Arab cuisine at stake as people turn to junk food amid Ukraine war price surge

Skyrocketing cost of food has forced middle-income people to opt for unhealthy alternatives

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Consumers across the Arab world are opting for unhealthy fast food as fresh produce prices surge, leaving many traditional foods unsold.

People from Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia have told The National how economic factors are propelling them to sacrifice healthy diets and meals out at restaurants for cheaper fast food and frozen items, sold at cheaper prices.

The geopolitics of Europe, sweeping sanctions on Russia and the blockade of Ukrainian seaports have affected food supplies around the world and caused a major energy and food crisis.

In the Middle East, where many rely on imports from warring Ukraine and Russia for basic foodstuffs, the prices of vegetables, fruit, wheat and essential table items have more than doubled, and tripled in some places.

Prices were already high before the war due to the coronavirus pandemic, which caused huge supply disruption. But the consequences of the continuing war have made matters worse for the middle-income and the poor.

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It is a destructive war that benefits no one, not even in the longer run
Karim Maher Abadir, Emeritus professor of financial econometrics at Imperial College London

The World Food Programme issued a warning this month that the world would face severe food shortages in months if Ukrainian seaports remain blocked by Russia, as more than 20 million tonnes of grain are sitting idle.

Karim Maher Abadir, an Emeritus professor of financial econometrics at Imperial College London, told The National: “It is a destructive war that benefits no one, not even in the longer run.

“There are at least two types of sanctions: financial and economic. The former is fast to implement and disruptive but not sufficient to achieve the stated aims. Some of the latter is fast to implement — such as tech-sharing and essentials’ export embargoes — but import embargoes, such as oil and gas, entails disruptive costs for the sanctioning countries, as well as the sanctioned ones.”

'Cheaper, faster and easier'

The global food and cost-of-living crisis is affecting people like Asan Atallah, a single Iraqi woman, 27, who works as a digital supervisor in the northern city of Irbil.

Ms Atallah, who lives alone, said she has embarked on an unhealthy habit of eating burgers from local fast food outlets as they are cheaper than preparing traditional food at home such as a tashreeb dish, which is broth-soaked bread topped with meat or vegetables and rice.

“I can’t find the right quality for the right price, so I tend to buy junk food, which is cheaper, faster and easier as an alternative,” she told The National.

“I know this is harmful to my health if I keep going like that ... but what can I do with the recent crazy hike in cooking oil? I can’t afford buying it on a regular basis, let alone the vegetables, meat and bread ... I can buy a burger with all ingredients from A to Z at half price.”

Asan Atallah has embarked on an unhealthy habit of eating burgers from local fast food outlets as they are cheaper than traditional, healthy, home-made meals. Photo: Asan Atallah

The price of a litre of cooking oil rose to more than 4,000 Iraqi dinars ($2.75) from 2,500 dinars before the crisis, while the price of a 50kg bag of flour reached 50,000 dinars. It was less than half that price in February before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Iraq is a major grain importer and its authorities said they would take measures to secure stocks of wheat and support a local food subsidies programme as food supply concerns are rising.

The current crisis could add up to $3bn to Iraq’s bill this year, highlighting the dangerous vulnerability of the country's food supply as its economy is already grappling with budget deficit and corruption.

Continuing drought is also threatening fields of rice, which is the main dish accompanying lunch and dinner every day for millions of Iraqis. Iraq is classified as one of the five countries most vulnerable to climate change effects and desertification.

“There’s no middle class anymore," said Ms Atallah, who also called for a decent pay rise to keep up with inflation. "There are rich and poor people. This is a very disturbing imbalance in society, especially if the prices keep going up.

“My monthly grocery spending increased from $100 to about $200 in a span of three months. This $100 difference is a lot to me and many middle-income people.”

An Iraqi farmer works on harvesting wheat at his farm in Jaliha village in the central Diwaniya province. AFP

A cultural expense

Ruba Ali Al Hassani, an interdisciplinary sociologist and postdoctoral research associate at Lancaster University and research consultant at King's College London, says rising food prices only exacerbate existing class divides in societies.

“Fresher and more nutritious foods have always been costlier all across the board, not just in the Middle East," Ms Al Hassani told The National. "This is why we see a class disparity in health and wellness everywhere."

She said she was concerned that traditional and cultural dishes — based on the expensive grains — could vanish in the not-too-distant future because Iraq and other Arab countries do not exist in isolation from global financial and economic terms set by major powers in societies where inequality dominates and the middle-income and poor seek cheaper products.

“The middle class has been gradually deteriorating for quite some time and this has been largely due to the neoliberalisation of society and institutions,” she said.

“There has been a growing sense of individualism and a move away from collective culture in which the region prides itself. This is becoming more of a problem as people switch to survival mode in light of increasing cost of life and political issues in each corresponding country.”

Costly carbohydrates

Karim can no longer afford the homemade potato chips and opt for the unhealthy ready salted packets of crisps. Photo: Karim Hussein

Karim Hussein, a single Egyptian who works as a chief accountant at a private company in Cairo, said the announced double-digit rate of 12 per cent inflation made no sense to him as it varies from one person to another depending on their monthly food and living expenses.

