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Rising food costs rock Middle East economies, increasing risk of unrest

Local government officials and a Ukrainian soldier inspect a grain warehouse earlier shelled by Russian forces on May 06, 2022 near the frontlines of Kherson Oblast in Novovorontsovka, Ukraine.

John Moore | Getty Images

Rising prices of food and energy are reverberating through Middle Eastern and North African economies, a new S&P Global Ratings report shows, as Russia’s war in Ukraine accelerates inflation, pushing basic living costs higher for millions of people. 

“What history has shown us, during times when food especially is running through this persistently inflationary period, we do get these strikes and social unrest,” Satyam Panday, chief economist at S&P Global Ratings told CNBC’s Dan Murphy this week.

“Especially when you have higher youth unemployment rates, and coming out of Covid, when the recovery is still fragile, we are facing this kind of situation where, yes, the probability of social unrest is ticking up,” he warned. 

Analysis from S&P Global Ratings found that among MENA countries, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia will be hit the hardest by economic repercussions from the Ukraine war, which has seen Russia block Ukrainian ports vital to delivering agricultural exports to much of the developing world.

Russia’s financing mechanisms for its food exports have also been constricted as a result of Western sanctions over its invasion of its neighbor.

Net imports of food and energy in the MENA countries listed above constitute between 4% and 17% of their GDP, according to the report, and they all import a major proportion of their wheat and grain from Russia and Ukraine.  

The Black Sea: A food export lifeline

Ukraine and Russia together account for about 75% of the world’s sunflower seed oil, a primary cooking oil in many regions, and are home to roughly one-third of the world’s global wheat exports. Twenty-six countries rely on Ukraine and Russia for at least 50% of their wheat imports. Russia is also one of the world’s top exporters of fertilizers.

The warring countries provide the majority of the MENA region’s supply – Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous country home to 100 million people, imports more than 80% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, estimated to be worth $2 billion in 2021. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is threatening global wheat and grain supplies, a particular risk for Middle Eastern and African countries like Egypt, where bread is a major dietary staple. Cairo, Egypt, on March 9, 2022.

Photo by Ahmed Gomaa | Xinhua via Getty Images

“Egypt, having a more centralized system has been able to cope with this crisis, it’s taken a hit in terms of movement out of the debt markets, in terms of capital, but its focus on food security is perhaps a little bit more alert and on top of the ball than other countries,” Angus Blair, professor of practice at American University in Cairo, told CNBC’s Capital Connection on Monday. 

Lebanon and Jordan spend more than 10% of their GDP on imports of energy and food, making them among the countries most vulnerable to the crisis in the region, according to S&P Global Ratings.

Lebanon imports around 90% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine — and the country’s economic crisis, which has been accelerating since 2019, has been compounded by food inflation and currency collapse. The country’s grain silos were also destroyed in the 2020 Beirut port explosion. 

A member of Lebanese army walks past the rubble at the site of Tuesday’s blast in Beirut’s port area, Lebanon August 7, 2020.

Mohamed Azakir | Reuters

Although economies are vulnerable, some MENA countries have built up strategic wheat reserves to protect themselves from food supply ruptures, S&P says.

“Jordan has the largest reserves in MENA, covering around 16 months’ consumption. Egypt’s reserves are more limited and, together with domestic production, will last through November 2022,” S&P wrote in its report, adding that “Morocco received most of its 2022 annual wheat orders from Ukraine before the conflict escalated.”

A farmer wears a bulletproof vest during crop sowing in the Zaporizhzhia Region, southeastern Ukraine.

Dmytro Smoliyenko | Future Publishing | Getty Images

The Russia-Ukraine war has numerous implications for global markets and food security. Around the world, concerns are growing that the current food crisis will be a chronic and not transitory one.

On Friday, African Union African Union leader and Senegalese President Macky Sall met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss freeing up vital grain exports. The meeting was inconclusive; the Kremlin insisted that Russia was not responsible for the growing crisis, but rather Ukraine was to blame for mining its ports against Russian ships, and the West for crippling its banking, shipping and insurance operations with sanctions.

But one hundred days into the war, it’s Russia that occupies much of Ukraine’s southern coastline, and its warships control access to Ukraine’s critical Black Sea ports.

Region’s poorest at risk

It’s the MENA region’s poor that are most at risk, Kali Robinson of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in an April report. “They spend larger shares of their income on food and are more likely to be farmers, so seed and fertilizer shortages will hit them hardest.

Those who rely on international food aid are also expected to endure further hardship,” Robinson noted, adding that, ironically, “Ukraine and Russia are major suppliers of the World Food Program’s wheat, maize, and sunflower oil.”

It was also the region’s poor in many countries that played a major role in the Arab Spring protests of 2011, which were sparked by economic discontent and lack of access to basic goods and services. And as the writer Alfred Henry Lewis wrote in 1906, “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy” — nine meals equating to three days without food.

A farmer shovel seeds on an agricultural land as the Russian attacks effect agriculture sector negatively in Kyiv, Ukraine on May 30, 2022.

Dogukan Keskinkilic | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The crisis currently shows no sign of abating and will continue to weigh on import-dependent countries, as sourcing from different places will ultimately increase shipping costs to many importers.

The American University in Cairo’s Blair warned that “this isn’t just for this year’s harvest, it’s got potential now to go into another year or after, because there’s war footing, we don’t know what’s going to happen, that uncertainty is a concern.” 

“Rising food prices have an effect not just on inflation, but social impact. And that’s a concern across much of the Mediterranean world,” Blair told CNBC. “The average citizen is really hurting. But this is a global problem. And those countries with lower GDP per capita will be hurt to a greater degree,” he added. 

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba have met to discuss creating a potential sea corridor for Ukrainian agricultural exports, but so far have not been able to break ground.

Ukraine is currently working with allies to establish a United Nations-backed effort to reopen its Black Sea export routes.

“We call on countries whose food security may suffer more from Russian aggression against Ukraine to use their contacts with Moscow to force it to lift the blockade of Ukrainian seaports and end the war,” Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said Thursday.

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