Pr. Yahia Zoubir: “Food shortages could inflame the whole region”

In a ByTheEast exclusive, Pr. Yahia Zoubir sheds light on the crucial challenges facing Arab countries in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis. Pr. Zoubir is the Director of Research in Geopolitics at Kedge Business School (France) and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs (Qatar).

yahia zoubir
"All the MENA countries are fearful of about what lies ahead in the months to come. Demonstrations have already sprung up in the Rif region in Morocco and in certain Tunisian cities." © All rights reserved
ByTheEast: The war in Ukraine has disrupted the global agricultural supply chain. What are the short -term impacts on the countries in the MENA region?

Pr. Yahia Zoubir: Countries which are significantly affected in terms of food security are in North Africa and the Levant. For Egypt, a large importer of wheat, the war in Ukraine posses a major challenge since it had not anticipated such a crisis.

Further west, in Libya, chaos reigns. As for Tunisia, it faces several headwinds in its severe economic crisis, which though it has not reached the same proportions as in Lebanon, bears the brunt of the impact of the Ukrainian crisis, especially when viewed through the prism of agricultural imports. Tunisia has received support from Algeria in terms of financial loans and donations to help it keep afloat.

The economic scenario is very different for Morocco: faced with a serious and long-lasting drought, the challenges in food security come at a time when Rabat’s finances are dwindling.

The impact of the Ukrainian conflict is reduced for the GCC countries since Saudi Arabia has made considerable progress in the production of wheat.

BTE: Are we likely to see a return of the 2008 hunger riots scenario?

YZ: All the MENA countries are fearful of about what lies ahead in the months to come. Demonstrations have already sprung up in the Rif region in Morocco and in certain Tunisian cities.

The food security scene continues to be challenging in Algeria, as in Egypt, where bread continues to be a vital and essential staple. There is a real threat to the political stability of all Arab countries. While I don’t want to be an alarmist, the potential of this snowballing into violent protests leading to economic challenges is significant, including in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in the Sahel. Only major food producing countries such as Rwanda or Kenya could sail out of it relatively unaffected.

In fact, this reminds me of the beginnings of events in 1978, when bread riots broke out in Tunisia. Bread is life. Bread is very important at all levels of society. The supply of wheat, or even sunflower oil that is already increasingly scarce, will prove to be an existential threat to the countries in North Africa.

For geopolitical reasons, it is very likely that European countries will help their southern Mediterranean counterparts to help avoid any spillover of the economic crisis to their economies. Morocco, for example, could very well reopen the valves of emigration, letting migrants pass to the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta thus creating economic pressure points.

We are indeed witnessing a particularly tense scenario in terms of food security with geopolitical ramifications.

“While Algerians have many reservations about French politics, they act realistically: they are among the largest wheat importers in the world, behind Egypt.”

BTE: You say the situation is challenging in Algeria. What is the current situation of this country?

YZ: From the very start of the Ukrainian crisis, Algeria was aware of what was going on. It had triggered debates among a wide range of people in society including among members from the academic community as well as politicians, with many pointing out the major problems to come as a result of the Ukrainian crisis.

Debates have covered the possible levels of local agricultural production to see if Algeria could support its food security requirements.

Algeria is a big importer of wheat, mainly from France, and had begun diversifying its wheat import supply chain by importing it from Russia. When the Ukrainian crisis began, the Algerian government was quick to assess its impact on food imports, especially since relations with France were considerably cold. Since then, Paris-Algiers relations have warmed slightly with the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian visiting Algiers recently.

While Algerians have many reservations about French politics, they act realistically: they are among the largest wheat importers in the world, behind Egypt.

The warming of relations between France and Algeria is a case of touch-and-go, especially since both countries do not see eye-to-eye on issues revolving around Libya, Mali, Western Sahara or Ukraine. At the commercial level though, there may be compromises, which could eventually result in increased trade.

BTE: What are the levels of food products in stocks in Algeria? What shortages can be expected?

YZ: Algeria had stocked agricultural products, but they are not enough to last a year. Recently, there was a shortage of sunflower oil, with consumers stocking everything they could, which in turn depleted sunflower oil stocks and it was not available on the market at all. Since then,
Algerians turned to butter, which is widely available since olive oil is not intended for frying.

