Protests are likely to continue flaring up in Iran as a function of the regime’s attempt at modernizing the country while denying personal and political freedoms to the children of modernization.
The coronavirus pandemic highlighted vulnerabilities in global supply chains, public health-care systems, and food and energy security. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is compounding these issues, increasing food insecurity and poverty across the globe. Russia and Ukraine are considered the breadbasket of the world. In 2021, the two countries exported more than one-quarter of the world’s wheat. They are both major suppliers of corn, sunflower seed oil, and barley; Russia is also a major supplier of fertilizer, which is critical for agricultural production. Food prices are soaring, exacerbating inflation rates and reducing the purchasing power of populations across the Middle East and Africa, where 70% of Russian wheat exports went in 2021. These escalating costs, fed by actual and anticipated scarcity, are exacerbating economic crises for Egypt and Lebanon, with a heavy reliance on Russian and Ukrainian wheat imports, and imperiling vulnerable populations in conflict zones, including Yemen, Syria, and Somalia, which heavily rely on emergency food aid.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index, which measures changes in international commodity prices, reached its highest-level in March since the index began in 1990. It rose 12.6% from February to March. The agency reported that the rise in prices was largely due to the war in Ukraine.
Increasing Prices and Protectionist Policies
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, coupled with Western sanctions against Russia, has caused sharp increases in energy and food prices that will have a long-term impact on global energy and commodity markets. Russia’s invasion has pushed Ukraine to ban the exportation of wheat, oats, millet, buckwheat, and other foods to shore up its own domestic food supply. It has also reduced Ukraine’s agricultural production capacity by causing mass displacement and destroying critical infrastructure and grain storage facilities – severely hampering the upcoming June harvest. Key maritime supply routes through the Black Sea have also been interrupted.
The Middle East and North Africa region is heavily dependent on food imports, especially staples like wheat. According to the World Bank, the Middle East and North Africa imports 50% of its food; the Gulf Cooperation Council countries specifically import between 80% and 90% of their food. Egypt imported more than 70% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine in 2021. The entire region is therefore vulnerable to rises in food prices and supply chain disruptions.
In response to rising food security concerns, countries are implementing food protectionist policies to help stave off inflation and protect local food supplies, local measures that will likely exacerbate pressures elsewhere. Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and Turkey have reduced or banned key food exports in the last month over concerns about rising food and fuel prices, which have incited widespread protests in the past. Egypt banned the exportation of cooking oil, corn, and green wheat for three months. Algeria announced a ban on the reexportation of wheat, sugar, vegetable oil, pasta, and semolina, while Morocco is set to decrease tomato exports. Turkey enacted a temporary ban on the reexportation of grains, cooking oil, oilseed, and other key agricultural products. Turkey also barred the direct exportation of cooking oil, bulk olive oil shipments, margarine, red lentils, and dry beans. These staples are especially important as Muslim communities celebrate the holy month of Ramadan.
However, these are merely temporary measures. With no end to the war in sight, these food security concerns will need to be addressed through longer-term policy readjustments. This could include improving storage capacity and investing more in the agricultural sector to help boost domestic food production. Policies also need to focus on combatting climate change and water scarcity. A 2019 World Resources Institute study found the Middle East and North Africa to be the most “water-stressed region on earth,” facing extreme droughts, water scarcity, and rising sea levels.
Gulf Food Security
According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization for 2021, Saudi Arabia and Oman import around half of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Qatar and the UAE also import significant volumes of Russian and Ukrainian wheat. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest importer of barley, used to feed livestock, around half of which comes from Russia and Ukraine.
Though the Gulf Arab states are among the most reliant on food imports in the region, their wealthy economies have made them less vulnerable to rising food prices than poorer countries in the region. Even as major global events like the 2008 financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic interrupted global supply chains and increased food prices, the direct impact on food imports in the Gulf was limited.
However, Emma Soubrier argued, these events did shed light on food insecurity as a growing threat, leading many Gulf states to invest more in local agricultural production, increase storage capacity, diversify food suppliers, and expand agricultural investment in regions with significant arable land. The UAE set up a food security council, and the Gulf Cooperation Council adopted a Kuwaiti proposal for a regional network to ensure food supply.
Aliya El-Husseini, senior associate at Equity Research at Arqaam Capital told Arab News in an interview that sovereign wealth funds in Gulf Arab countries have countered rising food prices by buying farmland in Africa. Investments in grain storage facilities in recent years, such as those built in Qatar and the UAE, have helped protect GCC countries from immediate food shortage concerns. Such initiatives have so far insulated Gulf states from the direct impact of the Ukraine crisis, helping them avoid shortages and stave off rising global inflation of food prices.
The 2018 RAND report “Food Security in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries” suggested the greatest challenge to food security in the GCC states is “availability risk, which arises when an import-dependent country is not able to obtain food, even if it has sufficient funds to purchase it. There are a number of global and local factors that may create availability risk, including drought or other shocks in producer nations; export restrictions such as those imposed by a number of food producers in 2007-08; natural disasters or poor infrastructure that hamper transport of the crops; and political factors such as war, civil conflict, or blockade.” Perhaps one of the most salient examples of this in the Gulf was the boycott on Qatar imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. When it was imposed in June 2017, the boycott caused major food shortages in Qatar, and Iran, Turkey, and Morocco sent emergency food shipments.
Aid and Investment to Struggling Partners
Even if Gulf Arab states are less affected than many other countries in the region, they are playing a role in financially supporting countries that are being hit the hardest by their dependence on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. Notably, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar have pledged billions in investment and aid to support Egypt’s struggling economy. Saudi Arabia deposited $5 billion into Egypt’s central bank and promised $10 billion in future investments from the Public Investment Fund. Qatar signed $5 billion in investment deals, while Abu Dhabi approved $2 billion of investments.
This show of support from Gulf states likely stems in part from a concern about the impact of rising food prices on protest and potential instability across the Middle East and North Africa, especially in countries that have witnessed widespread protests in recent years over rising costs of living, such as Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and even Oman. The situation is even worse for conflict areas, such as Yemen, Syria, and Somalia, that were already facing disastrous humanitarian crises. These countries rely heavily on emergency food aid, which is particularly susceptible to rising food prices. Moreover, agencies such as the World Food Program received most of their food supplies from Ukraine in 2021, and are thus being affected by rising food prices and reduced supply. Speaking about the conflict in Yemen, the chief executive of the World Food Program, David Beasley, said, “We have no choice but to take food from the hungry to feed the starving.”
The Food and Agriculture Organization underscored that food prices and poverty rates will continue to rise at alarming rates in 2022 and 2023. Gulf states will likely play a larger role in supporting struggling economies across the Middle East and North Africa, as they have done in Egypt. Gulf states will also likely double down on their own policy initiatives to ensure food and water supplies. However, if the Ukraine conflict rages on, on top of the ongoing pandemic and mounting threats from climate change, and energy and food prices continue to rise, the region will likely face greater protest and instability.
is the senior Gulf analyst at International Crisis Group and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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