Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

MENA not Isolated from Russia-Ukraine Crisis

Russia-Ukraine Crisis
Activists hold placard depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and reading “Empire must die” during the same name rally outside Russian embassy in Kyiv on February 22, 2022. Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP

Justin Salhani

A Russian invasion of Ukraine could completely disrupt the Middle East and North Africa’s wheat supply, leading to massive price hikes, political instability and an increased burden on states already suffering from humanitarian catastrophes.

“In case of an escalation, the State of Israel will be directly affected,” Kyiv’s Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova said. The statement came after Dzhaparova met with Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem. “Cut your bread supply in half to understand how Israel will be affected.”

Ukraine’s incredibly fertile black soil allows it to be the third largest wheat exporter in the world. Much of the planet relies on the country for wheat, as well as corn, barley and rapeseed. Israel in particular also imports soybeans, agroprocessing waste, molasses, alfalfa, beer and vodka production waste. Ukraine also supplies Israel with feed for livestock.

While the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 didn’t lead to a disruption of exports, this potential conflict could be different.

“Two-thirds of Ukraine’s agricultural products are grown in the eastern and southern regions of this country – precisely those regions closest to potential strikes from Russia,” Shimon Briman, an Israeli journalist and expert on Ukrainian-Israeli relations, wrote in Haaretz. “The main ports from which Ukrainian exports go to Israel and the Middle East are Odessa and Mariupol, identified by U.S. intelligence as potential targets for a Russian invasion. The blockade of these Ukrainian Black Sea ports by the Russian army and navy would halt the export of agricultural and metallurgical products.”

While diplomatic efforts continue between Russia and various NATO, EU and American actors, Russian violations of Ukraine’s border have raised expectations that Europe may soon experience its biggest war since World War II. Russian President Vladimir Putin has amassed an estimated 150,000 troops on the Ukrainian border and as the saber of war begins to rattle, the Middle East and North Africa may need to begin looking for alternatives when it comes to wheat imports.

“If Russian military aggression forcibly ‘kicks out’ Ukraine from the world food market – This will hit not only Israel, but the entire arc of states from North Africa to the Persian Gulf and South Asia, all consumers of Ukrainian exports,” Brimon wrote in Haaretz.

Ukraine had a record harvest in 2021. Around 12 percent of all the world’s grain trade travels through the Bosphorus. Ninety five percent of Ukrainian grain travels through the Black Sea and 50 percent of Ukraine’s grain product was exported to countries in the MENA region in 2020.

Israel relies on Ukraine for 50 percent of its grain and other cereals. Lebanon also relies on Ukraine for 50 percent of its annual grain supply, while that figure is 43 percent in Libya and 24 percent in Egypt. Ukraine is also Egypt’s primary supplier of corn. Any disruptions could not only lead to food shortages but also famine and civil unrest. Wheat prices in the Middle East are currently comparable to ten years earlier when revolutions swept through the Arab world. Food shortage fears are already pervasive in the Middle East and North Africa after 2021 saw the region suffer from historic droughts.

Beyond wheat, an invasion would also disrupt the energy flow to the MENA region and put strain on the already over-exerted global aid system. A Russian invasion of Ukraine could spur a whole new refugee crisis, diverting much of the resources needed to help refugees in the Middle East. In Yemen, 71 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance, according to UNICEF, making it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

“A conflict in Ukraine would further burden a system that is maxed out,” Cristian-Dan Tataru, an energy expert and former member of the EU’s delegation in Moscow, wrote in an analysis for the Middle East Institute. “Countries in the MENA region, such as Yemen, continue to be afflicted by conflict and remain in need of humanitarian aid, reconstruction, and development funds.”

Meanwhile, the Syrian civil war is still ongoing with millions displaced inside the country and outside, in countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. In Lebanon, the currency has lost 85 percent of its value in the last 18 months. This massive economic inflammation has led to food insecurity in 22 percent of households, according to the World Food Programme, with nine out of ten Syrian refugees in Lebanon living in extreme poverty.

As the prospect of a Russian invasion into Ukraine increases, the Middle East’s vast reliance on Ukrainian exports – from energy to grain – means any interference could lead to even worse levels of food insecurity than exist at present. With the region already hosting millions of food insecure refugees, a new crisis that disrupts wheat distribution routes and threatens to displace even more humans would compound all the Middle East and North Africa’s most pressing issues.

The Middle East and North Africa will hope any potential conflict in Ukraine is avoided. But this potential crisis also highlights the pressing need for the region to diversify its suppliers of grain and wheat. With bread prices already nearing what they were when a string of revolutions took down authoritarian regimes, widespread protests could return to a number of countries in the region. Anger and resentment is already rising against regimes in Tunisia, for increased autocratic acts by its president, and Lebanon, for widespread corruption and inaction following a two year period that witnessed massive inflation and an explosion that killed over 200 people.

“The MENA region is not isolated from the consequences of a potential Ukrainian-Russian war,” Tataru wrote in his analysis for MEI. “Countries in the region, especially oil and gas producers, can help to mitigate some of the effects, but it is better for them to do everything in their power to prevent it in the first place.”

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