Ukraine war compounds food-security woes of Middle East and North Africa

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A combine harvesting picks up the wheat on a field near the Krasne village in the Chernihiv area, 120 km to the north from Kiev, on July 05, 2019. (Anatolii Stepanov / FAO / AFP)
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Farmers bring in the harvest with their combine harvesters on a wheat field in the southern Russian Stavropol region. (AFP file photo)
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Workers prepare food aid to be distributed to Yemenis displaced by conflict in Yemen's war-ravaged western province of Hodeidah on March 1, 2022. (Photo by Khaled Ziad / AFP)
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People queue up outside a bakery in Syria's northwestern city of Idlib on April 24, 2020. (OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP)
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A view of a building devastated in recent shelling by Russian forces in Ukraine's second-biggest city of Kharkiv on March 3, 2022. (Sergey Bobok / AFP)
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Updated 21 March 2022

Ukraine war compounds food-security woes of Middle East and North Africa

  • Officials expect Russian invasion of Ukraine to have an inflationary impact on food, oil and shipping costs
  • MENA countries and aid agencies reliant on lower-cost Black Sea grain scramble to find alternative sources

DUBAI: When Russian tanks trundled into Ukraine on Feb. 24, alarm bells started ringing in places even far away from the war zone. It transpired that many countries depended heavily on the two warring parties for their wheat supplies, with Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa region figuring prominently on the list.

Which is partly why, for the governments of Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Sudan as well as international aid agencies, the conflict in Ukraine has felt much closer than what the geographical distance between the biggest consumers and the producers of Black Sea grain suggests.

Within days, the fighting had restricted the capacity of both Russia and Ukraine to continue exporting wheat to one of their biggest markets, which depends on the lower-priced Black Sea grain for a major source of its staple foods.

Ukraine has closed several of its ports and the movement of vessels in the Sea of Azov has been ordered to cease until further notice. The effect has been immediate.

MENA states that had already been experiencing food shortages owing to higher import costs, fiscal deficits, and conflict now face an added challenge. Any suspension or reduction of wheat supplies from Ukraine and Russia will deprive citizens of some of the world’s most food-insecure countries of the ability to produce bread and other daily essentials.

Besides being major players in such industries as computer chips, petroleum, wood, grains and sunflower oil, Russia and Ukraine together account for more than 14 percent of global wheat exports and a similar percentage of the world’s corn market.

A combine harvesting picks up the wheat on a field near the Krasne village in the Chernihiv area, north from Kiev, on July 05, 2019. (Anatolii Stepanov / FAO / AFP)

Russia is the world’s top wheat exporter and Ukraine the fourth, according to estimates by the US Department of Agriculture. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are also among the world’s leading fertilizer exporters.

Reuters has reported, quoting traders and bankers, that the war has halted shipping from Ukraine’s ports, while financial sanctions have put payments for purchases of Russian wheat in doubt, piling additional risk onto the shoulders of MENA governments.

“Everyone is looking for other markets as it is becoming increasingly impossible to buy stocks from Ukraine or Russia,” one Middle Eastern commodities banker said, citing shipping disruptions, new economic sanctions, and rising insurance premiums. “The market is not expecting Ukrainian and Russian exports to resume until the fighting ends.”

The sea port of Ukraine's Black Sea city of Odessa, where the country's grain supplies are shipped to foreign countries, has been closed because of the Russian invasion and grain supplies, threatening the food supplies of various countries. (Photo by Oleksandr Gimanov / AFP)

In Lebanon, officials expect wheat stocks to run out in a month. In Yemen, which imports 90 percent of its wheat, there is outright panic. Years of drought have created near famine conditions and left the bulk of Yemen’s population dependent on food aid. The situation has worsened since the 2014 Houthi takeover of the capital Sanaa.

Last year, Ukraine was the second-largest supplier of wheat to the UN’s World Food Program, with much of the aid going to Syria, where nine out of 10 of the country’s pre-war population are now on, or below, the poverty line, according to the UN.

David Beasley, the WFP’s executive director, said a lack of funding had forced the WFP to halve rations for 8 million civilians, with further sharp reductions to follow. “And just when you think that’s bad enough, we’ve got a war now in Ukraine,” he added in a video posted on the food organization’s website.

