World Food Program delivers aid in Syria in 2002 credit: WFP/Abeer Etefa

How The Global Food Crisis is Impacting People and Politics in the Middle East

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Middle East was heavily dependent on importing food from Ukraine and Russia. The disruption of grain exports from the Black Sea region has had a profoundly negative impact on food security in the Middle East.

I’m joined today my Arnaud Quemin, Middle East regional director for Mercy Corps. We kick off discussing what the food security situation in the region looked like before the war and then have an extended conversation about how the global food crisis is impacting people and politics in the Middle East.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

How Dependent was the Middle East on Ukrainian and Russian food prior to Russia’s war on Ukraine? 

Arnaud Quemin [00:00:01] The impact was making a situation that was already very humanitarian in nature, with people struggling to find ways to have access to food, suddenly even more complicated.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:01:18] A recent report by the global humanitarian group Mercy Corps found that in Lebanon alone, the price of a loaf of bread has shot up by 600% over the last year. In Yemen, the report finds that the price of cooking oil has increased by nearly 63% in the months following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Can I have you paint the picture, so to speak, of the region prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? How dependent was the region on food and agricultural imports and how much of those imports came specifically from the Black Sea region.

Arnaud Quemin [00:02:50] Before the Russian invasion in Ukraine, the situation was already pretty problematic in quite a few countries. The most obvious ones are Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and to some extent Palestine and Iraq. To give you an example of the level of reliance on imports in Yemen, 90 to 92% of the wheat was imported over the past few years. 90% of the wheat came from Ukraine and Russia in 2020. It was the eighth largest import of both Russian in Ukraine and in Lebanon something around 80%. And within this fraction in Lebanon, maybe 80% was imported from Ukraine and 50% from Russia. So, the vast majority of it was coming from the two countries that are currently involved in the crisis.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:43] So in general, prior to the invasion, this region depended heavily on wheat and grain imports, and a substantial proportion of that wheat and grain imports came specifically from the Black Sea region, from Ukraine and from Russia.

Arnaud Quemin [00:04:03] Yes. And I would add Syria as well, even though it was not directly, but because there is a local production, but also a lot of the areas in the north depend on import from Iraq and Turkey, which itself was coming from the north of the Black Sea.

How has Russia’s war on Ukraine affected food prices in the Middle East?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:21] So what impact then did the sharp rise in food prices, which was sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have on the economy, societies and even individuals in the Middle East?

Arnaud Quemin [00:04:38] Well, the impact was making a situation that was already very humanitarian in nature, with people struggling to find ways to have access to food, suddenly, even more complicated and for different reasons. In some countries, like Lebanon, the price of bread, for instance, was multiplied by two. In places like Yemen, where we have a situation where people are struggling to pay for food, the economical component of access to food is what creates a lot of the food insecurity. Suddenly, because food was more expensive to them, it offers another level of food insecurity. Even humanitarian actors who are usually covering for these needs, at least some of them were affected. To be clear, the World Food Program had to decrease its rations in Yemen in the weeks following the invasion. I was in Yemen a month ago in places north of Taiz, where I was talking with the people who are displaced. People are really struggling to get access to all the basic commodities they need to survive. And in this context, they hear from WFP that they would have to make do with a half of the ration they’d received the previous month. So instead of having a mix of wheat, oil, beans, they suddenly have only the wheat component and even that is less than they received the previous month. So, this is another effect of it, where even the major actors delivering aid, themselves sometimes are struggling with finding the right amount of food on the international market.

Why did the World Food Program cut rations in Yemen?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:12] Yeah, the World Food Program has, I believe, historically gotten about like half their actual wheat and food from Ukraine. But since the shut off of the Black Sea port since the Russian invasion, that grain has been inaccessible. And on top of that, prices in general have sharply increased and the World Food Program depends on scarce donor dollars to fund its operations. And you’re saying that they cut rations basically in half in parts of Yemen for much of this year?

Arnaud Quemin [00:06:46] At least for now. I don’t know how long they will have to maintain this. But yes, that’s exactly what happened in Yemen.

How has a lack of food in Yemen affected their peace process?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:53] So Yemen, I think, is just a really interesting example of how sharp increases in food price stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have all these knock-on effects far beyond Ukraine and Russia itself. You said you were just in Yemen. Yemen is also in the midst of a very fragile peace process after many years of conflict. Are you seeing any evidence that the increase in the price of food and fuel and other commodities combined with the decreasing availability of humanitarian assistance is having any sort of meaningful impact on the peace process that is underway right now.

