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

Special 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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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)
Special 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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Farmers bring in the harvest with their combine harvesters on a wheat field in the southern Russian Stavropol region. (AFP file photo)
Special 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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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)
Special  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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People queue up outside a bakery in Syria's northwestern city of Idlib on April 24, 2020. (OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP)
Special 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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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

Farmers bring in the harvest with their combine harvesters on a wheat field in the southern Russian Stavropol region. (AFP file photo)
  • 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.

FASTFACT

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


Turkey should face international court over Yazidi genocide, UK report says

Turkey should face international court over Yazidi genocide, UK report says
Updated 9 sec ago

Turkey should face international court over Yazidi genocide, UK report says

Turkey should face international court over Yazidi genocide, UK report says
  • The report, compiled by prominent human rights lawyers, highlight states' binding responsibility to prevent genocide on their territories

LONDON: British human rights lawyer Helena Kennedy has said that Turkey should face charges before the International Court of Justice for being complicit in acts of genocide against the Yazidi people.

Kennedy also endorsed an investigation against Syria and Iraq for failing to prevent the killings.

The groundbreaking report, compiled by a group of prominent human rights lawyers, seeks to highlight states' binding responsibility to prevent genocide on their territories, even if perpetrated by a third party such as extremist organizations.

The lawyers, known as the Yazidi Justice Committee (YJC), asserted that states are held accountable under the Genocide Convention to prevent genocide.

Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, chair of the YJC, described the genocide of the Yazidi people as “madness heaped on evil”.

“Mechanisms in place could have saved the Yazidis from what is now part of their past, and part of their past partial destruction,” he said.

From 2013, a genocide against the Yazidis, a religious minority in Iraq and Syria, has been attempted. Following a three-year investigation into the conduct of 13 countries, the 278-page report concluded that three of them failed in their duty to take reasonable steps to prevent genocide.

Regarding Turkey, the YJC accused its leaders of being complicit in the massacres, claiming that the country failed to police its borders to prevent the free flow of extremist fighters, including a significant number of Turkish nationals. Turkish officials have dismissed the criticisms as unfounded.

The YJC also claimed that from April 2014, Turkish officials turned a blind eye to the sale, transfer and enslavement of Yazidi women and children,and assisted in training fighters affiliated with extremist organizations to fight its Kurdish enemies in Syria, thus strengthening the perpetrators of the genocide.

“Turkish officials knew and/or were willfully blind to evidence that these individuals would use this training to commit prohibited acts against the Yazidis,” the report said.

Although the report acknowledged that Iraq had called on the UN to recognize the atrocities committed in 2014, it accused the Iraqi government of failing to coordinate with Kurdish authorities or take steps to evacuate the Yazidis to safety.

According to the report, the Syrian government also failed to prevent the transfer and detention of enslaved Yazidis on its territory.

The Turkish ambassador to the UK, Ümit Yalçın, called the criticisms baseless and unfair.

“Turkey starting from the early years of the conflict in Syria played a key role in the protection of Syrian civilians and minorities, including Yazidis, in the region against the attacks and violations of terrorist groups,” Yalçın said.

He also added: “Turkey not only opened its doors and became a safe haven for millions of Syrians and Yazidis but also provided protection for the people of the region through three counter terrorism operations in Syria. Today Yazidis live peacefully in areas that are under the control of the legitimate Syrian opposition in north-western Syria.

“Moreover, last year many Yazidi families that took refugee in north-western Syria tried to return to their homes in Syria’s north-east but [were] prevented from doing so by PKK/YPG [the initials of the Kurdish groups in Turkey and Syria].”

“An ocean of impunity exists in relation to the Yazidi genocide”, Kennedy said, noting that extremist groups as a non-state actors cannot be prosecuted under international law.

Kennedy added that meanwhile, states had “failed to in their duty to address their responsibilities to prevent the genocide for a variety of inhumane reasons”. She wrote that if they are not held accountable, “then the promise of ‘never again’ rings hollow”.


