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Ukraine's grain exports are set to resume. For the world's starving populations, this can't come soon enough

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Abu Dhabi, UAE(CNN) After months of fears over global food supplies following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, a deal to unblock the transport of Ukrainian grain has just been signed in Turkey.

But for many Middle Eastern and African states that have long depended on the two nations for staple foodstuffs, the grain can't arrive soon enough.

Russia and Ukraine are two of the world's biggest wheat producers. The war in Ukraine sparked by Russia's unprovoked assault has been the major factor in driving food prices up by 17% since January, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), leaving large populations on the brink of starvation.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that the agreement would spare billions of people from hunger.

"In the coming days we will see the start of ship traffic and many countries will have a breath of fresh air," he said.

The conflict in Ukraine has significantly altered commodity trade, production and consumption in ways that "will keep prices at historically high levels through the end of 2024," the World Bank estimated in its April 2022 Commodity Markets Outlook. Both FAO and the World Food Programme (WFP) have warned that acute food insecurity could worsen in dozens of countries between June and September 2022.

In the Middle East, Lebanon, Tunisia and Libya normally relied on Ukraine for around half of their imports, according to data from FAO. And Egypt, one of the world's largest food importers, in 2021 bought 80% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine.

A swathe of African nations already grappling with food insecurity have seen compounded effects. Eritrea, for example, sourced the entirety of its wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia in 2021, according to a June 2022 report by FAO. And Somalia, a country already at the mercy of four consecutive failed rainy seasons, has seen a surge in malnutrition cases and at least a doubling of wheat prices.

Affected countries have tried to take steps to alleviate the toll on their citizens. In Egypt, the government is paying $435 per ton of wheat, compared with the $270 it paid last year, authorities said. The North African country, which subsidizes bread to more than 70 million of its 103 million population, is also looking to other sellers to secure its reserves, including India. Egypt capped bread prices in March.

Ukraine is also a major supplier of food to UN aid programs, which offer relief to war- and poverty-stricken countries in the Middle East and Africa.

The WFP has been calling for the reopening of Black Sea ports -- including Odesa -- for months, in order to obtain the critical food needs for countries such as Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, warning that "millions are on the brink."

The food program termed 2022 "the year of unprecedented hunger," identifying conflict -- such as the war in Ukraine -- as one of the biggest drivers of hunger, warning that the impact of inaction "will be felt around the world for years to come."

As the world held its breath for the release of the Ukrainian grain, wheat prices started to react to news of the deal.

Before the agreement was even signed, wheat futures dropped by 2% on Friday, Reuters reported.

"The mere announcement has brought down prices," said Nader Noureldeen, an expert at the FAO's general assembly and former adviser to Egypt's supply ministry, adding that prices are expected to incrementally dip further if grain transports resume, providing eventual relief.

However, any significant dip in food prices will also depend on fuel costs, which have been on the rise since January and skyrocketed after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, said Noureldeen.

"Oil prices have a great impact on grain prices and all food prices," he said, adding that it factors into harvest, manufacturing and transportation.

The digest

Turkey rejects blame for deadly shelling in Iraq

Turkey has denied responsibility for a shelling in a tourist resort of Dohuk's Zakho district in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The incident killed eight people and wounded 26 on Wednesday, according to Iraqi officials.

  • Background: Iraq believed the attack to be Turkish. Turkey rejected the accusation, saying it believes it was carried out by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which it deems a terrorist organization. The shelling was condemned by Iraqi authorities, the US embassy in Iraq and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq.

  • Why it matters: The PKK seeks an independent state in Turkey. The group has been in an armed struggle with Ankara for decades and has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. The Turkish military has been carrying out attacks in northern Iraq, which it says are targeting the PKK.

Putin holds phone call with Saudi Crown Prince, discusses oil market 'in detail' -- Kremlin

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday discussed the oil market "in detail" during a telephone conversation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Kremlin said, just days after US President Joe Biden's trip to the Middle East.

  • Background: The Russian and Saudi leaders focused on "topical issues of bilateral cooperation," with a particular "emphasis on expanding mutually beneficial trade and economic ties," according to a Kremlin readout. They also discussed the issue of oil, adding that "the importance of further coordination within the framework of OPEC Plus was highlighted."

  • Why it matters: Putin's call with the Crown Prince comes days after Biden returned from Saudi Arabia with no guarantees of increasing oil production. Saudi Arabia and Russia are both members of OPEC+, which is working to regulate oil output after prices dipped following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Abu Dhabi and TotalEnergies sign deal to explore UAE's gas growth and diesel supply to France

Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and French energy group TotalEnergies signed an agreement that will explore the growth of gas production projects and look into supplying France with diesel from the UAE, ADNOC said in a statement Tuesday.

  • Background: "Under the terms of the agreement, ADNOC and TotalEnergies will explore opportunities to collaborate in areas of mutual interest including in gas growth," said ADNOC. France is seeking to reduce its dependence on Russian energy imports, and the UAE is one of OPEC's major crude oil producers and an investor in offshore exploration for gas. TotalEnergies currently collaborates with ADNOC across the full energy value chain, from offshore and onshore exploration, development and production of oil and gas to gas processing and liquefaction, according to WAM, the Emirates' official news agency.

  • Why it matters: While Russia restarted natural gas deliveries along the Nord Stream 1 pipeline on Thursday, concerns over a complete halt of Russian gas have not gone away. Europe still sees this as a likely scenario and has prepared emergency contingency plans for the winter.

What to watch

The Middle East was the stage for crucial political meetings this week, with the world's eyes on the trilateral meeting of Presidents Putin of Russia and Erdogan of Turkey, and Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who hosted the meeting in Tehran.

CNN's Becky Anderson spoke with Sanam Vakil, deputy director and senior research fellow at think tank Chatham House, who describes the partnership between Iran and Russia as a "marriage of convenience."

Watch the interview here:

Time capsule

Some of the Egyptian military leaders who led the July 23 coup d'état, including Gamal Abdel Nasser, pose for photo in Cairo, Egypt on July 31, 1952.

Saturday marks 70 years since a 1952 coup overthrew the British-aligned monarchist rule in Egypt and proclaimed an independent republic.

In the early hours of July 23, a group of Egyptian soldiers from the so-called Free Officers movement toppled King Farouk in a bloodless coup staged by famous Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser.

As the dust of the coup settled, the king was forced to relinquish control to Gen. Muhammad Naguib, who became the country's first President.

In 1956, Nasser was elected President of Egypt, and went on to rule for 16 years until he died from a heart attack while still in office in 1970.

Speaking about the coup, Nasser said the "revolution" was carried out by 90 soldiers who "had faith in God that they will be victorious."

Egypt's British protectorate status formally ended in 1922, but a colonial presence remained heavily involved alongside the Egyptian monarchy, and British troops only left in the mid-1950s.

Many Egyptians celebrate July 23 as "Revolutionary Day," hailing Nasser as a patriotic hero.

Since 1952, Egypt has been ruled by either a standing or former member of the military, with the exception of the brief period between 2012 and 2013 when the late Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was elected. Morsi was toppled in a 2013 military coup by former army chief and current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

By Mohammed Abdelbary

Photo of the day

Algeria's Djamel Sedjati crosses the line to win the men's 800 meters semifinal during the World Athletics Championships in Oregon on July 21.