In fact, many Algerians avoid frying altogether even though it is a very common cooking practice in the Maghreb. If the Ukrainian conflict persists, and if the production of sunflower oil does not resume, it will take a toll on food security in the coming years.

Algeria faces a double whammy since it is also plagued by a potato crisis. Algeria is a large producer and a large consumer of potatoes. Potato prices have skyrocketted, not because of Ramadan, but also because of storage and seeds pricing issues.

Today, Algeria faces cyclical shortages of potatoes because of a dissatisfaction among farmers stemming from the government’s agricultural policy. There are several reasons for this dissatisfaction. The potato is the poor’s man food: to avoid a food crisis, there were rumors that the Algerian government was going to import thousands of tons of potatoes to cool down prices, which have shot up from 40 dinars to 180 dinars per kilo. They now stand at 95 dinars (1 May 2022).

BTE: Has the Algerian government put in place protectionist measures?

YZ: Before the current potato crisis, the Algerian government did plan to cancel subsidies to change the culture of dependency among the Algerian population; the government has frozen this policy for fear of hunger riots.

There is a silver line to the war in Ukraine, at least for Algerians, although this could be a cynical perspective: with the rise of oil prices, the Algerian government increases its social assistance. Even the unemployed receive a pay of 13,000 dinars, which corresponds to the minimum wage. The social assistance system in place continues to work.

It is worth noting that the government has criminalized the stocking of food for speculation purposes, with offenders facing up to 30 years in prison. Algiers has also implemented measures to prohibit the export of certain food products.

There is a very real, palpable fear of potential political turmoil. Food shortages could inflame the whole region: without wheat, no couscous, without couscous, there is no life, no more food, it’s over. On the psychological and human level, it is very serious threat the Maghrebis face.

“Since the ‘Arab uprisings’, all the Arab-Berber countries have realized that they should no longer depend on the West.”

BTE: How can a country like Algeria find alternatives to its supply sources?

YZ: When President Tebboune came to power, Algeria aspired to no longer depend on oil revenues (oil rent). I had earlier thought this was wishful thinking basing myself on earlier precedents wherein whenever oil prices rose, reforms went out of the window, and everyone filled their pockets; even the people had their share.

In a speech in January 2020, President Tebboune asked the government to look into the country’s considerable raw resources, including iron and phosphate. This move was significant since Algiers clearly seemed to move away from solely depending on its oil revenues and diversified revenue sources instead.

The desire to diversify sources of income, both in terms of diplomatic relations and exploitation of resources, has become a defining moment for the country. This is especially visible at the agricultural level: the south of Algeria, replete with considerable ground water started growing fruits and vegetables. The aim to diversify is also visible at the foreign investments levels which drew in big investors. Today, the biggest investor in Algeria is Turkey. Relations between both countries, particularly at the economic level, have grown warmer.

BTE: Do you consider that there is now a realignment of some countries in the region?

YZ: I will tell you something that applies to all the countries of the region: since the so-called Arab Spring, which I prefer to call the ‘Arab uprisings’, all the Arab-Berber countries have realized that they should no longer depend on the West.

The 2016 speech of King Mohammed VI of Morocco is a case in point: It clearly showed his desire to turn to Russia, China, and the Gulf countries, without abandoning Morocco’s traditional alliance with the West. Algerians have diversified since the country’s independence in 1962.

Tunisians also wanted to attract Chinese investors. I carried out a long study for Chatham House on China-Tunisia-Algeria-Morocco relations: there is a real willingness for the Maghreb countries to diversify their partnerships and to reduce their dependency on the West. Most countries in the region estimated that the West was behind the 2011 uprisings and that the uprisings were not spontaneous, that is concocted in the West. The West wanted regime changes, as we have seen it clearly in Libya or Egypt.

On a diplomatic and commercial level, the United States has reoriented its strategy towards Asia with its ‘Asia Pivot’ policy. The Maghreb countries are also turning to the East too: China, Thailand, South Korea, or Singapore. This change is notable.