“We get 50 percent of our grains out of the Ukrainian and Russian area. It is going to have a dramatic impact on food, oil, and shipping costs. Just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it’s going to get worse. It’s a catastrophe on top of catastrophe here. It’s just heartbreaking.”

People displaced by conflict receive food aid to meet their basic needs at a camp in the Khokha district of Yemen's war-ravaged western province of Hodeidah, on Jan. 14, 2022. (Khaled Ziad / AFP)

In Lebanon, images of an imminent food crisis were seared into the nation’s memory by the explosions that destroyed the port of Beirut in August 2020. While Lebanon has found a new storage site for imported wheat, it must now find new sources of wheat supplies.

Lebanese Minister of Economy and Trade Amin Salam noted that Lebanon imported around 60 percent of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia, and said the government had opened talks with France, India, and the US with the aim of sourcing wheat from them instead, but at a higher cost.


Ukraine has banned exports of rye, buckwheat, millet, barley, sugar, salts, meats until end of 2022.

“I couldn’t buy a croissant or a manoushe today,” Elio Alam, a resident of Beirut, told Arab News on Thursday, referring to a popular Lebanese street food. “I stopped at many shops, and all of them said they were not producing the products to save flour for making bread. But even bread is missing at several bakeries.”

Given the parlous state of Lebanon’s economy, the concerns are twofold: From where the government can now source supplies and how it can pay for them. “The actual Lebanese public finance situation is far from clear due to the total lack of professionalism in managing it. It is consequently impossible to determine if there are still resources within the state treasury,” Riad Saade, president of CREAL, an agricultural research center and consultancy company in Beirut, told Arab News.

People queue at a bakery in the neighborhood of Nabaa in Lebanon amidst a wave of shortages of basic items due to a severe economic crisis. (AFP file photo)

“Officials might still find ways to secure financing for wheat subsidies from other budget allocations. They will also seek donations, which will have political ramifications. The US and France might consider supporting the Lebanese population. The WFP might also have a role.

“The international market is open and accessible. It is a matter of financing the procurement and dealing with the price, which has risen because of the crisis. Australia and Kazakhstan can also be sources of supply.”

Saade, who did not rule out the possibility of bread riots and civil unrest, said: “We might have reached the situation where people will have no other choice but to revolt.”

In common with Lebanon, officials of other cash-strapped MENA governments have been scrambling to secure alternative grain supplies at affordable prices.

Syrian regime officials held an emergency meeting after the invasion began to take stock of national reserves of grain, sugar, cooking oil, and rice. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ministers are reportedly considering reducing prices of some basic goods in local markets and rationing oil for the next two months.

 People queue up outside a bakery in Syria's northwestern city of Idlib on April 24, 2020. (OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP)

On top of existing austerity measures, any cutbacks would pile more stress and financial strain on Syrians living in regime-controlled territories. As for those living in rebel-held or Kurdish-administered areas of the country, they depend heavily on cross-border trade with Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon, which have chronic supply issues of their own.

In rebel-held Idlib, one of the most food-deprived pockets of the Middle East, Omar Karim, a laborer and father of three, said his family was “already living on the brink of starvation every day.”

Having lived under Russian and Assad-regime bombardment for many years, Karim fears his family will soon suffer the ripple effect of another Russian war.

“Russia managed to stomp on us and is waging war inside and outside of Syria,” Karim told Arab News. “I don’t know how I’ll manage to keep feeding my family. What will we eat? Grass?”

Egypt, too, is sensing danger ahead. Analysts believe the war in Ukraine could pose a serious threat to the country’s economy, with the price of wheat rising almost 50 percent in recent days.

People displaced by conflict receive food aid to meet their basic needs at a camp in the Khokha district of Yemen's war-ravaged western province of Hodeidah, on Jan. 14, 2022. (Khaled Ziad / AFP)

Michael Tanchum, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said: “Egypt already needs to find alternative suppliers. A further escalation that stops all Black Sea exports could also take Russian supplies off the market with catastrophic effect.”

Egypt imports the most wheat in the world and is Russia’s second-largest customer. It bought 3.5 million tons in mid-January, according to S&P Global. The Arab world’s most populous country has started to buy elsewhere, particularly from Romania, but 80 percent of its imports have come from Russia and Ukraine.

