Why gains from Ukraine grain deal will not end Middle East’s food security crisis

Special A shipment of Ukrainian grain reaches Turkey in August after a deal between Russia and Ukraine. (AFP)
A shipment of Ukrainian grain reaches Turkey in August after a deal between Russia and Ukraine. (AFP)
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Updated 08 October 2022

Why gains from Ukraine grain deal will not end Middle East’s food security crisis

Why gains from Ukraine grain deal will not end Middle East’s food security crisis
  • The Black Sea Grain Initiative freed up blockaded Ukrainian exports, but food prices remain stubbornly high 
  • As the value of the US dollar has increased, the cost of food and fuel imports in poorer countries has risen

DUBAI: As food-insecure households in the Middle East, Africa and Asia continue to pay a high price for a war raging thousands of miles away, forces beyond the control of any single government or international authority are compounding the problem.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, and the resultant blockade of the latter’s southern Black Sea ports, skyrocketing food prices raised the specter of increased hunger and malnutrition in many countries.

Despite an easing of that crisis following a four-way agreement in Istanbul on July 22, rising inflation worldwide and global supply-chain disruptions now pose a new threat.

The Federal Reserve raised interest rates in mid-September with the aim of bringing down the rate of inflation in the US. But in the process, the value of the dollar has soared, which is causing prices of food and fuel imports to rise in less-wealthy countries whose currencies are plunging.

These new pressures come at a time when food prices were supposed to be under control, in part thanks to an agreement brokered by the UN and Turkey to create a safe maritime humanitarian corridor from three Ukrainian ports.

To implement the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a Joint Coordination Center was established in Istanbul that includes senior representatives from Russia and Ukraine, along with mediators from Turkey and the UN.

Implementation of the deal to resume exports of grain, foodstuffs, fertilizer and other commodities from the Black Sea basin — often referred to as Europe’s breadbasket — has been halting since it was signed in July.

Nevertheless, it has helped to lower the prices of staples such as bread and cooking oil in developing countries that had been pushed to the brink of debt default and starvation.

“In the month following the outbreak of the conflict, the price of wheat flour rose by 47 percent in Lebanon, 11 percent in Yemen, 15 percent in Libya, 14 percent in Palestine and 10 percent in Syria,” Abdel Mageed Yahia, the World Food Program’s country director in the UAE and representative for the GCC region, told Arab News.

“Global price fluctuations will not immediately dent domestic inflation in countries facing a toxic mix of tumbling currency values and high inflation. While there is no single solution to the food-security crisis in these countries and around the world, the (Black Sea grain deal) is an exceedingly positive development and a step in the right direction.”

People lining up in front of a bakery to buy bread in Lebanon's southern city of Sidon on June 22, 2022 as fuel and wheat shortage deepened. (AFP/File Photo)

Given that Ukraine was the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wheat prior to the conflict, the blockade of its ports was costing the country billions of dollars in lost revenues and, at the same time, pushing up global food prices to alarming levels.

Before the invasion, Ukraine exported about 6 million tons of food every month. That figure had fallen to an average of just 1 million tons a month before the Black Sea Grain Initiative took effect.

As a result many countries, such as those in the Middle East and North Africa that import more than 40 percent of their wheat and almost 25 percent of their vegetable oil from Russia and Ukraine, faced a double blow in the form of acute food shortages and soaring prices.

The grain deal, described at the time by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “a victory for diplomacy,” is designed to maintain Ukrainian food exports of 5 million tons a month.

“There is no solution to the global food crisis without ensuring full global access to Ukraine’s food products and Russian food and fertilizers,” Guterres said during a visit to Ukraine in August.

The agreement has undoubtedly helped millions of people who were struggling with the rising cost of living, as well as Ukraine’s embattled farmers. But according to experts, it alone cannot solve the wider problems of famine and food insecurity, the causes of which are much more complex and range from drought and climate change to bad governance and state collapse.

A child sits at the entrance of a shelter at a camp for displaced people damaged by torrential rains in the Jarrahi district of Yemen's western province of Hodeidah. (AFP)

More than two months after the grain deal was signed, famine continues to stalk the most food-insecure regions of the world, particularly Yemen and parts of East Africa, where commodity prices remain stubbornly high, hunger-relief operations face disruption and drought are destroying crops and livestock.

