prices in low-income importing countries. Viral hashtags such as #RevolutionOfTheHungry and #LeaveSiSi, and videos are already circulating on social media, indicating increasing distrust in President Sisi's ability to mitigate an impending food crisis.
Like Egypt, Lebanon imports a substantial amount of grain from Ukraine and Russia. The 2020 Beirut port explosion which destroyed important grain silos, left the country with depleted reserves of grain. As a result, Lebanon has enough capacity to store only a month’s supply of wheat and two months of livestock feed. Wheat is now rationed to support essential purposes, but with a dwindling supply, skyrocketing bread prices will add fuel to an already explosive political environment in which Lebanon’s disgruntled population struggles with a collapsing economy, endemic corruption, rising food prices, fuel and electricity shortages, and a bankrupt state without a functioning government.
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Price spikes of food in the Middle East could be catastrophic if ignored. Without relief, Lebanon, Egypt, and many other countries may once again face a wave of anti-government protests similar to those that triggered the Arab Spring in 2010.
The Biden administration has stated that it will work with the World Food Program and other multilateral bodies to mitigate food shortages in low-income countries, however, long-term price inflation will remain an issue for Middle East countries whose social contracts include subsidized food prices. Without U.S. leadership, countries in the region will look for guidance elsewhere. China has quietly been deepening its engagement with Egypt and may use Washington’s lack of resolve to strengthen its ties with other countries in the region struggling to mitigate its many economic challenges.
Now on his first presidential trip to the region, President Biden will visit Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia to discuss the food crisis as well as the Abraham Accords, the war in Yemen, Iran, and other topics. Without a cohesive policy vision for the Middle East, declarations by the Biden administration of “a return of U.S. leadership” will ring hollow. China will be waiting to fill the gap. Worse, the region could see another decade of political unrest similar to the aftermath of the Arab Spring, something that does not bode well for the United States or its regional partners but will be beneficial for Iran and its proxy networks in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen.
The United States cannot afford to sit on the sidelines. Rather, the Biden administration must act now to discourage countries from implementing export restraints and encourage advancement of the Abraham Accords—a regional mechanism that could be used to better coordinate economic, political, and security responses to regional challenges, including a looming food crisis.
This piece originally appeared in RealClear World