Mr Hussein, 37, can no longer afford homemade potato chips and opts for the unhealthy, ready-salted packets of crisps.

“I used to buy potatoes and fry at home," he said. "Today, it would cost me a lot as I have to buy sunflower oil, less than a litre for around 30 Egyptian pounds [LE], one kilo of potatoes for LE6 and of course the bread for LE2. This is compared to just one big packet of crisps for LE8, which is still expensive but you see the difference.

“So, I still eat the crisps I love, though unhealthy, and listen to the amazing sound of the crunch,” he laughed.

“Do you want more examples? OK, the popular ful [stewed fava beans] sandwich every Egyptian has at breakfast is now sold at LE7 up from LE3.5. A small cup of latte or flat white costs LE40 up from LE30 and 100 grams of tea costs LE12 jumping from only LE2 a few years ago. Everything has become costlier even the popular street dish koshari [a mixture of rice, brown lentils topped with chickpeas, tomato sauce, garlic vinegar and crispy fried onions].”

Mr Hussein feels for his friends who are obsessed with bodybuilding and depend daily on expensive eggs as the main source of protein.

“I’m sure some of them can’t afford to buy the regular box of 30 eggs for LE60 and started using [anabolic] steroids even if it’s expensive as it will sustain them longer,” he said.

The price of bread in Egypt is rising fast. The most populous Arab country — with a population of more than 100 million — is the world's largest wheat importer, buying more than 60 per cent from abroad.

Russia and Ukraine accounted for some 80 per cent of those imports last year, the World Bank says.

Recent price increases could nearly double annual state spending on wheat imports to $5.7 billion from about $3bn, a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute indicated.

Egypt further devalued its currency one month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is also another form of inflation, says Amro Zakaria, chief executive of Madarik Ventures, a global financial market advisory firm with headquarters in Dubai and New York.

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We don't hear the rich complaining, as their assets get inflated as well and naturally get richer. In the process, the poor get poorer and the middle class become the new poor
Amro Zakaria, chief executive of Madarik Ventures

“Any increase in global food prices would have a more severe effect on North African countries compared to Gulf countries whose currencies are stable as they are pegged to the US dollar, which is at the strongest level today in about two years, and this has shielded them from the purchasing power erosion experienced by North African countries,” Mr Zakaria told The National.

Mr Zakaria says the Middle East — like many parts of the world — will see middle-income people squeezed even further as household incomes fall against the triple whammy of food, energy and currency devaluation.

“Their expenditure on housing, transportation, education or food will always constitute a higher percentage of their overall income, which most likely comes from a fixed source like a salary, the growth of which does not keep up with inflation,” he said.

“We don't hear the rich complaining, as their assets get inflated as well and naturally get richer. In the process, the poor get poorer and the middle class become the new poor.”

An Egyptian man works at a bakery at a market in Cairo. AFP

Giving up organic

Naema Khlissa, a single 38-year-old Tunisian woman who studies for a Master of Arts in political communication at University of Manouba, suspects that the cheap salad she buys from local shops is contaminated with pesticides.

Ms Khlissa had to stop buying organic vegetables to make her favourite grilled salad dish every day as they and the ingredients for the traditional couscous [made from tiny steamed balls of semolina flour] have become unbelievably expensive.

“One kilo of organic red or yellow peppers rose from 1.5 dinars to seven dinars [$0.49-$2.31]. One kilo of tomatoes costs today around six dinars compared to just two dinars before April,” she told The National.

She is not happy with the chemicals used to protect crops against insects as she worries they may cause adverse health effects. But she feels she has no other option.

Naima has had to cut down on rice and eat fast food takeaways. Photo: Naima Khlissa

“I really love the grilled salad and have to buy just 200 grams of it for only three dinars from the supermarket," she said. "Not the same quality at all, but it will cost me 20 dinars to have a good meal of grilled salad at home. This is insane.”

Tunisia has been subsidising essential food items such as bread and vegetable oil since the 1970s. But the country has been facing severe food shortages in recent years, which has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Prices were already high before the war.

Local media have broadcast long queues outside bakeries and reported that some warehouses are offering subsidised food on condition that locals buy other items as well.

Ms Khlissa said: “Yes, this is happening. It happened to me personally. I went to one shop and he told me he would give me subsidised eggs only if I buy things for a minimum of 30 dinars. Greed.

“The food items are really expensive in the unsubsidised private sector, where one litre of cooking oil sells for nine dinars instead of six.”

Tunisia is a wheat producer, growing between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of its durum supplies, which is used to make pasta, the World Food Programme says.

But it only produces 10 per cent to 30 per cent of its bread flour and is heavily reliant on imports, much of which used to come from Ukraine.

Ms Khlissa has adapted herself to the new financial circumstances and created an effective budget much like Asna in Iraq and Karim in Egypt.

“I buy vegetables by piece no kilos, stopped eating outside completely," she said. "Having a cup of coffee and a croissant for breakfast at a cafe is now a luxury for me. But I like to buy myself these little luxuries from time to time."

Updated: June 01, 2022, 10:33 PM
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