The prices of imported goods and commodities have been rising in the Middle East and North Africa region since early 2021, linked to growing demand as economies began to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Domestic food prices have risen by more than 15 percent in more than 50 countries, while inflation is running in triple digits in Lebanon, Venezuela, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index, which measures monthly changes in the cost of a basket of key food items, prices hit an all-time high in March this year. By the end of April, the international price of some varieties of wheat had reached $477 a ton — an increase of 53 percent on 2021 figures.

“These rising global prices got transferred to local economies, particularly in import- and aid-dependent countries, compromising the access of already vulnerable populations to an affordable diet,” said Yahia.

A recent report from Deep Knowledge Analytics, titled Global Food Security Q2 2022, found that 868 million people in 25 countries are at “high risk and deteriorating,” based on an evaluation of their food systems and economic resilience.


* 345m people in 82 countries face acute food insecurity.

* 50m people in 45 countries are on the brink of famine.

Source: WFP

Among the lowest-ranking countries are Syria (148th) and Yemen (160th), both of which are in the grip of multiple, overlapping crises fueled by war.

The report also found that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to a 25 percent increase in the number of countries that have restrictions on food exports in place.

By the end of March this year, about 53 new policies directly affecting the food trade had been adopted globally, of which 31 restricted exports in general and nine limited wheat exports specifically, contributing to a further spike in prices.

Simultaneously, the price of fertilizers has risen by 30 percent since the beginning of this year, contributing to reductions in crop yields worldwide.

Despite all these supply-side challenges, there are at least signs the supply of Black Sea grain is stabilizing.

“Since Aug. 1, more than 4.3 million metric tonnes of food have been moved, bound for 29 countries across three continents,” Amir Abdulla, the UN coordinator for the Black Sea Grain Initiative, told Arab News.

Currently, the Black Sea Grain Initiative facilitates exports from three Ukrainian ports, feeding into the global food market while at the same time freeing up the country’s silos to accommodate the next harvest.

“Although the war had an impact on agricultural production, there is still a lot of grain, other foodstuffs and ammonia to be exported in the coming months,” said Abdulla.

In Ethiopia, the value of school meals is equivalent to approximately 10 percent of household income. When several children are enrolled in school, the provision of school meals can translate into substantial savings. (AFP)

Ukrainian grain silos held an estimated 20 million tons of grain in August this year. An additional 19.5 million tons of harvested wheat was expected over the remainder of the summer and 38.2 million metric tons of feed grain is expected in the fall.

“This means that storage and silos must be urgently emptied of last year’s harvest,” said Abdulla.

The grain initiative gives Ukrainian farmers restored access to export markets at competitive prices, as well as incentives to plan for the 2023 harvest, which will be critical in efforts to avoid another global grain shortage.

As of mid-September, about 140 vessels had sailed from Ukraine’s ports carrying more than 3 million tons of food, including critical grain supplies such as wheat, corn and barley, sunflower and other oilseed products, and soya beans.

Among them were four vessels chartered by the WFP to transport about 128,000 tons of grain destined for Afghanistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa.

As an aid agency that sourced 40 percent of its emergency wheat supplies from Ukraine, the WFP’s humanitarian response was severely disrupted by the Russian invasion.

Understandably, therefore, the “WFP has supported the Black Sea Grain Initiative, providing expert advice on shipping and logistics during negotiations,” Yahia said.

Hungry Yemenis displaced by conflict collect food aid. (AFP)

The MV Brave Commander was the first ship chartered by the WFP under the initiative. It transported about 30,000 tons of wheat — enough to feed 1.5 million people for a month — to Ethiopia, where prolonged drought and civil conflict have pushed millions into acute food insecurity.

“In total, WFP has already procured some 300,000 metric tons of wheat grain from Ukrainian suppliers since the signing of the Black Sea Grain Initiative,” said Yahia.

While the initiative has provided a much-needed respite, most indicators suggest the UN Sustainable Development Goal of achieving “zero hunger” will not be achieved by the end of the decade.

In fact, experts say much of the progress that had been made in this area in recent decades is being undone by unforeseen setbacks and crises.

Underlining this point, Yahia told Arab News: “The world is moving further away from its goal of ending hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030.

“And the crisis may not yet have reached its peak; 2023 could be worse if we do not get ahead of the situation.”


