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Despite direct economic consequences, study finds majority of Arabs don’t care about Ukraine-Russia war

LONDON: According to an exclusive Arab News-YouGov poll, the majority of people in the Middle East and North Africa don’t seem to care much about the war in Ukraine.

Experts, however, say there are plenty of reasons why they should.

“It seems like it’s going so far,” said Abeer Etefa, Cairo-based senior spokesperson for the United Nations World Food Program in the Middle East and North Africa.

Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, is more than 3,000 kilometers from Riyadh.

“But also, the politics and dynamics of the conflict in Ukraine are far too complicated for many audiences in that region.”

The survey was conducted among 7,835 people in 14 MENA countries between April 26 and May 4.

Asked about their position in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, 18% sided with Ukraine and 16% with Russia.

But an overwhelming 66% of respondents responded with a collective shrug, choosing to take ‘no position’ on the crisis – an indifference that peaked in Jordan and Algeria (74%) and Saudi Arabia (71%).

Complexities of European history and politics aside, Richard Gowan, director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, sees another reason for the apparent indifference of many Arabs to events in Ukraine.

“We see a very big gap between how Americans and Europeans view this conflict and how it is viewed in other parts of the world,” he said.

“A key problem is that many people in the Arab world see this as NATO’s opposition to Russia, and the reality is that you won’t be able to dispel suspicion about NATO and the United States in the Middle East. East and North Africa.time soon.

Although the fighting in Ukraine and the reasons for the conflict have indeed nothing to do with the Arab world, the shock waves of the conflict are already affecting millions of Arabs, who are facing rising food prices from base, Etefa said.

She added that even if the fighting stops tomorrow, “the world will need six months to two years to recover, from a food security perspective.”

Even before the conflict, she said, “by February, food prices in many countries in the region had already reached record highs.

“Last year, the cost of a basic food basket, the minimum food needs per family per month, increased by 351% in Lebanon, the highest increase in the region, followed by 97% in Syria and 81% in Yemen.

“And now the Ukrainian crisis is pushing prices even higher.”

Experts had expected Indian wheat to fill some of Ukraine’s deficit, but last week the Indian government banned exports after the country’s crops were hit by a heatwave, pushing prices up by certain foods at an all-time high.

Even before the conflict, WFP provided assistance to millions of people across the region, in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. Now, even as demands on its resources are rapidly increasing in the wake of events in Ukraine, rising food and oil prices mean that WFP’s own costs have risen alarmingly.

“This comes at a very difficult time for the World Food Programme,” Etefa said.

“Due to the war in Ukraine, our global operating costs have increased by $71 million per month, reducing our ability to help those in need in the region at a time when the world is facing a year unprecedented famine.

“That means that every day, globally, there are four million fewer people we can help with a daily food ration.”

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Many countries in the region are heavily dependent on food exports from Russia and Ukraine which, thanks to a combination of agricultural disruptions, port blockades and sanctions, have slowed to a minimum.

Both Russia and Ukraine are among the world’s largest producers of agricultural commodities – in 2021 either Russia or Ukraine, or both, ranked among the world’s top three exporters of wheat, corn, rapeseed, sunflower seeds and sunflower oil.

Russia is also the world’s largest exporter of nitrogen and other fertilizers, critical ingredients needed by countries with large agricultural sectors.

In a recent report, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warned that the disruption of harvests and exports in Ukraine, combined with the impact of sanctions on Russian exports, threatened to create a “deficit supply chain that could drive up international food and feed prices by 8%”. 22% above their already high benchmarks.

Economically vulnerable countries would be the first to feel the effects of a prolonged reduction in exports from Russia and Ukraine – and countries in the MENA region are directly in the line of fire.

The FAO predicts that “the global number of undernourished people could increase by 8 to 13 million people in 2022/23”, with the worst effects being felt in the Asia-Pacific region, followed by sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle -East and North Africa.

“The region collectively imports 42% of its wheat and 23% of its vegetable oil from Russia and Ukraine,” Etefa explained.

“In the month following the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, the price of wheat flour, a staple in the diet of most families in the region, had already increased by 47% in Lebanon, 11% in Yemen, 15% in Libya. and 14% in the Palestinian territories”.

One of the countries most exposed to the food shortages and price hikes triggered by the Ukraine crisis is Egypt, which has suffered a double blow. Egypt sources 85% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, and much of the country’s tourism sector depends on visitors from both countries.

In early February, just before the Russian invasion, Egypt was already suffering from high world wheat prices and the government was considering controversial reforms to the country’s costly bread subsidy program.

Under the program, which at 2022 prices costs the government $5.5 billion, more than 60 million Egyptians receive five loaves of bread a day for just $0.5 a month.

Regional governments are also keenly aware that in various countries soaring food prices were linked to the Arab Spring uprisings – and in March this year protests erupted in Iraq over a sharp rise in the price of flour, triggered by the war in Ukraine.

Indeed, warned Dr Bamo Nouri, Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of International Politics at City University London, “Iraqis could be the front runners in a global protest movement against rising prices as the Russian-Ukrainian conflict continues. .”

There was, he pointed out, “indeed a trend in various countries in the Middle East where there has been little interest, with no particular position on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict”.

One reason was that in many Middle Eastern states, “the responsibility for resolving any given crisis rests with the government, and unless and until it reaches the mainstream, reaction or debate around of it will be minimal”.

He added: “In stable and oil-rich Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, this may be justified, as the government has the means and the infrastructure in place to minimize the national impact of any external crisis.”

On the other hand, in less stable regional states, such as Iraq and Lebanon, “a large part of society is watching external events closely, as they are aware of the repercussions and try to plan and manage the situation of proactively because the government does have the capacity to do so.