Arnaud Quemin [00:07:42] I’m not in the right position to really connect these things in a precise way, but what this question is getting right is that all of these situations of extreme food insecurity, tensions around market inflation are all connected to very complicated geopolitical situations that were present before the invasion of Ukraine. And so they are, of course, having an effect on all of these situations in ways that we are finding very difficult to read at times. The relation of the Russian role in the same situation since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis is a good example of that.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:20] How so?

Arnaud Quemin [00:08:21] The fact that Turkey, Russia, and China are all part of the Astana peace process in Syria, and they met just last week, I think, to discuss the situation in Syria. It’s hard to imagine that it’s not going to be connected to other discussions that are taking place around NATO and the role of Turkey in unlocking access to grain in the Black Sea. I’m not privy to this conversation, but you can see how it’s all interlocked and everything in the region is all seeing the same actors in different forms and configurations. In Yemen, the actors you have around the table are more or less the same. You will find most of the other big geopolitical questions of the region. So yes, if it’s all connected. Now, how the increased food insecurity in Yemen affects the negotiation around the truce is very hard to see. There is an element of access to a better, economical, to the dividend of peace, basically through the negotiation with the reopening of the roads around Taiz, which would obviously help with the situation of food and other commodities. That’s part of the negotiation. We hope it’s going to be renewed. Tensions are very high these days. It’s very hard to predict how it’s going to come out.

What does food insecurity look like in Lebanon?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:34] On Lebanon, where I’m reaching you, there was, preceding the February 24th outbreak of conflict in Europe, already a very dire economic situation unfolding in Lebanon. When you are walking the streets of Beirut, how are you seeing people experiencing the sharp increase in food prices? Are there any, you know, examples you can cite or stories you could share that illustrate just how sharply the costs of key goods have increased in Lebanon in the last few months?

Arnaud Quemin [00:10:11] The situation in Lebanon has been following a trajectory that is hard to grasp, because when you live here, you need to talk to people to start realizing how insane the situation is. The cost of food has been multiplied by around six since last year.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:28] So the price of food in general has multiplied six times in one year.

Arnaud Quemin [00:10:33] The price of bread, sorry, the price of fuel was also multiplied by ten over the course of, I think six months. So, it means when you want to go somewhere and people will need to take their car to go to their work, they had to reconsider whether that was possible because they would basically take half of their salary to fill the tank. Same thing goes with Internet or the telecommunications. Now, to buy 20 gigabytes of data on your mobile phone, you need to spend something close to the minimum wage in the country and humanitarian actors as well as many other actors, I’m just speaking about humanitarian actors because that’s what I know the most. But I see this because when you need to reach people through their mobile phones, suddenly you see a much lower level of people who are connected. And so, all the systems we have to connect with the communities with whom we are working, you know, there are all sorts of feedback systems we put in place with hotlines, etc. I’ve seen a pretty steady decrease of the participation just because people are not able to afford keeping their phone on. Yeah, everything is so interconnected that the whole economic activity of the country is really suffering from the repercussions of all these economic crises.

Is food insecurity in Lebanon causing more political instability?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:51] And to what extent are you noticing this economic crisis potentially having political impacts within Lebanon? I mean, in Sri Lanka, we saw a very dire economic situation lead directly to protests that overthrew the government. I know Lebanon has its own unique political system, but are you seeing any evidence of a connection between rising prices, food insecurity and political instability?

Arnaud Quemin [00:12:23] Political instability has been present in the country increasingly for a long time, but at the very least since 2015 and the trash crisis was an issue, I don’t know if you are familiar with this, but at some point, there was a problem with the disposal of trash in the street in the summer 2015. Ever since then there were an accumulation of insatisfaction, which peaked in 2019, in October. And that was really the moment where people felt, you know, the new revolution was coming. People were in the street. There was a massive mobilization and then this petered out, basically. The inertia of the existing system is very hard to counter and so the system is able to absorb these demonstrations, unfortunately, and block the whole demands for reform. It doesn’t mean people are any happier and you will have very regularly street demonstrations, people would burn tires in the street to block key roads around Beirut, Tripoli, that usually is not threatening to the government. There were elections two months ago where they were a mixed bag of most of the members of the parliament were reelected, but there were a small group of new MPs who basically won against very well-known figures who had been in the Parliament for decades for some of them, and who lost against these newcomers, these members of the Change Coalition who are now sitting in the International Assembly, I think there are 13 of them. It’s definitely not enough to achieve a critical mass swing votes but at least there was a sense that some people in some corners of the country could vote against the establishment.