Putin says Russia could adopt US preemptive strike concept

Putin says Russia could adopt US preemptive strike concept
Updated 09 December 2022

Putin says Russia could adopt US preemptive strike concept

Putin says Russia could adopt US preemptive strike concept
  • "We are just thinking about it. They weren’t shy to openly talk about it during the past years,” Putin said
  • For years, the Kremlin has expressed concern about US efforts to develop the so-called Conventional Prompt Global Strike capability

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Moscow could adopt what he described as a US concept of using preemptive military strikes, noting it has the weapons to do the job, in a blunt statement amid rising Russia-NATO tensions over Ukraine.
“We are just thinking about it. They weren’t shy to openly talk about it during the past years,” Putin said, referring to the US policy, as he attended a summit in Kyrgyzstan of a Moscow-dominated economic alliance of ex-Soviet nations.
For years, the Kremlin has expressed concern about US efforts to develop the so-called Conventional Prompt Global Strike capability that envisions hitting an adversary’s strategic targets with precision-guided conventional weapons anywhere in the world within one hour.
“Speaking about a disarming strike, maybe it’s worth thinking about adopting the ideas developed by our US counterparts, their ideas of ensuring their security,” Putin said with a thin smile, noting that such a preemptive strike was intended to knock out command facilities.
He claimed that Russia already has commissioned hypersonic weapons capable of carrying out such a strike, while the US hasn’t yet deployed them. He also claimed that Russia now has cruise missiles that surpass their US equivalents.
While Putin appeared to refer to conventional precision-guided weapons when he talked about possibly mimicking the US strategy, he specifically noted that the US hasn’t ruled out the first use of nuclear weapons.
“If the potential adversary believes that it can use the theory of a preemptive strike and we don’t, it makes us think about the threats posed by such ideas in other countries’ defensive posture,” he said.
In Washington, advisers to President Joe Biden viewed Putin’s comments as “saber-rattling” and another veiled warning that he could deploy a tactical nuclear weapon, according to a US official who was not authorized to comment and spoke on the condition of the anonymity.
The official noted that Russian military doctrine has long stated that Moscow reserves the right to first use of a nuclear weapon in response to large scale military aggression.
John Erath, senior policy director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, also viewed Putin’s statement as yet another attempt to raise the nuclear threat.
“He doesn’t quite say we’re going to launch nuclear weapons, but he wants the dialogue in the US and Europe to be, ‘The longer this war goes on, the greater the threat of nuclear weapons might be used,’” Erath said.
Putin was asked Wednesday at a Kremlin conference whether Russia could commit to forswearing a first strike and responded that such an obligation might prevent Russia from tapping its nuclear arsenal even if it came under a nuclear attack.
“If it doesn’t use it first under any circumstances, it means that it won’t be the second to use it either, because the possibility of using it in case of a nuclear strike on our territory will be sharply limited,” he responded.
He elaborated on that answer Friday, saying Russia’s nuclear doctrine is based on the “launch on warning” concept, which envisions nuclear weapons’ use in the face of an imminent nuclear attack spotted by its early warning systems.
“When the early warning system receives a signal about a missile attack, we launch hundreds of missiles that are impossible to stop,” he said, smiling. “Enemy missile warheads would inevitably reach the territory of the Russian Federation. But nothing would be left of the enemy too, because it’s impossible to intercept hundreds of missiles. And this, of course, is a factor of deterrence.”
Russia’s nuclear doctrine states the country can use nuclear weapons if it comes under a nuclear strike or if it faces an attack with conventional weapons that threatens “the very existence” of the Russian state.
Since sending Russian troops into Ukraine in February, Putin has repeatedly said that Moscow was ready to use “all available means” to protect its territory and has rejected Western criticism of nuclear saber-rattling.
“I understand that ever since nuclear weapons, the weapons of mass destruction have appeared, all people — the entirety of humankind — have been worried what will happen to the planet and all of us,” he said.
At a ceremony Friday at US Strategic Command, which has responsibility for the nation’s nuclear weapons, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Putin’s repeated threats were irresponsible.
“As the Kremlin continues its cruel and unprovoked war of choice against Ukraine, the whole world has seen Putin engage and deeply irresponsible nuclear saber-rattling So make no mistake, nuclear powers have a profound responsibility to avoid provocative behavior and to lower the risk of proliferation and to prevent escalation and nuclear war.”