Egyptian, US forces carry out joint training exercise

Egyptian, US forces carry out joint training exercise
Updated 21 min 53 sec ago

Egyptian, US forces carry out joint training exercise

Egyptian, US forces carry out joint training exercise
  • The exercise involved a series of lectures on unifying combat concepts

CAIRO: The air forces of the US and Egypt have carried out a joint training exercise at a base in the North African country, strengthening military cooperation between the two countries.
An Egyptian military spokesman announced that the exercise involved a series of lectures on unifying combat concepts and exchanging training experiences, and saw a number of multitask combat aircraft deployed by the US Air Force and Egyptian Air Force for training flights on operational missions and mid-air refueling in the air both during the day and at night.
The training flights demonstrated the extent to which the Egyptian Air Force has reached a high level of professionalism that qualifies its fighter pilots to carry out all tasks entrusted to them.
The exercise comes in light of the growing partnership and military cooperation between Cairo and Washington.
 


Yemen government slams new ‘one-sided’ UN proposal on Taiz

Yemen government slams new ‘one-sided’ UN proposal on Taiz
Updated 24 min 54 sec ago

Yemen government slams new ‘one-sided’ UN proposal on Taiz

Yemen government slams new ‘one-sided’ UN proposal on Taiz
  • The Yemeni government said it was not consulted beforehand on the proposal
  • Grundberg has intensely engaged with both parties to push for the full implementation of the truce’s elements

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Hans Grundberg, the UN special envoy for Yemen, has presented a new proposal on opening roads in the besieged city of Taiz in an attempt to break the deadlock after the Iran-backed Houthis rejected his first proposal, the Yemeni government said.
The Yemeni government said it was not consulted beforehand on the proposal, which it considers “biased” toward the Houthis.
In his first proposal, Grundberg suggested opening a main road and several small secondary roads leading into and out of Taiz in a bid to end the impasse during discussions between the Yemeni government and the Houthis in the Jordanian capital of Amman.
The Yemeni government agreed to the proposal while the Houthis rejected it and insisted on opening old, unpaved and narrow roads.
Abdul Kareem Shaiban, head of the government’s delegation at the talks in Amman, said the envoy’s new proposal has taken into consideration Houthi demands by suggesting opening only small roads that do not alleviate the suffering of tens of thousands of people who live under the Houthi siege.
“He should have sat with us before announcing the proposal that has removed the demand for opening the main road known as Softeel, which connects Taiz with Aden and Sanaa,” he told Arab News by telephone. “We are back where we started.”
Shaiban said the Yemeni government delegation was not invited to Amman to discuss the new proposal, slamming the UN envoy for abandoning his first proposal and approving the Houthi demands.
Responding to the government’s criticism, the office of the UN Yemen envoy told Arab News that Grundberg has intensely engaged with both parties to push for the full implementation of the truce’s elements, including opening roads in Taiz, stating that new proposals or ideas on related issues are discussed with both sides.
“Draft proposals and options to open roads in Taiz and other governorates have been presented and discussed with both parties. The UN underlines the need to demonstrate the political will to reach an agreement soonest to make tangible progress,” the office said.
Under the UN-brokered deal that came into effect on April 2, the Yemeni government allowed the resumption of commercial flights from the Houthi-held airport in Sanaa, facilitated the arrival of fuel ships to the Hodeidah seaport, stopped hostilities on all fronts and allowed travelers with Houthi-issued passports to fly on Yemenia Airways.
While the Houthis have stopped fighting, mainly their deadly offensive on the central city of Marib, they have refused to lift their siege on Taiz, a key element of the truce.
In a letter sent to the UN Yemen envoy on Tuesday, Shaiban suggested opening five roads that link the city with other provinces, including two roads that were included in the envoy’s first proposal.
“We assure that these roads are safe, achieve the humanitarian aspect and are convenient to the people,” he said.
The UN Yemen envoy said that military delegates from the Yemeni government and the Houthis that met in Amman this week pledged again to respect the truce by stopping hostilities and military activities during Eid celebrations. Both sides also agreed to jointly work on upholding the truce, building trust and easing the suffering of the people in Yemen.
“The parties agreed to continue discussions focused on preventing or reducing as much as possible movements of military personnel and equipment and means of exercising effective operational control to ensure that all forces understand and comply with their responsibilities in the truce,” Grundberg said in a statement.