BTE: Does this realignment towards Asian countries mean a decline in American influence over the region?

YZ: I think we are witnessing a real decline in the American soft power, yes. There is no doubt about it. Why does the region not react in the same way as Westerners concerning the Ukrainian war?

There is a gap of perception between the West and the MENA region. This is clearly seen on social media networks. People from Arab countries see the West being more sensitive towards the loss of lives in Ukrain while being oblivious to Arab lives. Even though Washington sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken to visit the region to assuage such concerns, people in the region remain suspicious of US actions.

For Arab people, Westerners destroyed Iraq and Libya and now speak of human rights. Western views on human rights are no longer credible for Arab public opinion. They also refer to the long-standing occupation of Palestine and Israeli abuses of the human rights of Palestinians.

“Young Arabs, who have nothing to do with nationalism, can now see what they consider Western hypocrisy when looking at the Ukrainian crisis.”

BTE: So you see this distrust as one of the repercussions of the war in Ukraine?

YZ: In my opinion, this perception gap between the West and the South will increase and could widen considerably.

I have close friends from Russia as well as from Ukraine. I am a researcher; I do not take sides. I have a US education on realism and neorealism. I had been telling my friends for a long time that Russia would invade Ukraine sooner or later. Russia could no longer afford to idly stand by and watch NATO continue expanding eastward close to Russian borders while totally disregarding the Minsk Agreement.

I had closely studied the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis: Cuba, a sovereign State, had accepted the USSR’s missiles on its soil to protect itself from the United States. We were approaching World War III because the US could not tolerate Soviet presence near its border. We forget it too often.

If today, Nicaragua invited Russia to install nuclear missiles on its territory, you will see what will happen! In Europe, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel was aware of the threat posed by NATO’s expansion to the East. In fact, she didn’t want it.

As for Arab countries, there already simmering hatred against the alliance between Morocco, Israel, and the Gulf monarchies under the so-called Abraham Accords. Young Arabs, who have nothing to do with nationalism, can now see what they consider Western hypocrisy when looking at the Ukrainian crisis.

There is a real perception gap between the Arab world and the West. According to Samuel Huntington’s theory, the clash of civilizations, the West had to get closer to Russia to fend itself against the Chinese, the Arabs, and the Muslims. It was a racist vision, rejected by pro-Western Lebanese researcher Fouad Ajami, among others.

We are now witnessing the opposite phenomenon: the Chinese, the Russians and colored people are coming closer together to recompose a new world order.

BTE: You mentioned the Abraham Accords. How did it turn the leaderboard in the region?

YZ: Today, the policy of King Mohammed VI is in question: Moroccan citizens are against normalization of relations with Israel. Morocco will face a real dilemma, even if its repressive regime can silence opposition.

The Abraham Accords have changed the face of the Arab world. The Arab countries are hardly concerned about Palestinian lives. Case in point: in GCC countries high-ranking officials no longer view Palestine as a subject of discussion, except maybe during Israeli brutal incursions against Al-Aqsa Mosque

Algerians look at the Morocco alliance with Israel from an existential point of view. Their great enemy remains an Israeli military presence at their border. This is not just a question of national security or state propaganda, the Palestinian question is at the core of Algeria’s concerns, it is in the country’s DNA. Algerians share similar historical and political memories with Palestinians.

My Israeli colleagues tell me that Morocco feels strong because of this new alliance, which came about under the aegis of the United States, which prompted this rapprochement.

This realignment is likely to see Algeria move closer towards Russia and China. Algerian authorities feel that US strategy should be more balanced. They have not swallowed Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.

The Israeli political dream is not to have a relationship with Morocco since they have had it for decades, but with Algeria. Israel desires to have meaningful relations with Algeria and to that end have sent some discreet signals to Algiers several times. But, short of a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there is no hope for normalization with Israel.

Israelis know that Algeria remains one of the countries with the most influence in the Middle East and is set to organize the Arab summit next November, when everyone thought they would not succeed in doing so.

For Israel, Morocco makes an interesting ally, but pursuing diplomatic relations with Algeria is worth the efforts since it is also a powerful country with historical revolutionary credentials.