“With about four months of wheat reserves, Egypt can meet the challenge. But, to do so, Cairo will need to take immediate and decisive action, which can be made even more effective with the timely support of its American and European partners,” Tanchum added.

Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, buys 80 percent of its imports from Russia and Ukraine. (AFP file photo)

The war in Ukraine is also threatening to raise the cost of cooking oils in the MENA region and Turkey. A holdup of imports from Russia and Ukraine has sparked panic buying of sunflower oil in Turkey, despite government assurances concerning availability of basic items.

Ships carrying vegetable oil from Russia, which provides 55 percent of Turkey’s import needs, and Ukraine, which provides 15 percent, have been held up in the Sea of Azov. Concerns are likely to mount if the war affects this year’s harvest in Ukraine and if sanctions on Russia disrupt payments.

Amid the turmoil and chaos of the past two decades, the threat to food availability in the Middle East rarely reached alarming proportions. No matter how great the disruption, officials always found a way to keep the supply of staple foods flowing. The Ukraine crisis, which has plunged the world’s breadbasket into war, feels different in comparison. — with inputs from Reuters and AFP

’Bring them home’: Israelis call for hostages’ release

Updated 13 sec ago

’Bring them home’: Israelis call for hostages’ release

TEL AVIV: Hundreds of Israelis gathered in what has come to be known as Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on Saturday to call for the release of nearly 140 people still being held captive by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
As speakers took to the stage, those in the crowd held placards bearing messages like “they trust us to get them out of hell,” and “bring them home now.”
Ruby Chen, the father of 19-year-old hostage Itai Chen, said from the podium: “We are asking the Israeli cabinet, the war cabinet, to explain what exactly is on the negotiating table.
“We demand to be part of the negotiation process,” added Chen, whose son is a solider and was taken while on duty.
“Get them out now, immediately, whatever the price might be.”
Demonstrator Yoav Zalmanovitz said the government “did not care” about the hostages.
“They want revenge,” he told AFP.
Zalmanovitz’s 85-year-old father, Arye, was taken alive to Gaza and “murdered” there weeks later, Yoav said.
Hamas dragged around 240 hostages back to Gaza during its bloody October 7 attack on Israel, and fears for their safety have gripped the public through eight weeks of war.
A one-week truce deal that ended on December 1 saw 105 hostages released from Gaza, among them 80 Israelis — mostly women and children — freed in exchange for 240 Palestinians jailed by Israel.
However, efforts to revive the deal have stalled, and Israel says at least 137 hostages are believed to still be in Hamas captivity.
In the crowd on Saturday, Eli Eliezer, who said he had a relative among those still being held, told AFP the government should have prioritized returning the hostages over pressing its war against Hamas.
“They should have made a deal earlier,” the 61-year-old engineer said. “It’s the government’s job to keep its people and its land safe.”
Earlier on Saturday, 25-year-old Sahar Baruch, who hailed from one of the kibbutzim hit hardest on October 7, became the latest captive to be confirmed dead.
He was “kidnapped from his home by Hamas terrorists to Gaza... and murdered there,” the community of Beeri and the Hostages and Missing Families Forum said in a joint statement, without providing evidence.
The day before, Hamas had posted a video purporting to show Baruch’s body, saying he was killed during a failed rescue attempt. AFP was unable to independently verify the video’s authenticity.
In late October, Israeli soldier Ori Megidish, 19, was rescued in a military operation just over three weeks after she was kidnapped from an observation post on the heavily militarised Gaza border.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas in retaliation for the October 7 attack, which Israeli officials say killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians.
Its relentless bombardments and ground campaign in the Gaza Strip have killed at least 17,700 people, also mostly civilians, according to the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry.

70,000 migrants intercepted by Tunisia in 2023: official

Updated 12 min 25 sec ago

70,000 migrants intercepted by Tunisia in 2023: official

  • Tunisia, alongside Libya, is the principal departure point for thousands of migrants hoping to reach Europe

