This lecture assesses the extent to which the sharp spikes in global food prices, which occurred in 2007/08 and 2010/11, contributed to the political unrest which swept the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region at the end of 2010 and the first half of 2011. This political unrest has been referred to as the “Arab Spring” and the lecture argues that although the Arab Spring has been referred to in the Western media as a predominantly politically-motivated uprising against autocratic incumbent regimes, there were important socio-economic underpinnings to the uprising. One such important factor was increasing food prices in many countries of the MENA region. The result of rising food prices, along with other socio-economic factors, such as high levels of unemployment, especially amongst educated youth, was a steady increase in the cost of living and an erosion of living standards. Many incumbent regimes in MENA had for decades maintained their legitimacy via an implicit social contract, whereby the regimes offered cheap subsidised food, housing, utilities and fuel along with guaranteed employment in a bloated public sector in exchange for political loyalty. Sharp rises in domestic food prices from 2007 onwards contributed to an unravelling of this social contract such that citizens in the region were no longer willing to tolerate repressive and autocratic governments. The rise in domestic food prices was linked to global food price increases and is a reflection of the food security status of the MENA region, whereby most countries in the region are heavily dependent on imported food. As a result of the role played by food prices in creating political unrest, many countries in the region are now reappraising their food security strategies in an attempt to place less reliance on global food markets.

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