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Panic buying spreads in Middle East as Russian invasion sparks fear over food and fuel

In countries including Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, which rely on Ukraine and Russia for products such as wheat and vegetable oil, prices are soaring and supplies are vanishing

A bakery in Cairo on March 15. (Khaled Elfiqi/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

BEIRUT — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is sending economic ripples across the Middle East as panic spreads about the availability and prices of essential goods such as wheat, sunflower oil and fuel, that are typically imported from the two warring countries.

Prices of bread and other foodstuffs in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon have been increasing as concern over their availability mounts.

Egyptians have started complaining about the rising cost of food, some posting videos on TikTok to air their grievances. “The government … says merchants can’t raise prices; [that] there is no reason for merchants to raise prices. But the bread has gone up 50 percent, and to’miyah has [doubled] in price,” said one user, Mahmoud Mosa, referring to the cheap, Egyptian falafel-like disc made of fava beans.

Merchants tell customers that other ingredients such as oil have gone up in price, Mosa said in his video. “So are we supposed to go down and fight these people? Or is the government going to have a role?”

Egypt is among the world’s largest wheat importers and obtains about 75 percent of its supply from Ukraine and Russia, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. And bread prices are very political in Egypt, where people have dispensed with the usual Arabic word for bread, instead calling it “aysh,” Arabic for “living” or “subsistence.” That word was part of a popular protest chant during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.

To cushion the blow of reduced grain imports, Egypt last week banned the export of flour and wheat, as well as pasta, lentils and fava beans, to protect its food reserves. Egypt is among a number of countries where “more than 70 percent of the population already cannot access a healthy diet and are in dire need of greater affordability, according to a report released by the FAO last week.

In Lebanon, Economy Minister Amin Salam last month asked the United States, Canada and India for wheat donations and discounts — the three countries produce a kind of soft wheat that is used to make the large, circular bread pockets common in the region.

With Lebanon short of silos to hold its grain reserves after the 2020 Beirut port explosion, mills have been serving as storage facilities in recent months, but that has left the country with no more than one month of reserves. The mills have taken it upon themselves to ration wheat, while customers are buying up larger quantities of bread and hoarding it in freezers, bakery owners said.

“For over 10 days, [supply from mills] has been severely reduced,” said Kevork Momjian, 40, the owner of a small bakery in Beirut. “If we ordered 10 bags, they would send us two.”

Another bakery owner, Hussein Ali Shouman, said mills are providing flour only for baking bread. But he said he is finding a way to continue baking the Levantine breakfast staple called “manaeesh” — a fluffy, small, pizza-like pastry commonly topped with cheese, dried thyme and fresh vegetables.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to send American food prices even higher, experts say

The invasion also has disrupted global supplies of sunflower products, with many countries getting most of their sunflower supplies from Russia and Ukraine.

Store owners and residents in Damascus, Syria, for instance, are reporting that sunflower and other vegetable oils have vanished from the markets. Syrians, along with Iranians, Iraqis and others, rely on sunflower oil in cooking, whether to lightly sauté small meatballs before adding them to stews, or to deep-fry cauliflower, which is served with tahini sauce.

One shop owner, Rana Sawwa, said she hasn’t been able to get sunflower oil from importers “since the crisis in Ukraine started.” The yellow plastic bottles doubled in price before disappearing from the markets, she said. Instead, sunflower oil has become a hot commodity on the black market.

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Cottonseed oil, an unpopular substitute, is also nowhere to be found, according to a newspaper allied with the Syrian government.

Sawwa said she made her husband buy her a jug of oil in Lebanon, which he smuggled into Syria. “I’m saving it in my house for Ramadan,” she said, referring to the holy month during which Muslims fast during daylight hours.

Syria also has wrestled with a bread crisis for years. War and a long drought have forced the country to rely almost entirely on Russia for wheat, traditionally Syria’s largest crop. It also imports maize from Ukraine, using it as fodder for livestock, and has been facing shortages and consequently has rationed the crop for years, according to the Syria Report, which monitors the country’s economy.

War is exacerbating food prices and shortages abroad, especially for food insecure nations

The Syrian government has adopted emergency measures to weather the economic fallout of Russia’s invasion, saying it expects to ration key commodities including wheat, sugar, rice, potatoes and vegetable oil.

The war in Ukraine also has spurred sharp increases in international fuel prices. In anticipation of rising prices, gas stations around Lebanon last week limited supplies or closed. After lines of angry men and women formed at gas stations, the government intervened to force owners to reopen.

Prices in Lebanon have shot up by 50 percent. As a result, traffic has eased around Beirut as people stay home to save money. Uber drivers have adopted the tactic of accepting rides, then messaging customers to haggle about the fees. If the price isn’t right, they cancel the rides.

Nader Durgham in Beirut contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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