Why have food prices in Jordan not increased as much as neighboring countries?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:10] I wanted to ask you also about Jordan, which seems to be a somewhat unique case in the region, for the fact that while there have been increases in prices, as you note in your report, they have not been nearly as sharp as other countries. Can you describe the situation in Jordan as opposed to other countries in the region?

Arnaud Quemin [00:14:35] So Jordan is the stable country of the region, or at least one of the most stable, and this is largely possible because of the subsidies that are taking place there. So, fuel, water, food is to some extent all subsidized. So, it means the increase this year has been only like 2.4% for fuel, for instance, which I think most countries in the world today would be very happy to see only such a small increase. Where this money comes from is a mix of Jordanian economy, which is still in need of reform and the government started a new ambitious multi-year plan this year to try to catch up in terms of modernizing its economy. It’s also a country that benefits from a lot of support from major players on the international scene, so puts it in a situation where they can afford these subsidies, which is impossible in most of the other countries, fractured by political questions and which, as I said before, are all connected to regional tensions. So, Lebanon is the playground of major blocs vying for domination, or at least influencing the region. The way you can see it in say, Yemen, or to some extent in Iraq. In Jordan, this is a much tamer dynamic which helps with their stability. And when I say that it’s with major caveats, because how long can this last is a major question and nobody has interest in seeing a destabilized Jordan, but it’s hard to see how that could be sustainable.

What work does Mercy Corps do in the Middle East?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:10] I’m interested in learning how Mercy Corps is handling itself in response to these sharp price increases. You’re one of the major humanitarian players in the region. How have these sharp cost increases impacted your work?

Arnaud Quemin [00:16:30] The way we approach this crisis, we really push for three things, and some of them are out of our control, some of them we can’t really support. Our first goal, and that’s the one that is out of control, is to ensure that all the international actors who can support a better international market do that. So, helping all the key commodities flow internationally and God knows we read that in the newspapers every day, deals to try to unblock grains or facilitate exchanges are key to decrease the pain on people. But even this will not change the immediate needs because now people have been affected. So, the second recommendations are to increase the humanitarian response right now, which we are contributing to with the support of our donors. People today need immediate increase of support to absorb these additional costs. So, we do distribution, we have cash transfer and all the ways we can do to help people fulfill their basic needs so that they don’t have to, for instance, we had this case in Yemen of a person who had to say, “I’m putting my kids to work because otherwise I cannot afford to buy even food.” So, the second piece is really about the humanitarian response. There’s a third one which is also very important to the way Mercy Corps approaches this kind of situation, which is strengthening local production. This you can do by increasing technical support to help people understand how to grow things in a more efficient way, connect market actors that can help with the inputs. In Lebanon, we have an example of an entrepreneur with decided to create his own saplings for avocados, potatoes and other key productions in the country which were imported until now at a very high cost. And he, being an agroengineer, decided to start doing this in his flat. It’s a very complicated operation, but with our support, it could really grow in a way that now it can absorb much bigger demand and that’s the kind of things we can do as well, supporting also people having access to all sort of equipment to increase the production of agricultural products in country. Once again, and this is something we do in all the countries where we operate, but once again, even this is to some extent depending on international markets for a lot of things like fertilizers or seeds. And so that’s another thing we try to do by connecting private sector actors with the local context where we’re working to help this work better.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:06] In the near future, are there any inflection points or indicators that you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you whether or not the situation is trending in a better direction?

Arnaud Quemin [00:19:21] I do not see at this point any reason to expect an inflection in the near to mid-term. The shock is going to be felt for quite some time, and the forces that were unleashed this year are not decreasing the ripple effect, if anything still unfolding, and we don’t know to what extent and to what amplitude is going to reach and affect our region and probably many other parts of the world. So, I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, but at this point I think we still need to be very hands on and concerned with the trajectory things are following.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:00] Thank you very much for your time. I appreciate this.

Arnaud Quemin [00:20:03] Thank you.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:11] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.