di Young Think Tanker - 30 Aprile 2022

Rome, Italy 


Despite the Western centrality of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, the consequences are not merely European. The international scenario has been shocked, and we are assisting a turning point in human history. In fact, the impact that this event is carrying is global, and it has been added to a situation that was already critical. Western countries are experiencing political, social, energetic, and economic negative effects, but Europe is not the only region of the world that is suffering. As a result of the ongoing conflict, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are suffering a food crisis t, as Russia and Ukraine are the major exporters of wheat in this Region.


Before the outbreak of the conflict, food security in MENA Region was already critical. In the past two decades, the region saw an increase in undernourished people, reaching almost 69 million in 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic, the economic crisis, and the political and social turmoil have created an unstable situation. According to FAO, due to the pandemic, at least 132 million people suffered chronic hunger, with up to 14% of food lost along the supply chain before it is consumed, and entire regions facing water stress. Moreover, ongoing conflicts and fragile institutions were already affecting the population, complicating the access to food. This serious contest was one of the reasons behind the movement of Arab Spring in 2011.


Russia and Ukraine have a fundamental role in the world’s wheat supply. In 2020, the two countries together exported almost 30% of the world’s wheat, and today they are still the major exporters of it. Therefore, risks connected to the war regarding food availability and price are worrying the major grain-importing countries: since the start of the war, global food price has reached the highest levels in March, with cereal prices up to 17% over the past month, and wheat prices that soared by 19,7% (Ahmed, 2022). In Mena countries, where climate and soil conditions are unsuitable for crops, but where there is also a never-ending poverty emergence, import at low prices is more than fundamental. Wheat’s importance in the diet of the Mena population is highlighted by data: the 37% of caloric consumption in the region is represented by wheat (Sabaghi, 2022), and bread is 18% of the total diet (Culliney, 2022).


Wheat is the most important cereal in Egypt. The rate of domestic demand for wheat is the highest in the world, and in the countries, 18.5 million tons are consumed annually (Aman, 2022). The wheat production’s self-sufficiency covers only 40.8 of the total demand. Thus, Egypt is the wheat largest importer globally, with 80% of all the imports coming from Russia and Ukraine. The government has announced measures to secure a safe rate of local wheat, and for the moment they seem to be efficient in the current local wheat harvest season. Moreover, the country has started negotiations with the IMF, and at the end of March UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar decided to invest about 22 billion dollars in Egypt (Corda, 2022).


The rise in wheat price, which has reached the highest point in 14 years, risks severely affecting Tunisia, in economic and in political terms. The country imports around 80% of wheat from Ukraine (Ayesh, 2022), and the Tunisian food system has already started to show signs of distress. Before the outbreak of the war, Tunisia recorded shortages of wheat products due to the government’s failure of paying the shipments. In addition, the country is experiencing pressure due to the oil price surge in the global market. The fragility of the institutions biases the situation, and the latest actions of President Saied complicate it. The IFM is moving to create a package to help the country to restore, but the authoritarian backsliding of Saied has frozen the relations with the Western donors.


Lebanon is already experiencing the consequences of the Ukrainian-Russia conflict. For decades, the government did not secure the food supply with measures such as diversifying the supply or maintaining a strategic reserve. Now, the country is at the mercy of price rising. Already on the first day of March, flour mills delivered only to Arabic bread bakeries, forcing pizzas and pastries bakers to close. This is the result of the decision to ration wheat imported from Ukraine, which supplies 60% of the country’s wheat needs (Jansen, 2022). The forecast is that the grain’s storage will end in July, so the government decided to reduce subsidies on flat rounds of Arabic bread, which sustain 80% of Lebanon’s poor population. Imports are essential for Beirut, which has seen a reduction of storage capacity caused by the 2020 explosion in the port, which destroyed Lebanon’s grain silos (reserves are only at 50%).


Yemen and Syria have the most critical situation. Both countries were identified by the WFP as among the major food crises in the last two years. After almost ten years of war -11 for Syria and 7 for Yemen-, and the pandemic, this conflict is added to a fragile food security system.


According to WFP, in Syria, 12.4 people are food insecure, and more than 65% of the population needs humanitarian assistance. The war in Ukraine is worsening the socio-economic situation of refugees. Not only Damascus is highly dependent on Russia’s wheat imports, but also Russia is the most powerful political ally Syria has. Moreover, in the past few years, the country was already facing difficulties in buying wheat from Russian companies for financial reasons. For the moment the regime has to rely on the scant local productions and the reserves, but soon, it has to re-allocate its diminishing budget. However, it will be difficult for Syria to find other companies from which to buy wheat due to shipping costs and domestic laws that ban wheat export. In the meantime, the population starts to queue for hours to buy bread.


Yemen is the most food-insecure country in the world, with up to 19 million people suffering from food insecurity. The rate of child malnutrition is one of the highest in the world, and almost one-third of families have gaps in their diets. As the humanitarian situation in Yemen is fragile, any hitch in the food supply can bring millions of people closer to starvation. The conflict in Ukraine represents a cause of serious concern, as Yemen imports about 40% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Another element of distress is the potential oil price crisis, as it will increase goods and transportation prices. However, the real risk is that the ongoing Ukrainian will darken the devasted Yemenite situation.


Nowadays, it is impossible to consider conflicts as regional. Even if the war between Russia and Ukraine seems to be European, the countries that will suffer the most are those that depend on these two countries. For the fragile social contract in MENA countries is fundamental to have access to wheat products at low prices. If those countries will have difficulty buying grains, the wellness of the population will be affected, with the risk of social and political turmoil. In the past, MENA’s governments were unable to create a system to protect food security, and they are unprepared to face a simile crisis.

Even if MENA’s governments have their responsibilities in food insecurity, the international public opinion needs to remember the situation of these populations. The attention now centers on Ukraine’s conflict, but the world leaders have to renew their commitment to supporting people affected by crises across the globe, including the ones affecting Syria and Yemen.


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