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Biden missed the chance to make food security his biggest draw

The spectre of hunger stalks many Arab states as grain supplies run thin

There are many issues that President Biden could have closed his eyes to but food security should not have been one of them Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein
There are many issues that President Biden could have closed his eyes to but food security should not have been one of them

The foremost result of President Biden’s meeting with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is that it happened at all.  

No one should have expected much more than the hesitant restart of a valuable, but badly damaged relationship.  

No one should have expected Saudi Arabia to unilaterally break the OPEC production quotas.  

No one should have expected a breakthrough on the Arab-Israeli conflict when Israel has no government.  

No one should have expected an end to the war in Yemen while still Iran encourages and arms the Houthis.  

But we could have hoped for a clear plan to avoid the approaching food and energy catastrophe in the Middle East, and the migration tsunami that is likely to follow. 

Russia and Ukraine exported 50 million tonnes of wheat in 2021, about 25 percent of global wheat exports. Many nations including Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Lebanon, Oman, Eritrea and Somalia receive more than half their wheat imports from these two producers. 

In the case of Egypt, these imports amount to 60 percent of total wheat consumption. 

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, a 20 percent reduction in wheat shipments from Russia and the Ukraine will lead to an increase of between 500,000 and one million significantly undernourished people in the Near East, and far more in sub-Saharan Africa. 

This human tragedy is now unfolding. Ukrainian sea mines and the Russian navy are hampering shipments of last year’s wheat crop. Combat in the Donbas is currently disrupting this year’s harvest. Western economic sanctions are likely to limit the import of crucial seeds and pesticides for next year’s crop.  

Total Ukrainian grain exports, which include wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil, have fallen from last year’s monthly average of five million tonnes to only two million tonnes last month.  

What’s more, Russia is re-orienting its wheat exports towards Iran. As sanctions on Russian fertiliser exports raise production costs around the globe the spectre of hunger is stalking many Arab states. 

Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine did not disrupt energy markets. It was the Western response that has driven oil prices to over $100 per barrel. From Morocco to Egypt to Lebanon, economic sanctions on Russia have led to massive price increases for cooking oil, natural gas, gasoline, and diesel fuel.  

Egypt’s oil import bill alone has risen by $700 million dollars a month since February.

As inflation soars government budgets across the Middle East are being stretched to breaking point in order to maintain food and fuel subsidies. For example, in Egypt where inflation is running at 13 percent, the annual budget deficit has increased by $25 billion almost overnight.

The inevitable result of collapsing economies and political unrest in the Middle East and Africa will be massive illegal migration into Europe on a scale far greater than the previous war-related emigration from Syria and Libya.  

Preventing that outcome will require immediate, large scale, well-coordinated, multinational action.

It will require far more than a token increase in foreign aid that will merely bid up the price of existing wheat supplies. It will require efforts to increase the Middle East’s own grain production, diversify the region’s grain suppliers, open international food stocks, and provide concessional import financing for both fuel and food.

It will also require some creative thinking. Saudi Arabia was once a major wheat producer and while that is not a sustainable practice in the long run, it could help solve a temporary crisis.

The United States produces 380 million tonnes of corn annually and converts 40 percent of it into ethanol for gasoline blending. That corn could be exported to feed hungry people and replaced by Brazilian ethanol which comes from sugar cane and is, in fact, cheaper than the American corn-based version.

All President Biden needs to do is reduce the tariff keeping cheap Brazilian ethanol out of the American market. 

The US can play a central role resolving the food and fuel crisis facing the Middle East and it is in America’s own interest to do so.

Nothing is currently more important to maintaining regional stability. Nothing could reestablish American influence in the region more quickly. 

Facing this challenge should have featured very prominently on the president’s agenda in Jeddah. Unfortunately, it did not.  

David H. Rundell is the author of Vision or Mirage, Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads and a former chief of mission at the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia. Ambassador Michael Gfoeller is a former political advisor to the US Central Command

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