UN carves out sanctions exemptions for humanitarian aid

UN carves out sanctions exemptions for humanitarian aid
Updated 09 December 2022

UN carves out sanctions exemptions for humanitarian aid

UN carves out sanctions exemptions for humanitarian aid
  • The resolution applies to UN agencies as well as humanitarian organizations participating in UN humanitarian work
  • The text gained 14 votes in favor in the Council, with only India abstaining

UNITED NATIONS, United States: The United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution on Friday to allow humanitarian aid to continue unhindered into countries targeted by UN sanctions, particularly frozen assets.
The text states that “payments of funds,” “economic resources” or “the provision of goods and services necessary to ensure the timely delivery of humanitarian assistance... are permitted and are not a violation of the asset freezes imposed by this Council.”
The resolution applies to UN agencies as well as humanitarian organizations participating in UN humanitarian work.
The humanitarian community has been calling for the Council to ensure that “unintentional, second-order impacts don’t impede their work,” said US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She said they wanted was a “clear, standard carve-out” for all UN sanctions regimes.
“And that is exactly what we are voting on today,” she said, adding that the resolution would “save lives.”
The text — which was also supported by several dozen states even outside the Security Council — gained 14 votes in favor in the Council, with only India abstaining.
“Our concerns emanate from proven instances of terrorist groups taking full advantage of such humanitarian carve-outs and making a mockery of sanctions regimes,” in particular those against the so-called Daesh group and Al-Qaeda, said India’s ambassador Ruchira Kamboj, who is heading the Council this month.
The resolution specifies that the exemption is only valid for two years for Al-Qaeda and IS.
“There have also been several cases of terrorist groups in our neighborhood, including those listed by this council, reincarnating themselves as humanitarian organizations and civil society groups precisely to evade the sanctions,” the Indian ambassador said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross hailed the vote as “an important day in the history of humanitarian action,” expressing hope that the new rule would mean “better services for communities, such as medical care, drilling of wells for clean drinking water, or visits to people detained in conflict.”
There are currently more than a dozen UN Security Council sanctions regimes involving North Korea, Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Taliban.
Last year, after the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Security Council implemented an exception for humanitarian aid to the war-torn country.

Indian PM’s party sweeps home state but ‘cakewalk’ unlikely in 2024 national vote

Indian PM’s party sweeps home state but ‘cakewalk’ unlikely in 2024 national vote
Updated 09 December 2022

Indian PM’s party sweeps home state but ‘cakewalk’ unlikely in 2024 national vote

Indian PM’s party sweeps home state but ‘cakewalk’ unlikely in 2024 national vote
  • Narendra Modi’s party won 156 seats in Gujarat’s 182-seat legislature on Thursday
  • National elections are due in 2024 when Modi is widely expected to run for a third term

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in his home state Gujarat has shown a strong performance, but experts said on Friday that the win was not necessarily a trendsetter for the national vote that is less than two years away.

In its best-ever performance in the western state of around 60 million people, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party on Thursday won 156 seats in Gujarat’s 182-seat legislature, up from 99.

The party has been ruling Gujarat since 1995, and Modi served as its chief minister for 12 years before becoming prime minister in 2014.

He was ruling the state in 2002, when 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in the worst outbreaks of sectarian violence since the country’s independence.

After Thursday’s win, he took to Twitter to thank his voters, saying that he was “overcome with a lot of emotion” by the results.

Indian media have been projecting the victory as a litmus test for the 2024 general elections, when Modi is expected to seek the premiership for a third time.

The state election result was all the more remarkable, given his electorate has been frustrated by rising prices and unemployment.

“It’s a baffling victory in Gujarat given the government’s failure and poor human development index,” Prof. Ajay Gudavarthy of the Center of Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi told Arab News.

But the unexpected landslide win is no guarantee of victory in 2024, and the opposition still has time to mobilize.

“There is no cakewalk, and 2024 is still an open game,” Gudavarthy said. “If the opposition brings a robust agenda, you can see the mood of the nation change very fast. India is still an open society.”

Earlier this year, the BJP won big in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which sends the most members to parliament. But the ruling party lost power to the opposition Congress in Himachal Pradesh, and to the Aam Aadmi Party in New Delhi, despite ruling the capital region for the past 15 years.

“There is a lot of discontent among people over the way the Modi government has been ruling the country. There is a problem with governance, unemployment is high and a large section of the population is suffering. In this situation, you cannot expect Modi to come back so easily,” Shashi Shekhar Singh, political science professor at Delhi University, told Arab News.

