The Middle East is struggling to contain soaring food prices


Palestinians work in a traditional bakery in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Monday. SAID KHATIB/AFP

CAIRO — Policymakers in some Middle Eastern countries that lack large oil reserves are scrambling to stem soaring food costs as their primary food supply chain is disrupted by the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The conflict has exacerbated inflation in basic commodities that started well before the crisis.

These countries, which rely heavily on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine and, in many cases, have limited financial resources to respond to rising food costs, are pursuing policies such as diversifying food imports, increasing food subsidies and cutting food taxes .

Some countries have also moved to shore up food supplies and make policy adjustments to reduce their heavy reliance on imported food, as food security is vital to maintaining social stability in the volatile Middle East.

In recent weeks, grain, oil and meat prices have risen in several Middle Eastern countries, particularly in countries heavily dependent on imports from Ukraine and Russia, which are still struggling and engaging in tough negotiations.

According to statistics released by Turkish media, Turkey now pays US$346 to import a ton of wheat, up from US$297 in 2021 when the country’s supply chain was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The price had increased from $230 in 2020.

Strong increase

In Egypt, the world’s top wheat importer, the market price for a tonne of flour rose to 11,000 Egyptian pounds ($700) in March, up from 9,000 pounds a month earlier, said Attia Hammad, head of the bakery department at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce.

In Palestine, the prices of flour, vegetables, chicken and sugar have risen sharply.

“The Russia-Ukraine conflict will have an impact on the global grain market, as Russia and Ukraine account for about 30 percent of world grain exports,” said Waleed Gaballah, professor of finance and economic justice at Cairo University.

The impact on the Middle East food market is particularly noticeable in countries that largely rely on Russia and Ukraine for imports. In Istanbul, Turkey‘s largest city, the price of a 5-liter bottle of cooking oil had risen 35 percent to 200 Turkish liras ($14) in the three days to March 7. With 64 percent self-sufficiency in sunflower oil, Turkey has traditionally met the rest of its cooking oil needs through imports, mainly from Russia and Ukraine.

Consumers in Turkey have flocked to grocery stores and supermarkets with empty shelves due to soaring cooking oil prices and fears of shortages.

In poorer countries like Lebanon and Yemen, higher costs will make staple foods less accessible to those most in need.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict will further complicate Lebanon’s food supply chain as the country suffers from a financial crisis and grapples with a serious shortage of foreign exchange needed to import basic necessities and food products, said Ahmad Hoteit, a representative of the Lebanese wheat importers.

Russia and Ukraine are the two main sources of wheat imports to the Middle East. Egypt and Tunisia import 80 percent and 50 percent of their wheat from the two countries, respectively.



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