Middle East feels the pinch of rising food prices

As Ramadan nears, prices of staples have surged across the region, thanks to global supply chain snarls and the war between Russia and Ukraine

Cairo

THE price of groceries was going up everywhere that Souad Amer checked, so it was with nervous hope that she waded into a government-subsidised market in her Cairo neighbourhood where a loudspeaker blared a jingle promising cheap essentials for Ramadan.

Browsing boxes of dates - which Egyptians traditionally eat to break their daytime fast during the Muslim holy month - Amer asked someone to check the price of 1 box. It was 20 Egyptian pounds (S$1.46). Much more than last year. Like nearly everything else.

"OK, just leave it where it is," said Amer, 43, her shoulders drooping. She has 3 children to feed at home and already knew her Ramadan table would feature little meat and no duck, their yearly holiday tradition.

"We just buy, buy, buy, spend, spend, spend," she said.

Ramadan arrives in a week: a festive season when people across the Middle East and North Africa normally look forward to gatherings with friends and family, new clothes and feasts that begin after sundown and stretch late into the night.

But this year, prices of staples such as oil, sugar, flour and rice have surged across the region, thanks to global supply chain snarls and the war between Russia and Ukraine, which export many essential commodities and foods, including wheat, fertiliser and gas.

That reality threatens to crush household and government budgets alike in countries that had nothing to spare, raising the possibility of the kind of mass popular unrest not seen since the Arab Spring protests a decade ago, which stemmed in part from soaring food prices.

Drought is already ravaging Morocco's economy. Tunisia's deeply indebted government was struggling to pay for wheat imports even before the war broke out.

Lebanon is shuddering under an economic collapse. Syria, already raked by war and growing poverty, is now facing prices for tea and dates that have doubled or even tripled since last Ramadan, according to Damascus residents.

In Egypt, where videos of ordinary people venting about food prices have gone viral on social media under the hashtag "revolution of the hungry", the government has been forced to move swiftly to blunt the blow.

In a clear sign of the distress, Egypt last week announced that it had opened talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over a new financial assistance package, its third in 6 years, noting in a statement that the shock of the Ukraine war had caused prices to rise to "unprecedented" levels and had sent foreign investors fleeing.

The announcement followed a raft of other measures meant to stabilise the economy and blunt the pain of citizens, including capping the price of unsubsidised bread, adding more Egyptians to welfare rolls, allowing the Egyptian pound to devalue against the US dollar, raising interest rates and accelerating pension and pay bumps for government employees.

The IMF director in Egypt, Celine Allard, expressed readiness to help.

"The rapidly changing global environment and spillovers related to the war in Ukraine are posing important challenges for countries around the world, including Egypt," she said in a statement.

Relief cannot come soon enough in a country where about one-third of the population lives in poverty, surviving on less than about US$2 a day.

"No one is buying because people are afraid of the prices. There is no money," said Hisham Ali, 62, who works at a fruit stand in Cairo's middle-class Abbasiya neighbourhood.

He could not blame his customers: With his salary of less than US$6 a day, he said, he could barely afford to feed his children fruit.

Better-off Egyptians said they would not be saving any money this year or would skip buying new clothes, a cutback akin to going without presents at Christmas.

Unlike previous Ramadans, Ali said, "Nothing so far gives you a feeling that something good is about to happen".

Several countries have banned the export of certain crops in a bid to keep prices down at home.

Egypt, the world's largest wheat importer, blocked farmers from exporting wheat and offered incentives for them to grow more, even as it considered overhauling its bread subsidy programme - a lifeline for millions of citizens for decades - to save money.

In Morocco, where people rely on tomatoes, chickpeas, beans and lentils during Ramadan, the government was suspending tomato exports amid the worst drought in 30 years.

Nadia Kabbaj, a caterer in Rabat, Morocco's capital, was gearing up to sell traditional Ramadan sweets such as chebakia, a sesame cookie fried with honey that many eat to break their fast.

With the costs of flour, almonds, butter and oil all rising and her employees pleading for raises to cover their expenses, she said she had to raise her prices by 10 per cent, even as she watched customers cut back sharply on their orders.

Still, she was lucky to be open at all. Many businesses did not offer Ramadan treats this year, she said, because ingredients were pricier and their customers less able to pay.

Some Moroccans would be able to adjust by consuming less or conserving oil by grilling food instead of frying, she said.

"Poor people are suffering," she added. "What are they going to eat to break the fast?"

Abdulhadi al-Sbai, 72, a taxi driver in Beirut, said the 2 bags of flatbread his household of 5 needed every day were alone swallowing much of his earnings, which had shrunk as fuel prices rose and Lebanese cut back on taxi rides.

As Ramadan approached, al-Sbai waxed nostalgic about holiday tables past. This year, there would be only lentils and beans.

"The Ramadan table used to be rich, with meat and all kinds of sweets, but it's been 6 months since I've had meat," he said. "And of course, fish has become a dream."

In Tunisia and Egypt, there were rumblings of the kind of anti-government sentiment that led to the overthrow of dictators in both countries in 2011.

Tunisians say they are losing patience with President Kais Saied's unfulfilled promises of economic rescue.

In Egypt, the hashtags "revolution of the hungry" and "leave, Sissi" - referring to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi - trended on social media for several days as the price of bread shot up. NYTIMES

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