“The Unify India campaign of the opposition leader Rahul Gandhi is connecting with the masses, and I am sure it will impact the elections in 2024.”

But the opposition’s own fragmentation is what dealt a blow to its mobilization.
Television anchor and senior political commentator Urmilesh saw not only a “lack of unity” but also of a clear agenda among opposition parties.

It is to Modi’s advantage, he said, “if the opposition does not get their act together and channelize their energy to tap the prevalent discontent.”  



Italian lawmakers slam Iranian oppression against ‘freedom and democracy,’ calls on EU to act

Italian lawmakers slam Iranian oppression against ‘freedom and democracy,’ calls on EU to act
Updated 09 December 2022

Italian lawmakers slam Iranian oppression against ‘freedom and democracy,’ calls on EU to act

Italian lawmakers slam Iranian oppression against ‘freedom and democracy,’ calls on EU to act

ROME: Italian legislators have strongly condemned repression in Iran and called on the EU to act against “a regime which denies freedom and democracy.”

Members of all political parties from the Chamber of Deputies, along with senators, assembled in the Senate for a conference attended remotely by Maryam Rajavi, president of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Sen. Marco Scurria said: “It is a duty of the Italian Parliament to express support to the Iranians who have been courageously demonstrating against the regime which has already killed nearly 700 people, mostly young.

“We do not ask for Iran to become a Western country; we only call for the right of the self-determination of Iranian people.

“They have the right to enjoy their freedom and rights in a state based on the rule of law.”

Scurria added that the Speaker of the Senate Ignazio La Russa “expressed his support for this initiative.”

Sen. Giulio Maria Terzi di Sant’Agata, who chairs the EU Affairs Parliamentary Committee in the Senate, said that the EU and its member states “cannot keep on turning their face away from the tragedy which has been going on in Iran for too long.”

He added: “The EU must act now in a concrete way so that freedom and democracy are guaranteed in Iran.

“We fully support the work of the opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran.

“Nobody must underestimate the regime’s capacity for violent repression.

“The regime that is responsible for infinite atrocities has killed 30,000 political prisoners. Its alliance with Moscow is even more nefarious.

“The revolt which has taken place following the killing of Mahsa Amini confirms how necessary the reaction of the people and the international community is against a regime which has activated a terrorist network in Europe, supported by its embassies.”

MPs Elisabetta Gardini and Luana Zanella expressed their support for Iranian women “who are paying the highest toll in the repression.”

Zanella added: “In Iran, women are excluded from human rights, and dozens of them are executed every year.

“As they are fighting a very difficult battle there, we have no other option but to be on their side.”

Rajavi said that in the past five years poverty in Iran “has increased threefold and so has the unemployment rate.”

She added: “Why does Europe appear unable to do anything to get rid of this regime?

“Apart from nice declarations, so far the European Union has had a condescending attitude toward the regime. The EU must take concrete action now.”

Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap

Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap
Updated 09 December 2022

Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap

Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap
  • Russia's invasion of Ukraine after her arrest complicated matters further
  • The deal that saw Griner exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden

SAN ANTONIO, United States: Brittney Griner returned to the United States early Friday, nearly 10 months after the basketball star’s detention in Russia made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad and set off a political firestorm.
Griner’s status and prominence in women’s basketball and her imprisonment heightened concerns for her and brought tremendous attention to the case. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after her arrest complicated matters further.
The deal that saw Griner exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden. But the US failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.
Asked if more such swaps could happen, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that “everything is possible,” noting that “compromises have been found” to clear the way for Thursday’s exchange.
Biden’s authorization to release Bout, the Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” underscored the heightened urgency that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star, was seen getting off a plane that landed Friday at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.
“So happy to have Brittney back on US soil. Welcome home BG!” tweeted Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
The WNBA star, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. The US State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.
Griner pleaded guilty in July but still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case. She was sentenced to nine years.
She acknowledged in court that she possessed canisters with cannabis oil but said she had no criminal intent and accidentally packed them. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed Thursday’s swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi and Bout had been flown home.
Biden spoke by phone with Griner. US officials said she would be offered specialized medical services and counseling.
In releasing Bout, the US freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the US in 2010.
Bout was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that USofficials said were to be used against Americans.