By Dr Bamo Nouri, an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of International Politics at City, University of London
Iraq has been seeing protesters take to the streets as food prices spiral upwards because of the Ukraine war. Around 500 people protested in Iraq’s southern city of Nasiriyah a few days ago as flour suddenly rose in price by nearly a third. With food-related protests subsequently taking place in Albania and Sri Lanka, the ripple effects of the war are spreading.
Iraq’s markets were largely unaffected by the surging inflation in months gone by. But Iraqi officials have confirmed that the Russian invasion has massively increased the cost of the region’s food and is also causing shortages. Flour prices are up from IQD35,000 (£18.29) for a 50kg sack to IQD45,000 (£23.52), rice by 10%, and cooking oil has doubled in price. Iraqi consumers have been stocking up fast because of fears of further shortages and price rises, and Iraqi traders have capitalised on the situation to increase their profits.
The Iraqi government has already put measures in place to tackle shortages, distributing food to those in most need, as well as rationing food during the upcoming month of Ramadan. Rapid government measures also include a monthly allowance of around US$70 (£53) for pensioners with incomes of less than one million Iraqi dinars (£522) per month to help them afford food, as well as for civil servants earning less than half a million Iraqi dinars.
Additionally, a temporary suspension of customs charges on consumer goods, construction materials and international food products has been introduced for a period of two months to help keep prices down. In Iraq’s Kurdish region, the Kurdistan regional government has introduced emergency measures including store closures in Erbil, the region’s capital, to stop rogue traders overcharging.
Turkey and Iran restrict exports
Imports from Russia and Ukraine, two of the world’s largest exporters of energy and agricultural products, have been massively reduced. The situation has also been exacerbated by neighbouring Iran and Turkey, which according to Iraqi sources have restricted food exports to Iraq to prioritise their own national stocks.
Despite Iraq being part of what is known as the fertile crescent, a region famed for its high-yielding farmland and access to water, a series of interventions in the last three decades have depleted the area’s water supply and crops. These range from Saddam Hussein formally drying out Iraq’s marshes, to water flow restrictions from Turkey and Iran causing severe drought. These events had already put pressure on Iraq’s agriculture sector and reduced internal production of food.
Iraqis have been holding demonstrations regularly since the US occupation of 2003, mostly against government corruption, the lack of basic services, mass unemployment and in recent years the interference of Iran. Iraq’s latest prime minister, Mustafa Kadhimi, an independent, was elected after protests in October 2019 as Iraqis rejected the old parties.
Distrust in the political system continues. In Iraq’s latest October 2021 Iraqi parliamentary elections, the lowest-ever voter turnout in post-2003 Iraq was recorded at 41% – creating a legitimacy crisis for Iraq’s yet-to-be-announced next government.
The key issue is that there is no clear progressive national government strategy, which in turn severely impedes development and weakens the Iraqi state, especially in the face of challenges such as global food price rises. However, what makes this particular protest noteworthy is that it comes at a time when all governments may be expected to do more to support their populations as prices spiral worldwide.
Protests start to spread
Given that two of the key drivers of the Arab Spring were the high cost of food and other goods, and restricted access to water, the latest protests may have worldwide significance. Iraqis may be the first in a global movement of protests over price rises as the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues.
Albania became the first country to follow in Iraq’s footsteps with protests, then Sri Lanka, amid warnings from the World Bank that Ukraine war-related inflation could drive other protests and riots.
While some other governments have already intervened with subsidies, there is also an argument that energy providers should act more responsibly in such times of crises. For example, Exxon, Chevron, BP and Shell recorded their highest profits in seven years in 2021, which they attributed to surging oil prices as post-pandemic demand increased but suppliers struggled to keep up.
The cost of food has provoked outrage throughout history. The 2007 and 2008 food crises triggered riots in Haiti, Bangladesh and Mozambique. Even in the French revolution, when Parisians stormed the Bastille on 14 July 1789, they were not just looking for arms, they were looking for grain to make bread.
Highlighting these important lessons from history to drive more responsible government and corporate power may be pivotal in preventing political unrest and instability. There is little doubt that both governments and corporations need to do more to make sure that food is affordable for their citizens, or face the consequences.