When you can’t eat, nothing else matters.
And it is this side of the ‘Arab Spring’, the sweeping rise in food prices, which the international media appear to have underreported in their Middle East coverage this year. With the media’s focus on religion and politics, it is now almost forgotten that fear of hunger, perhaps more than unemployment and political oppression, brought people on to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, to topple rulers. More importantly, the crippling cost of food is continuing to increase the inability of the Middle East’s substantial number of poor to feed themselves and their families.
Rising food prices, a chief source of the Middle East’s spreading misery, are reaching record levels. According to one report, grain prices alone were 71 percent higher worldwide in April than they were for the same month last year. In the United States, corn and wheat have “roughly doubled” the past 12 months. This food inflation has had serious consequences for the Middle East’s poor and for the destitute in other developing countries as well. Besides threatening the well-being of those already leading marginal existences, the price hikes have increased the number of poverty-stricken by millions.
“The World Bank estimates 44 million people may have been pushed into poverty by the price increases, and aid agencies warn high food costs threaten millions more,” the Wall Street Journal reports.
Of all the Middle Eastern countries facing the current food crisis, Yemen is in the worst shape. A United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP) report states that seven million of Yemen’s 21 million people are “acutely hungry, making Yemen the 11th most insecure food country in the world.
“Hunger and malnutrition are widespread in the country and require urgent intervention,” the report relates.
Yemen is the poorest of all the Middle Eastern countries, and its food problems appear almost insurmountable. One Yemeni woman said she can still afford bread and rice for her family’s one meal a day but can no longer buy beans or eggs. A WFP plan to provide food for 1.7 million “severely food insecure Yemenis” also fell through for lack of funds.
Egypt is the heart of the Arab world and the most populous of all the Middle Eastern countries with 80 million people. With such a large population, Egypt is also facing the region’s biggest hunger crisis. Almost 20 million Egyptians live on two dollars a day or less, and these are being squeezed even further downwards by rising food prices.
To make matters worse, Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer. But its ability to buy grain on the world market to alleviate the food crisis has been diminished by the disappearance of the tourist industry, which provided the country with much-needed foreign currency. Egypt’s economy took another hit when a quarter of a million Egyptian workers had to return to Egypt from Libya because of the war. The money they sent home is sorely missed and has also contributed to Egypt’s balance of payments problem. One analyst, who writes under the literary pseudonym Spengler, estimates that Egypt will have no money to buy grains on the international markets by September, after which millions of Egyptians will face starvation.
“It (Egypt) will look like the Latin America banana republics, but without the bananas,” Spengler wrote. “That is not meant in jest: few people actually starved to death in Latin inflations. Egypt, which imports half its wheat and a great deal of the rest of its food, will actually starve.”
Other Arab countries like Syria and Tunisia are in the same sinking boat. Only the oil-rich states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar can afford to buy foodstuffs on the international markets at today’s high prices, which are expected to go even higher. Saudi Arabia has also bought large tracts of agricultural land in other countries like Brazil to grow food for Saudi domestic consumption and avoid world market prices.
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