Despite being a month of fasting, Ramadan is just as much a celebration of food. Across the Arab world, it is a time of increased food sales as families get together to break bread. This year, however, the holy month has served to accentuate the very real food crisis that is faced by countries across the region.
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), 64 million people in the Arab world do not have enough food to be healthy — and this is not restricted to conflict zones. Across the region, rising populations, diminishing water resources and a worsening climate have made the issue of food security paramount.
The lack of contingency planning during the recent public health emergency illustrated the precariousness of food supply chains to global shocks. In the Arab world, the countries of the Levant have felt this most acutely. In Lebanon, which imports most of its food, the economy and currency have been in freefall, reducing people’s purchasing power. The Lebanese pound dropped to an unprecedented 15,000 to the US dollar last month. Families are now struggling to put food on the table. This is also the situation in Syria, where war has made life unbearable. According to the WFP, more than 12 million of Syria’s 16 million people have too little to eat amid severe wheat shortages. To compound this issue, the eastern Euphrates, with crops having been exposed to more frost than usual, is believed to be facing its worst harvest in decades. In Palestine, where there has been a significant drop in funding provided to local humanitarian charities due to the pandemic, families that relied upon them for food will struggle this Ramadan.
These challenges are not restricted to the Levant. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization issued an early warning in March for urgent humanitarian action in 20 food insecure countries that were described as being in “catastrophic situations” — 17 of them located in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Nowhere are these pressures more pertinent than in Yemen, where, although food imports continue, prices are likely to increase further. According to the International Red Cross, the increase in food prices has led the Yemeni people to adopt negative coping strategies, such as reducing the number of meals, borrowing food or requesting help from relatives, and relying on less expensive food. Amid the conflicting geographic areas of control, disrupted supply chains and the politicization of urgent aid that is often held up, the food shortages are likely to have a detrimental effect on people’s health, making them more vulnerable to food insecurity, malnutrition and disease.
These strains are not limited to poor countries, however. In the wealthier Gulf states, food security is of increased concern to governments that are heavily reliant on imported food. World food prices rose for a 10th consecutive month in March, hitting their highest level since June 2014, led by jumps in the vegetable oils, meat and dairy indices. It is not surprising, therefore, that stores across the UAE will this Ramadan offer 25 to 75 percent discounts on 30,000 food items, including rice, meat and sugar.
Across the Gulf, where currencies are pegged to the dollar, a weaker greenback has meant higher prices in the supermarket. In Saudi Arabia, one of the principal causes for recent inflation has been rising food prices. “The annual 4.9 percent increase was mainly due to food and transport prices, which rose 10.2 percent and 10.5 percent respectively,” the General Authority for Statistics reported. Amid global supply chain shocks and shrinking access to arable land and water resources, the Gulf states can only expect their food security to deteriorate without a concerted effort to improve local production.
Saudi Arabia’s wealth fund last month transferred its shares in three food and agricultural companies to a wholly-owned subsidiary to streamline efforts as part of the Kingdom’s food security strategy. Moving its 16.32 percent stake in Almarai, 20 percent of shares in the National Agricultural Development Company and 39.99 percent hold in the Saudi Fisheries Company to the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company (SALIC), the Public Investment Fund has shown a focus on improving food security. As the government’s investment arm in the food sector, SALIC will aim to provide food products and stabilize prices through investments such as the first grain terminal at the port of Yanbu and the acquisition of 200,000 hectares of farming land and a 40,000-head sheep flock in Australia.
The Qatar National Food Security Strategy (2018-2023) similarly aims to improve the country’s international trade and logistics, domestic self-sufficiency, strategic reserves, and domestic market. Following a 400 percent increase in the country’s agricultural, fish, animal and dairy production and growth to 80 percent self-sufficiency in vegetable production, it ranks among the best in the region when it comes to food security, despite its tough climate and small land mass.
Along with improving education, food security is central to human development in the Arab world. The pressures of the population in the Middle East and North Africa, which is expected to double by 2050, will make this an issue of immense importance for governments. Ensuring low-cost and energy-efficient local production and opening up new supply routes will be critical to ensuring food security. Corrupt and inefficient practices that have exacerbated issues of supply to date cannot be allowed to continue given the risk of widespread starvation. The crooked and kleptocratic tendencies that led to last year’s explosion at the Port of Beirut resulted in the destruction of a grain storage complex that accounted for 85 percent of Lebanon’s yearly supply. Governments in the region can expect marked social discontent if such a casual disregard for food security becomes more widespread.
The name “aish” for bread, which literally means “life” in the Egyptian dialect, is an incredibly powerful reminder of the importance of food security to sustaining lives in the region.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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