Arabs fear for wheat supply after Russia invades Ukraine

Umm Abdo bakes bread for the family at her house in the village of Zerzara on the west bank of the Nile, off the city of Aswan, in southern Egypt, on February 26, 2022. AFP

CAIRO — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could mean less bread on the table in Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere in the Arab world where millions are already struggling to survive.

The region is heavily dependent on wheat supplies from the two countries currently at war, and any shortage of staples could cause unrest.

If these supplies are interrupted, “the Ukrainian crisis could trigger further protests and instability” in several countries in the Middle East and North Africa, the Washington-based Middle East Institute said.

The generals in power today in Khartoum after an October coup have not forgotten: in 2019 one of their own, Field Marshal Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s longtime autocrat, was overthrown by his army under the pressure of mass protests triggered by a tripling of the price of bread. .

Sudan already faces regular protests against the coup but appears to have taken the initiative to avoid protests over bread.

When the Russian invasion began on Thursday, the second figure in Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council was in Moscow to discuss trade relations.

Bread is already a luxury for millions of people in Yemen, where a seven-year war has pushed the country to the brink of famine.

“Most people can barely afford basic foodstuffs”, and the war in Ukraine will only “make things worse”, Walid Salah, 35, a civil servant in Sanaa, the held capital, told AFP. by the rebels.

Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter and Ukraine the fourth, according to estimates by the US Department of Agriculture.

The Moscow invasion pushed the price of wheat well above its previous high in European trading at 344 euros ($384) a tonne on Thursday.

David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme, said the Ukraine-Russia region provides half of the agency’s grain. The war, he said, “is going to have a dramatic impact.”

“Supplies won’t last”

According to the WFP, 12.4 million people in conflict-torn Syria also face food insecurity.

Before its civil war began in 2011, Syria produced enough wheat to feed its people, but harvests then plummeted and led to increased reliance on imports.

The Damascus regime is a staunch ally of Moscow, which supported it militarily during the war.

“Syria imported some 1.5 million tonnes of wheat last year, largely from Russia,” The Syria Report, a business publication, said this month.

Damas says he is now working on allocating inventory for use over two months.

The supply from neighboring Lebanon will not last as long.

The country is in the grip of a financial crisis that has left more than 80% of the population in poverty, and a port explosion in 2020 damaged large parts of Beirut, including silos containing 45,000 tonnes of grain.

Lebanon’s current stock, in addition to the five Ukrainian ships awaiting unloading, “can only last for a month and a half”, said Ahmad Hoteit, the representative of Lebanon’s wheat importers.

Russian wheat field

A wheat field is pictured outside the village of Karpenkovo, about 150 km from the city of Voronezh, on July 12, 2020. AFP FILE PHOTO

Ukraine was the source of 80% of the 600,000 to 650,000 tons of wheat imported each year by Lebanon, which has only been able to store about a month’s worth of wheat since the port explosion, he said. told AFP.

The United States may be another supplier, but shipments could take up to 25 days instead of seven, Hoteit said.

In the Maghreb, where wheat is the basis of couscous as well as bread, Moroccan budget minister Fouzi Lekjaa told reporters that the government would increase subsidies on flour to $400 million this year and stop levy import duties on wheat.

Neighboring Tunisia, with heavy debts and limited foreign exchange reserves, does not have this luxury. In December, local media reported that ships delivering wheat refused to unload their cargo because they had not been paid.

Tunisia depends on Ukrainian and Russian imports for 60% of its total wheat consumption, according to Agriculture Ministry expert Abdelhalim Gasmi. He said current stocks are sufficient until June.

“Bread Riots”

Neighboring Algeria, which says it has a six-month supply, is Africa’s second-largest consumer of wheat and the world’s fifth-largest cereal importer.

Egypt imports the most wheat in the world and is Russia’s second largest customer. It bought 3.5 million tonnes in mid-January, according to S&P Global.

The most populous country in the Arab world has started to buy elsewhere, notably in Romania, but 80% of its imports come from Russia and Ukraine.

Egypt still has nine months of stock to feed its more than 100 million people, government spokesman Nader Saad said. But he added: “We will no longer be able to buy at the pre-crisis price.”

This is a bad sign for the 70% of the population who receive five subsidized loaves of bread a day.

The weight of subsidized round food has been reduced in 2020 and now the government is considering raising the price – set at five piastres (0.3 cents) for the past three decades – to come closer to the cost of production.

When then-President Anwar Sadat attempted to remove bread subsidies in January 1977, “bread riots” broke out. They stopped when he canceled the increase.

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