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A new Arab Spring, thanks to Ukraine war?

March 17, 2022

The price of bread is rising rapidly in the Middle East, thanks to concerns about wheat supply from Ukraine and Russia. In the past, such increases have led to violent protests and political upheaval.

An Egyptian boy holding bread and flashing the victory sign shouts slogans at Cairo's Tahrir Square.
During 2011's Arab Spring protests in Egypt, crowds chanted "bread, freedom and social justice"Image: AFP/Getty Images

The protests are already starting. Last week in southern Iraq, hundreds of demonstrators met in the center of the city of Nasiriyah to decry price rises for bread and cooking oil, among other goods. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, prices for products imported from there have risen by up to 50% in Iraq.

Then this week, thousands of Sudanese took to the streets to protest ongoing military rule and the fact that the price of bread had gone up there by about 50% too.

The increases in both of those countries are the result of Russian invasion of Ukraine, an agricultural powerhouse and one of the world's most important wheat producers, as well as the biggest exporter of seed oils. About half of Ukraine's wheat goes to the Middle East. And Russia, which invaded its neighbor, is the world's biggest exporter of wheat.

Market analysts say that supply from both countries is at risk thanks to the war and that instability is causing wheat prices overall to go up. They have risen 50% in just the past month to come close to a 14-year high. This is now starting to have an outsized impact on Middle Eastern nations.

Global worries about wheat deliveries

Social contract

Bread is a staple food in the Middle East, eaten with most meals. Researchers suggest that, depending on the country, bread and grains make up to half of the average local's diet there, compared to up to a quarter of the average European's.

"In these countries, affordable bread for the working masses is a social contract," Michael Tanchum, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who specializes in political economics of the Middle East and Africa, explained. Many Middle Eastern countries subsidize bread for low-income families.

In the past, rising bread prices have been a catalyst for political change in the region.

Egypt, for example, has a history of "bread riots." In 1977, after economic reforms saw state subsidies cut and food prices rise, there were violent demonstrations around the country that resulted in at least 70 deaths.

In 2011, during the Arab Spring, a popular slogan at demonstrations that would eventually topple the military government of Egyptian leader, Hosni Mubarak, was "bread, freedom and social justice."

Sudanese protesters take part in ongoing demonstrations calling for civilian rule and denouncing the military administration, in Sudan's capital Khartoum .
During this week's protests in Sudan, security forces eventually opened fire on protestersImage: AFP/Getty Images

Researchers looking into the causes of the Arab Spring protests of 2011, which changed the political landscape in the region, found that high food prices and food insecurity, often due to climate change, played a role alongside the public's frustration with their authoritarian leaders.

The phenomenon is ongoing: In 2019, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir was pushed out of power by protests that began when bread prices tripled.

"Between rising energy and food prices, the Ukraine crisis could trigger renewed protests and instability in several MENA countries," analysts at the Washington-based Middle East Institute wrote in a February brief.

Humanitarian crisis feared

Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank's vice president for the Middle East and North Africa, has pointed to his organization's particular concerns about Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, countries where the government and economy is already fragile, and which also depend heavily on wheat imports.

A general view shows the damaged grain silos at the port on August 4, 2021.
Beirut's damaged grain silos were almost 50 meters tall and held 100,000 tons of grain before the 2020 port explosionImage: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Price rises for bread and other consumer goods, as well as important fuels like diesel, now seem inevitable in the Middle East. But will they bring radical political change with them again?

Experts DW spoke with are not convinced they will.

"People are going to be under real economic pressure," John Raine, a senior adviser for geopolitical due diligence at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, confirmed. "But I'm not convinced that it's going to lead to the kind of tremendous shock we saw last time [during the Arab Spring]." 

The main reason being that most nations in the region are in a "very different political situation now," Raine continued. "[Middle Eastern] governments are either in more control and have shut down opposition parties, or there's a political system which has more elasticity in it, as a result of the last 10 years." 

So, while there may well be demonstrations and disputes thanks to price pressures, Raine thinks these are more likely to accelerate political processes already underway than start completely new ones.   

Egyptian men work in a bakery at a market in Cairo.
Bread is a regular addition to almost every meal in the Middle EastImage: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Regional ripples

What happens next will depend on whether there is good governance in a country or not, argued Tanchum, who is also a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute.

When it comes to rising food prices, there was already what Tanchum describes as a "perfect storm" brewing. This was due to supply disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting global mismanagement of that. Climate change has also meant that the Middle East has been unable to produce as much of its own grain.

"Back in June 2021, the level of inflation for food products had reached the same exact level as in the immediate build-up to the Arab Spring," he explained. "That perfect storm became a tsunami when Russia invaded Ukraine."

Whether this becomes dangerous and results in protests or even violent political change, will depend on levels of "effective governance and whether people have high levels of grievance with their state," Tanchum noted.

Effective governance includes things like how much grain storage a country has, he explained. Since the 2020 Beirut port explosion destroyed Lebanon's primary grain storage, the country has only had a month's supply of wheat at any one time. Egypt, on the other hand, has around four months in reserve.

It will also depend on what sort of ripple effect develops, Tanchum said. What happens in one Middle Eastern country often affects its neighbors. North Africa and the Sahel will also be vulnerable, he added.

So there may well be some upheaval but it won't be the same as that seen during the Arab Spring, he concluded.

"I think the key thing is to be neither optimistic or pessimistic [about what comes next], but to be alert and to take effective action," Tanchum argued.

The expert believes that this could also be an opportunity for European grain producers, like Germany, to wield soft power by offering Middle Eastern countries better deals on their grain and more assistance in modernizing agricultural practices and dealing with climate change. This would help cement diplomatic relationships there.

"By taking effective action, we can transform the possibility of catastrophe into an opportunity for a new win-win cooperation," Tanchum concluded.

Edited by: Alistair Walsh

An Iraqi man arranges sacks of salt at Jamila market in Iraq's capital Baghdad.
In Iraq, prices for products from Ukraine have increased substantiallyImage: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.