The effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have shown that the problems caused by the war extend beyond Europe and the US to other parts of the world, including the Middle East. Some Middle Eastern countries have been embroiled in war and unrest for years, and the Ukraine crisis has complicated their situation. It, in turn, will destabilize the West.
Food security and economic and geopolitical changes have been the most important effects of the Ukraine crisis on the Middle East. The available data show that the powerful actors of the Middle East have tried to solve their problems with neutrality and non-partisanship of the parties involved.
Food Security in the Middle East
One of the most important effects of the Ukraine crisis is on the Middle East economy. It has led to several Middle Eastern countries facing food insecurity. Russia and Ukraine are significant breadbaskets, accounting for 30 per cent of wheat, 17 per cent of corn, and over half of sunflower seed oil exports worldwide. The war between the two neighbours has led to sharply rising prices for basic staples across the globe.
Rising prices for agricultural products have had two major effects on the Middle East. On the one hand, countries have few options to replace the imported agricultural products of Ukraine and Russia. On the other hand, rising prices have pushed up the prices of basic agricultural products such as wheat and cooking oils. It has led to inflation and increased public protest of the poor people, like what happened in Nasiriyah, Iraq, in March.
Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, Lebanon, and, to a lesser extent, Iraq are importers of Ukrainian and Russian grain products. Rising prices for essential food items have led to widespread inflation in these countries, forcing governments to implement interim programs to mitigate the effects of inflation. However, they have not been able to resolve all the problems caused by the Ukraine crisis.
About 80 per cent of the wheat that Lebanon imported in 2020, the last year for which data is available, came from Ukraine, according to the Lebanese government’s customs website. Lebanon can only store reserves for one month due to the August 2020 explosion in Beirut’s port that destroyed the capital’s grain silos. Bread and other grain products make up 35 per cent of the population’s caloric intake.
The Lebanese government has tried to address these problems with living allowances, but it has postponed twice the program due to a weak economy. The industry minister tweeted on March 5 that Lebanon will begin rationing wheat, only allowing it to be used for bread until alternative supply sources can be found. The government is attempting to import wheat from Canada, Australia, and the United States.
Egypt also relies on major wheat imports. Cairo is the world’s largest importer of wheat. Eighty per cent of Egyptian wheat is imported from Russia (about 69 per cent) and Ukraine (about 11 per cent). Egypt has subsidized the consumption of wheat. Rising wheat prices have made officials more concerned about subsidies.
Bread is the primary food source for Egyptians, and they may use it in all three meals. The grim austerity measures ushered in during the reform program on the back of the 2016 International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan stripped subsidies away from most products, but not bread. Bread is peculiarly sensitive for Egyptians; heavily subsidized, it provides a lifeline to the estimated 29.7 per cent of the population that lives below the poverty line. The last time an Egyptian government attempted to tamper with the bread subsidy was in 1977, under President Anwar Sadat. Two days of rioting convinced the government to leave well enough alone.
In addition, Egypt’s tourism sector will be poorly affected by the Russian war in Ukraine. Egypt is considered the leading destination for millions of Russians and Ukrainians. Tourists from both countries account for a third of all foreign tourists in peak years. Some 700,000 Russian tourists visited Egypt in 2021, and 125,000 others did so in the first two weeks of 2022. In 2019, 1.6 million Ukrainian tourists visited Egypt, which was an increase of 32 per cent from the year before. Given the ongoing war on Ukraine and the global sanctions against Russia, Egypt’s tourist sector is expected to struggle in the coming months, which will add more challenges to Egypt’s reeling economy.
The predominant practice of the Middle East countries in the Ukraine crisis is “neutrality” and lack of support from both sides. Despite the small number of Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt, Qatar, Israel, and to some extent Kuwait, which have expressed supporting the Western side in the Ukraine crisis, others have tended to remain silent. At best, they have made a political statement, calling only on both sides to show restraint.
The neutrality of Middle Eastern countries is due to their distrust of the US as their trusted security partner. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the reduction of its forces in Iraq and the removal of the advanced missile defence system and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia, and the lack of explicit US support for the UAE in striking Abu Dhabi by Houthis have shown that the Middle Eastern countries that Washington has more important plans than them, such as containment of China and Russia, and that they should pursue security independence or security diversification.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), two of the US’ most important allies, have refused to support it in the Ukraine crisis and increase oil production to reduce oil prices as a direct result of the Ukraine crisis. The UAE even abstained from the draft United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and according to the Wall Street Journal, the Saudi and Emirati crown princes did not respond to US President Biden’s calls.
The most important political impact of the Ukraine crisis is the Middle East’s welcome for polarization in international relations. They have repeatedly faced US opposition in various political and economic fields. They have had a bitter experience with them, such as US opposition to China expanding the 5G networks in the UAE or conditioning F-35 fighter jets on Abu Dhabi. They tend to use the power of other countries, such as Russia and China, to balance US dictates.
However, neither Russia nor China intends to replace the US in the Middle East. Countries in the region fear choosing between the US, their most important security partner, and China as the region’s largest trading partner. If the crisis in Ukraine continues, perhaps this fear will become a reality. It remains to be seen how Middle Eastern countries will manage this situation in the future.