Layal Aswad had already been worn down by Lebanon’s two-year economic meltdown. Now, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drives up food and energy costs even higher, she finds herself struggling to feed her four-person family.
“Even bread isn’t something we take for granted anymore,” the 48-year-old housewife remarked recently as she stood in a grocery aisle in front of litres of cooking oil with prices at an all-time high.
Millions of people in the Middle East are now wondering where their next meal will come from, from Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria to Sudan and Yemen, whose lives have already been upended by violence, displacement, and poverty. Ukraine and Russia export a third of the world’s wheat and barley, which Middle Eastern countries rely on to feed millions of people who consume subsidized bread and cheap noodles. They are also major exporters of other cereals, as well as frying sunflower seed oil.
Even before the Ukraine conflict, people in the Middle East and North Africa lacked access to sufficient food. As a result of the conflict’s trade interruptions, more commodities are becoming costly or unavailable.
“Put simply, people cannot afford food of the quality or quantity that they require,” said Lama Fakih, Middle East and North Africa Director at Human Rights Watch. “Those in conflict- and crisis-affected nations… are at greatest danger.”
According to Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, a similar set of conditions sparked the Arab Spring in late 2010, when increasing food prices fanned anti-government rallies across the Middle East.
“When prices rise and impoverished people can no longer feed their families, they will be on the streets,” Georgieva said at the Doha Forum, a policy gathering in Qatar, on Sunday.
Public outrage over rising food costs and a lack of government services has erupted in street protests in Iraq and Sudan on many occasions in recent weeks.
“People have a right to food, and governments should do everything they can to defend that right,” Fakih said. “If we don’t, we risk not only food insecurity, but also the insecurity and instability that terrible deprivation on this scale may bring.”
The battle has also raised concerns that much of the foreign help that so many in the Arab world rely on may be transferred to Ukraine, where more than 3.7 million people have left the conflict, the greatest migration from Europe since World War II.
“This would be equivalent to shutting down critical life support for the millions of Palestinians, Lebanese, Yemenis, Syrians, and others who live in countries experiencing conflict, catastrophic economic meltdowns, and increasing humanitarian needs,” according to a Carnegie Middle East analysis released last week.
In Syria, 14.6 million people would need on aid this year, up 9% from 2021 and 32% from 2020, according to Joyce Msuya, the UN’s assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and deputy emergency relief coordinator, who spoke before the United Nations Security Council in February.
After seven years of conflict in Yemen, basic requirements are becoming even more difficult to satisfy for millions of destitute people. According to a recent analysis by the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations, more than 160,000 people in Yemen are projected to face famine-like circumstances by 2022. Because of the situation in Ukraine, that figure might rise much higher. A United Nations appeal for the country garnered $1.3 billion earlier this month, less than a third of the total requested.
“I have nothing,” said Ghalib al-Najjar, a 48-year-old Yemeni father of seven whose family has been living in a refugee camp outside the rebel-held city of Sanaa for more than four years after escaping violence in their middle-class neighborhood. “I need flour, a packet of flour,” says the narrator. I’m in desperate need of rice. I’m in desperate need of sugar. “I require what humans require in order to exist.”
Panic has set in among a people worn down by shortages of power, medication, and fuel in Lebanon, which has been in the throes of economic collapse for the past two years.
In 2020, a major explosion at a Beirut port devastated the country’s biggest grain silos. With only six weeks of wheat stockpiles left, many people are fearful of even worse days ahead. This week, several prominent stores were short of wheat and corn oil.
“Whatever is put on shelves is bought,” Hani Bohsali, president of the food importers syndicate, stated. He claims that Ukraine provides 60% of the cooking oil consumed in Lebanon, with Russia providing the remainder.
“This is not a little issue,” he stated. Bohsali added that while a search for other sources of critical items is ongoing, other nations have either prohibited food exports or boosted prices dramatically.
Meanwhile, despite the currency’s 90 percent loss in value since October 2019, 5 liters (1 gallon) of cooking oil in Lebanon currently costs about the same as the monthly minimum salary, which is still set at 675,000 Lebanese pounds ($29). In the absence of state-supplied energy, families, including Aswad’s, are also spending an increasing percentage of their monthly income on community generators that light up their houses for the most of the day. Even those are now threatening to close, claiming that they can no longer afford to buy fuel on the open market.
“We’ve gone back to the Stone Age,” Aswad remarked, “loading up on candles and bread and Picon (a processed cheese brand) in case we run out of everything.”
In Syria, where more than 90 percent of the population lives in poverty after more than 11 years of deadly conflict, staples like cooking oil — when they can be found — have risen in price in the month since the war in Ukraine began. Except for sugar and napkins, the shelves of one government cooperative in Damascus’ capital were nearly bare on a recent day.
Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, is one of the most susceptible countries. Economic pressures, such as growing inflation, are increasing in the nation, where, according to government estimates, almost a third of the population of more than 103 million people lives in poverty.
Food necessities such as bread, which Egyptians refer to as “eish,” or life, have increased by up to 50%, according to an Associated Press writer who toured markets in three separate middle-class areas in Cairo earlier this month. Due to the forthcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is traditionally a period of heightened demand, inflation is expected to rise even further.
Consumers have accused businesses of taking advantage of the Ukraine conflict to boost prices, despite the fact that they have not yet been harmed.
Doaa el-Sayed, an Egyptian elementary school teacher and mother of three, said, “They benefit from our sorrow.” “I have to cut back on everything I used to buy,” she explained.
The recent jump in the price of basic necessities in Libya, a country plagued by a years-long civil conflict, has residents scared that hard times are on the way. And as the war in Ukraine erupted, prices in Gaza surged, posing a new challenge for the 2 million people of the poor Palestinian enclave who have undergone years of embargo and violence.
A Gaza trader, Fayeq Abu Aker, imports essentials from Turkey, including cooking oil, lentils, and pasta. Aker resorted to Egypt when the business terminated the cooking oil contract after the conflict began. Despite its proximity to Gaza, though, costs in the nation were considerably higher. Cooking oil in a carton of four bottles now costs $26, more than twice what it did before the conflict.
“I have never seen a situation like this in my 40 years in business,” he added.