TUNIS: Close to 70,000 migrants were intercepted trying to cross the Mediterranean from Tunisia to Italy this year, more than double the 2022 figure, the Tunisian National Guard told AFP on Saturday.
Tunisia, alongside Libya, is the principal departure point for thousands of migrants hoping to reach Europe.
The number intercepted by Tunisian authorities was 69,963 for the first 11 months of 2023, compared to 31,297 in the same period last year, according to data from the National Guard.
Foreigners made up 78 percent, while the rest were Tunisians.
That was a significant shift from 2022, when 59 percent were foreign migrants.
The exodus accelerated in February after Tunisia’s President Kais Saied denounced the arrival of “hordes of illegal migrants” from sub-Saharan Africa whom he claimed were part of a “criminal plan” aimed at “changing the demographic composition” of the country.
The speech triggered a violent anti-migrant campaign, prompting several African countries, notably the Ivory Coast and Guinea, to repatriate thousands of their citizens, while many migrants attempted to flee by boat, leading to a number of sinkings.
Tunisia has been accused by the United Nations and humanitarian NGOs of “expelling” migrants to Libya and Algeria, which Tunisian authorities deny.
International humanitarian sources told AFP that at least 5,500 migrants have been expelled to the border with Libya and 3,000 to that with Algeria since June, including a large number caught trying to leave for Europe.
More than 100 migrants have died in the Libyan-Tunisian desert this summer, they said, adding that “collective expulsions to Libya and Algeria continue.”
Most of the intercepted migrants were caught on Tunisia’s eastern coastline close to Sfax, which is only around 130 kilometers (80 miles) from the Italian island of Lampedusa.
This summer, a wave of departures was triggered by a brawl in Sfax in which a Tunisian was killed, leading police to send hundreds into the desert.

Yemen rebels threaten Israel-bound Red Sea ships

Updated 24 min 58 sec ago

Yemen rebels threaten Israel-bound Red Sea ships

  • The Houthis have recently attacked ships they claim have direct links to Israel, but their latest threat expands the scope of their targets

SANAA: Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels threatened on Saturday to attack any vessels heading to Israeli ports unless food and medicine were allowed into the besieged Gaza Strip.
The latest warning comes amid heightened tensions in the Red Sea and surrounding waters following a series of maritime attacks by Houthi rebels since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7.
In a statement posted on social media, the Houthis said they “will prevent the passage of ships heading to the Zionist entity” if humanitarian aid is not allowed into Hamas-ruled Gaza.
The Houthis have recently attacked ships they claim have direct links to Israel, but their latest threat expands the scope of their targets.
Regardless of which flag ships sail under or the nationality of their owners or operators, Israel-bound vessels “will become a legitimate target for our armed forces,” the statement said.
Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, said his country would not accept the “naval siege,” noting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked US President Joe Biden and European leaders to take measures to address the situation.
“If the world will not take care of it,” Hanegbi warned on Israel’s Channel 12 television, “we will take action to remove the naval siege.”
Last week, the Houthis attacked two ships off the Yemeni coast, including a Bahamas-flagged vessel, claiming they were Israeli-owned.
And last month, the rebel forces seized the Galaxy Leader, an Israeli-linked cargo vessel.
“We warn all ships and companies against dealing with Israeli ports,” the latest Houthi statement said.
It added that all “ships linked to Israel or that will transport goods to Israeli ports” are not welcome in the Red Sea, a vital channel for global trade linked to the Suez Canal.
Beyond maritime attacks, the Houthis have launched a series of drone and missile strikes targeting Israel since the deadly attacks by Palestinian militant group Hamas triggered all-out war.
The militants poured over the border into Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping about 240 others, according to Israeli officials.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas, and launched a military offensive in Gaza that has killed at least 17,700 people, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
The spike in maritime incidents prompted G7 foreign ministers at a meeting earlier this month to urge the rebels to cease threats to international shipping and to release the Galaxy Leader.

Lebanon border clashes intensify despite peace efforts

Updated 16 min 53 sec ago

Lebanon border clashes intensify despite peace efforts

  • Supreme Islamic Council condemns Israeli targeting of villages, farms
  • French delegation leads talks in Tel Aviv, Beirut in bid to restore calm

BEIRUT: Confrontations between Hezbollah militants and the Israeli army intensified on Saturday as talks continued in an effort to end the conflict on Lebanon’s southern border.

The Supreme Islamic Council, which includes Sunni figures in Lebanon, expressed concern about Israeli targeting of villages, towns, and farms in southern areas of the country.

The council met in Dar Al-Fatwa, chaired by the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian.

Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian. (AFP file photo)

In a statement, the council said that Israeli officials should be considered “perpetrators of war crimes and mass crimes against humanity, and subjected to international justice, to prevent the occurrence of these crimes elsewhere in the world.”

The statement came as a French delegation met with Lebanese leaders and security officials for a second day in a bid to settle the conflict.

The delegation visited Tel Aviv ahead of the talks, which seek to restore calm along the Blue Line as part of a commitment to implement UN Resolution 1701.

Speaking after the meeting, Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib said he notified the visiting French delegation of acts of Israeli aggression stretching back to 2006 and involving more than 30,000 violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty.

He called for the demarcation of the land border and an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Lebanese regions.

Bou Habib reiterated that Lebanese airspace should not be used to attack Syria, and highlighted the importance of supporting the Lebanese army in implementing the UN resolution.

The delegation from France’s Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs is led by Frederic Mondoloni, director-general for political and security affairs, and includes Alice Rufo, director-general of external relations and strategy at the French Ministry of Armed Forces.

Israel stepped up its shelling of southern border villages on Saturday.

Homeowners and facility owners captured footage of the widespread destruction of property, with some houses in Odaisseh and Aita Al-Shaab leveled.

Some of the villages are believed to have been targeted preemptively by Israel in order to thwart possible attacks by Hezbollah.

After a night of Israeli shelling, Hezbollah resumed its strikes on Israeli military sites.

Hezbollah said it targeted Israeli soldiers near Metula “with appropriate weapons, causing direct hits.”

The militant group also renewed its shelling of areas in Ramyah, and said it struck an Israeli bunker, killing and wounding those inside.

It also targeted an Israeli army site in Ras Naqoura.

The killing of several fighters in the past 48 hours has lifted Hezbollah’s death toll to 95 since the beginning of its involvement in hostilities on Oct. 8.

Media reports said that three militants died when their car was targeted by an Israeli drone in Quneitra, Syria.

The Israeli army escalated its attacks on Lebanon, shelling Mount Labouneh with heavy artillery, according to a security source.

For the second time in recent days the Israeli army also targeted Lebanese army facilities.

Israeli shelling targeted an army hospital in Ain Ebel, according to the Lebanese Army Command, while an army site in Jidar, near Rmeish, was hit by two phosphorus shells, injuring two soldiers.

Three soldiers were injured when Israeli rockets struck the Intelligence and Naval Forces Center in Ras Al-Naqoura.

Israeli artillery also targeted the outskirts of the Kfarchouba village and the Zebdine outpost, with rockets being fired every 15 minutes.

Israeli army spokesman Avichay Adraee said that fighter jets hit a series of Hezbollah targets inside Lebanon, including the party’s operational headquarters.



Syria strikes kill 6 civilians in rebel bastion: monitor

Updated 57 min 15 sec ago

Syria strikes kill 6 civilians in rebel bastion: monitor

  • “Regime forces directly targeted residential areas of the city of Idlib,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
  • Government forces fired “more than 35 missiles” during the bombardment

BEIRUT: Six civilians were killed and 25 others wounded on Saturday in Syrian army bombardment of the country’s last major rebel bastion, a war monitor said.
“Regime forces directly targeted residential areas of the city of Idlib,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, adding that industrial areas were also hit, as well as “residential areas in the town of Sarmin” nearby.
Six civilians, “including two children and a woman,” were killed in Idlib and Sarmin, while 25 others were wounded in the strikes in various areas of Idlib province, added the Britain-based Observatory.
Government forces fired “more than 35 missiles” during the bombardment, it added.
Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria branch, controls swathes of Idlib province and parts of the neighboring Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces.
HTS is considered a terrorist group by Damascus, as well as by the United States and the European Union.
Parts of the rebel bastion have seen fierce fighting in recent days, according to the Observatory.
On Friday, it said 11 pro-government forces and five HTS fighters had been killed after the jihadists launched an attack in neighboring Aleppo province a day earlier.
Late last month, Syrian government bombardment killed nine civilians including six children as they harvested olives in Idlib province, reported the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria.
Civil war erupted in Syria after President Bashar Assad crushed peaceful anti-government protests in 2011.
The conflict has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions after spiralling into a devastating war involving foreign armies, militias and jihadists.
A cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkiye was declared in Idlib after a government offensive in March 2020, but it has been repeatedly violated.