UK-Egypt Association Council inaugurated in London

UK-Egypt Association Council inaugurated in London
The two sides issued a joint statement following the launch. (Shutterstock)
Updated 06 July 2022

UK-Egypt Association Council inaugurated in London

UK-Egypt Association Council inaugurated in London
  • Foreign ministers discuss areas of cooperation, including investment and addressing climate change

CAIRO: Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry, and the UK’s minister of foreign and commonwealth affairs and development, Liz Truss, inaugurated the UK-Egypt Association Council in London.

The two sides issued a joint statement following the launch, stressing it created a new platform to promote the ambitions expressed in the agreement between the UK and Egypt, signed in December 2020.

The statement revealed that the two ministers held talks on developing the strategic partnership between their countries, and welcomed a number of commercial successes between them, including the project to manufacture monorail linear trains in the English city of Derby with the support of the British Export Finance Corp.

This comes in addition to the sale of two marine supply units that belonged to the Royal Navy to Egypt, including contracts for renewal and development.

The statement added that the cooperation included the opening of a new solar energy field with a capacity of 66 megawatts by Globeleq, with an investment of $80 million; the launch of commercial operations by Lekela Wind Energy, with an investment of $325 million; and the approval of an investment of $100 million by British International Investment to acquire Alpha Medical Group.

The two ministers also discussed prospects for enhancing economic cooperation between the UK and Egypt, and agreed to work intensively to develop bilateral trade and investment, including addressing any obstacles to trade, and working to improve market access in the agricultural, healthcare, energy and financial sectors through the establishment of a trade subcommittee. 

The Egyptian and UK governments also affirmed their commitment to enhancing bilateral cooperation and investments in healthcare and education, and welcomed the deepening of their technical cooperation, which will support joint work to overcome barriers to market access in priority sectors.

Future cooperation includes the signing of a declaration of intent between the Egyptian Electric Utility and Consumer Protection Regulatory Agency and the British Gas and Electricity Markets Authority, to help reform Egyptian legislation on renewable energy.

The two ministers welcomed the strengthening of cooperation in Africa and the discovery of tripartite cooperation opportunities with African countries in various fields, especially infrastructure.

The UK welcomed Egypt’s preparations to host COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh in November, stressing its desire to build on the Glasgow Climate Charter and previous UN climate change goals. 

Egypt and the UK both stressed the importance of supporting developing peoples in achieving a fair transition towards sustainable development patterns that are environmentally friendly and compatible with efforts to combat climate change, including the transition towards sustainable energy and green hydrogen, in addition to adapting to the effects of climate change, through the sustainable and integrated management of natural resources, enhancing resilience and building technical and technological capacities.

The two ministers also discussed a large number of bilateral, regional and global issues of common interest, including human rights, mentioning their desire to hold meetings of the Association Council regularly to continue strengthening cooperation between London and Cairo.

The UK commended Egypt for its leadership and efforts in the field of renewable energy generation and for providing opportunities for British investors and companies in the energy sector.


Egyptian, Cypriot presidents hold talks

Egyptian, Cypriot presidents hold talks
Updated 06 July 2022

Egyptian, Cypriot presidents hold talks

Egyptian, Cypriot presidents hold talks

CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi received a phone call from his Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiades to discuss regional issues of common interest and ways to enhance bilateral relations.

El-Sisi affirmed Egypt’s “pride” in the “distinguished cooperation” with Cyprus, “and the positive development it is witnessing.”

He stressed Egypt’s aspiration to promote various aspects of that cooperation — especially in the security, military, energy and economic levels — in a way that contributes to achieving the interests of the two friendly peoples.

They also discussed ways of coordinating efforts with Egypt as a leading partner of the EU in terms of combating terrorism, extremist ideology and illegal immigration.