Research Team to Explore Energy Costs at the Root of Middle East Unrest

American consumers concerned about  fuel prices have been watching civil unrest in the Middle East and North Africa with a wary eye. But the uprisings may themselves be driven by rising energy costs.

"The revolutions in the area were not only about wanting the regime to be changed, but about food, jobs and energy," said Ghada Ahmed, a research associate at Duke's  Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness (CGGC) "Basic staple foods were becoming so costly that middle income people were struggling to eat. It turns into a domino effect in the region and it’s no longer about what happens in one country."

Ahmed is part of a Duke team that has received a three-year, $1 million grant from the Department of Defense to study the risk factors of civil unrest in countries that control America's gas prices.

CGGC research associate Ajmal Abdulsamad explains there hasn't been much written about economic development in the Middle East and North Africa. The research has concentrated on the conflict in the area, including terrorism, but only from one perspective. By looking at social development and other social aspects, CGGC is breaking into a new area of research.

"One of the main objectives of the study is to explore multiple scenarios, based on in-depth analysis of food and energy value chains, which would assist in the formulation of defensive, as well as proactive, strategies to deal with food shortage problems if they arise," said Gary Gereffi , director of the CGGC.  He shares leadership of the project with Lincoln Pratson, a professor of energy and environment in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke.

Pratson said the current situation in Iran demonstrates the tie between food and energy security. International trade sanctions and the upcoming EU embargo on oil from Iran because of its nuclear program are likely to increase already high prices for food in the region, most of which needs to be imported.

If food prices become unreasonably high and spark riots in Iran or cause regional conflict, emergency food supplies may be needed to help offset a humanitarian crisis and keep critical oil and gas supplies in the Middle East flowing to the rest of the world.

"Our support from the (the DOD's) Minerva program will allow us to map out the global supply chains by which basic food such as grain are reaching people in Iran and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and identify options for keeping these supply chains going in the event they are disrupted by war or a natural disaster," Pratson said .