Beginning in the late afternoon during Ramadan, bakers in Damascus set up displays of special cakes that are only made during the Islamic holy month, when practicing Muslims fast during daylight hours. Appetites and eating patterns will return to normal after Ramadan is over. But food supplies in Syria are anything but normal. The jump in oil prices that has been such a bonanza for the oil producing parts of the Middle East is making it increasingly difficult for the oil importing countries of the region such as Syria to feed themselves.
The oil boom is catching Syria at an awkward moment -- as it tries to make the transition from a centralized Soviet style economy to a more open market economy. In Syria, the prices for both oil and bread are set low by the government as a social subsidy. But these subsidies are becoming unsustainable as global commodity prices rise. As a response, Syria this year increased the price of diesel, the most commonly used fuel here. But the government declared that the price of bread was an immutable "red line" that would not be changed. Bread is literally life for millions of poor Syrians.
The problem is that Syria only marginally increased the price it pays farmers for their wheat; and the increased fuel prices are hitting farmers hard. Farming consumes a lot of energy -- for transportation, farm equipment, for irrigation pumps, and indirectly for petroleum-based fertilizer. "The government forgets that we grow our crops with oil, not water," said one farmer from the Euphrates River Valley, the center of Syrian wheat production. So some Syrian farmers have begun hiding as much as half their harvests from the government, and selling what they hold back on the black market for over twice as much. Some have decided to stop planting their fields entirely.
Recently the Syrian government announced security restrictions and penalties aimed at stemming the tide of black market wheat, including setting up highway checkpoints and making it illegal to move wheat from across governorate lines in private transportation and without official permission. In the longer term, the Syrian government is betting that the country's otherwise healthy economy -- GDP is probably going to be 7 percent this year -- will help the country grow its way out of a food crisis. It's a gamble. But if the last five years of facing off against the Bush administration are any guide, Syrians are survivors.
6 months ago