How the War in Ukraine Could Sow Chaos in the Middle East

Russia and Ukraine account for almost half of Middle East wheat imports. Rising food prices and shortages will hit poor and middle class families across the region hard – and might even trigger political upheaval

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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A man holds up a piece of bread during a demonstration against the deteriorating economic situation in Taez, Yemen, in 2020.
A man holds up a piece of bread during a demonstration against the deteriorating economic situation in Taez, Yemen, in 2020.Credit: AHMAD AL-BASHA / AFP
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

The war in Ukraine could not be coming at a worse time for the people of the Middle East. Already contending with steadily rising food prices and declining domestic harvests, the region’s main supplies of imported wheat from Ukraine and Russia are now locked up in Black Sea ports.

Rising prices and shortages could trigger political reverberations in the Middle East, a part of the world where poor and even middle class families rely on bread as a low-cost way to feed themselves. In Egypt, rising bread prices have in the past set off anti-government protests, most prominently in 1977.

“Most places in the Middle East, apart from the Gulf, are sensitive to rising prices,” says Mirette F. Mabrouk, director of the Egypt Program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “It’s not a particularly rich area of the world, and Syria, Lebanon and Libya are sensitive to what’s happening. It’s not just rising food prices, but energy prices, too. I think we’re going to have to watch what happens very, very carefully.”

Though Russia and Ukraine account for close to a quarter of the world’s wheat exports, they also account for 40 percent of the wheat imported by Middle Eastern and African countries, given their geographical proximity to these regions.

Farmers harvest with their combines in a wheat field near the village Tbilisskaya, Russia, in July.Credit: Vitaly Timkiv / AP

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Ukraine ordered its ports closed last week and, while Russia says its ports are continuing to operate, traders are wary about buying Russian wheat. Sanctions on Russian banks threaten to snag future export sales.

With a population of more than 100 million and growing less than half the wheat it consumes, Egypt is the world’s largest buyer of imported wheat. Turkey, Lebanon and Libya, which were grappling with severe economic crises before the war in Ukraine broke out, are also highly reliant on imported wheat.

The World Food Program, which aids the region’s poorest and most food-vulnerable countries, like Syria and Yemen, depends mainly on Ukrainian wheat.

On Monday, wheat prices climbed to their highest levels in more than 13 years amid concerns over global supply. The latest price increases come on top of what the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says was a 27 percent rise in the price of grains last year due to supply chain problems and poor weather conditions worldwide.

Even before the conflict erupted, the International Grain Council had forecast that global wheat stocks left over from last year's harvest would fall in June to their lowest in nine years, amid falling global production. Going forward, U.S. sanctions blocking supplies of potash used for fertilizer from Belarus could lower global crop yields, further tightening supplies.

A woman prepares bread for the family in her home at Zerzara village on the west bank of the Nile river, in southern Egypt, last week.Credit: Khaled DESOUKI / AFP

Meanwhile, as imported supplies are imperiled, domestic wheat harvests across the Middle East and North Africa are coming up short due to drought and climate change.

During the 2021 growing season, Iran suffered its worst drought in half a century, slashing its wheat crop by 30%. A “Year of Wheat” campaign in Syria was undercut by low rainfall, leaving an import gap of 1.5 million metric tons. In Turkey, the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) forecast wheat production in 2021/22 will fall by 2 million tons to 16.25 million.

Egyptian wheat production is expected to grow somewhat this year after the government abandoned efforts to save precious water by reducing planting. But the increase won’t be big enough to meet increased consumption, the USDA predicts.

As a result, the USDA expects that Iran, Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt together will have to increase grain imports in the 2021/22 agricultural year to 35.5 million metric tons, or 17 percent of the world total, up from 25.9 million tons the year before, or 13 percent of the total.

The Egyptian government is already contending with the problem of higher prices and supply constraints. Egypt gets 80 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, but efforts to find substitute supplies have so far failed.

“Egypt has attempted to diversify its sources of wheat imports and has a strategic stockpile that will last several months. But if the conflict drags on, Egypt will likely face major challenges with wheat,” says Will Todman, a fellow in the Middle East Program at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

A man holds stacks of bread at a bakery in Beirut, Lebanon, last week.Credit: Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

He noted that Egypt last week was forced to cancel its latest tender to import wheat after it only received one offer for French grain, calling it a sign of the potential challenges ahead.

Bread prices are politically sensitive in Egypt, where close to 30 percent of the population lives in poverty and relies on subsidized bread for nutrition. Government attempts to raise the price, which has remained unchanged since the 1980s, set off riots in 1977, as well as demonstrations in 2008 and most recently in 2017. Demands for bread as well as for freedom and social justice animated the 2011 protests that led to Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power.

“People are always careful about the price of bread. A few months ago, the president [Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi] said we would have to look into raising the price of bread because it’s so cheap and costs the state so much. There is a lot of worry, and it hasn’t happened yet,” says Mabrouk.

The state spends $3.2 billion annually subsidizing the price of bread, and the Finance Ministry estimates it will have to budget an additional $763 million in 2021/22.

“I think they’re going to have to be careful,” she says but adds that she doesn’t believe Egypt is currently at risk of political instability. “The country isn’t in a state where things are likely to go up in smoke anytime soon. It’s stable at the moment,” Mabrouk says.

The situation, however, is far less certain in Tunisia, where President Kais Saied is seeking to consolidate power after dismissing parliament last summer, says Todman.

“I expect protests related to bread prices and rising energy costs to be most likely in places like Tunisia where there is already very high economic discontent,” he says. “Tunisians’ living conditions have not improved after Kais Saied’s power grab last July and Tunisians’ patience with him is wearing thin.”

The region’s most fragile states are at the greatest humanitarian risk. In Lebanon, for example, the country’s economic crisis has made it difficult for even its middle class to feed itself, with prices increasing by 1,000 percent in less than three years.

Imports account for most of Lebanon’s wheat supply, with about 60 percent coming from Ukraine. It only has a month’s worth of supplies on hand. That said, analysts aren’t yet predicting widespread political upheaval, if only because two years of the coronavirus pandemic have inured ordinary people to chronic crises.

“I would be surprised if the pressures from the Ukraine crisis prompted more serious political consequences, such as a revolution,” says Todman. “People are struggling and they are fed up, but they have been forced to find ways to survive for a long time, and there does not appear to be a widespread appetite for major political upheaval yet.”

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