People queue to buy bread outside a bakery in Beirut on April 12, 2022. Image Credit: REUTERS

Cairo: The war in Ukraine has “multiplied risks” for the Middle East and North Africa’s poorer countries by raising food and energy prices, the World Bank said on Thursday, warning of potential social unrest.

In its latest update to its Mena growth forecast, the development lender said inflationary pressures set off by COVID-19 “are likely to be exacerbated” by Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.

“The threat of COVID-19 variants remains and the war in Ukraine has multiplied risks, particularly for the poor,” the World Bank’s Mena vice president, Ferid Belhaj, said in the report, titled “Reality Check”.

World Bank president David Malpass said this week that the Russian war on Ukraine has started a chain reaction in the global economy, pushing energy and food prices higher, exacerbating debt concerns and potentially worsening poverty and hunger.

“Rising food prices may have far-reaching effects beyond increasing food insecurity,” said the report, adding: “Historically in Mena, increases in bread prices have... contributed to increased social unrest and conflict.

“This link between food prices, conflict and low growth poses a serious concern for the humanitarian crisis in fragile, conflict and violence-affected states in Mena,” it said.

Ukraine is a key source of grain, while Russia is a major producer of energy and fertiliser needed for agriculture. The Mena region is heavily dependent on wheat supplies from both countries.

According to the report, inflation in Gulf countries is expected to reach 3.0 per cent this year compared to 1.2 per cent in 2021, and will rise to 3.7 per cent in oil-importing countries from 1.4 per cent last year.

Growth ‘insufficient and uneven’

“For some oil importers, food subsidies would be hard to maintain due to limited resources,” while “rising oil prices could delay reforms”, the report said.

Despite that, the World Bank forecasts that economic growth in the region will be 5.2 per cent in 2022, the fastest rate since 2016.

“The region as a whole is buoyed by oil” and is doing “much better” than any other in the world, lead economist for the Mena region Daniel Lederman told AFP in an interview.

However, the expected growth is “insufficient and uneven”.

“Insufficent because a large number of economies in the Mena region will still be poor in terms of their GDP per capita relative to where they were in 2019 in the eve of the pandemic,” he said.

And “uneven because the faster [recovering] economies for 2022 are expected to be oil exporters, but oil importers are expected to suffer”.

Oil-exporting economies are expected to grow 5.4 per cent on the back of the recovery from the pandemic, the expected increase in oil output and high oil prices.

But oil importers are expected to expand by a much lower 4.0 per cent, the report said, warning that 11 out of 17 Mena economies may not recover to pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year.

“When the price of energy and food rises, it hurts the poorest and the most vulnerable,” Lederman said.