Will the Ukraine war cause a bread crisis that leads to a new "Arab Spring"?

Traditional flat bread eaten in Egypt (Photo: by Shutterstock)
In this article Ahmad Abdul-Rahman assesses what the rise in wheat prices might mean for the Middle East.


Bread prices in the Middle East are rising rapidly due to concerns about wheat supplies from Ukraine and Russia. Such price increases have in the past led to violent protests and political unrest.

The protests have already begun, with hundreds of protesters gathering in early March in southern Iraq in downtown Nasiriyah to protest against the high prices of bread and cooking oil, among other goods. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the prices of products imported from there into Iraq have increased by as much as 50 per cent..

Over the past days, thousands of Sudanese have taken to the streets to protest the ongoing military rule, but also the nearly 50 per cent hike in the price of bread.

The increases in both countries came as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is an agricultural powerhouse and one of the world's most important wheat producers, as well as the largest exporter of seed oils. About half of Ukrainian wheat goes to the Middle East. Russia, which invaded its neighbour, is also the world's largest wheat exporter.

Market analysts say supplies from both countries are at risk due to the war and that instability is causing wheat prices to rise in general. Prices have risen over the past month by 50 per cent to approach a 14-year high. These increases are now beginning to have a major impact on the countries of the Middle East.

Bread is a staple in the Middle East

Bread is a staple food in the Middle East, and is always eaten as part of the main meal. Researchers estimate that, depending on each country, bread and cereals make up to half of the average local diet, compared to up to a quarter of the average European diet.

"In these countries, affordable bread for the working masses is a social contract," said Professor Michael Tanchum, who specialises in the political economy of the Middle East and Africa. Many Middle Eastern countries subsidise bread for low-income families.

In the past, rising bread prices were a driving force of political change in the region. Egypt, for example, has a history of "bread demonstrations." In 1977, after economic reforms that saw government subsidies cut and food prices rise, there were violent demonstrations across the country that resulted in at least 70 deaths.

In 2011, during the "Arab Spring" revolutions, one of the popular slogans in the demonstrations that toppled the regime of Egyptian President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak was "Bread, freedom, social justice.."

Researchers who have studied the causes of the Arab Spring protests in 2011, which aimed to change the political landscape in the region, have found that rising food prices and food insecurity played a role in mobilising people on the street, who were frustrated with their authoritarian leaders.

This continues.

"Between soaring energy prices and soaring food prices, the Ukraine crisis could lead to renewed protests and instability in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, analysts at the Washington-based Middle East Institute wrote in a February briefing.

In 2019, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was ousted from power by protests that began when bread prices tripled.

Fears of a humanitarian crisis

Farid Belhaj, World Bank vice president for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), cited concerns about Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, countries whose governments and economies are weak, and who rely heavily on wheat imports.

An increase in the price of bread and other consumer goods, as well as important fuels such as diesel, as a result of the Ukraine-Russia war, seems inevitable in the Middle East. However, will these hikes bring about fundamental political change?

John Ryan, senior adviser on geopolitical care at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, takes a different view. "People are going to be under real economic pressure," Ryan asserts. "But I'm not convinced that it would lead to the kind of massive shock we saw last time during the Arab Spring."

Ryan went on to say that the main reason is that most countries in the region are "in a completely different political situation now". Middle Eastern governments are either more in control and their opposition parties are banned, or there is a political system that is more flexible, as a result of the past 10 years."

So although there may be demonstrations and disputes due to price pressures, Ryan believes that these demonstrations are more likely to accelerate the political processes already underway than to start entirely new ones.

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Sunday, 25 September 2022