BEIRUT (AP) – Saudi Arabia and some other Muslim-majority nations, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, declared that the holy month of Ramadan when the faithful observe a dawn-to-dusk fast would begin at sunset on Friday.
But the raging war in Ukraine, which has sent energy and food prices soaring across much of the Arab world, cast a shadow this year over Islam’s holiest month, when large gatherings and family celebrations are a tradition.
Many had been hoping for a more cheerful Ramadan, after the coronavirus pandemic cut off the world’s 2 billion Muslims from cherished Ramadan rituals for the past two years. Instead, many find even the most basic items are too expensive to buy this year.
The Saudi statement – based on a moon-sighting methodology – was broadcast on the kingdom’s state-run Saudi TV.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, congratulated Muslims on the arrival of Ramadan.
“We solemnly pray that God continues to bestow his blessings and mercy on our beloved country and people everywhere,” he wrote on Twitter.
In Beirut, celebrations were muted and many expressed shock at the surge in prices, which have soared further after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month.
The Lebanese have been facing their nation’s worst economic crisis over the past two years as the currency collapsed and the country’s middle class was plunged into poverty. The small Mediterranean country’s meltdown has also brought on severe shortages in electricity, fuel and medicine.
“It is not like every year, because most people don’t have electricity to buy items to store and prepare themselves for Ramadan,” said Moheidein Bazazo, who owns a grocery shop in the Zoqaq el-Blat neighborhood in Beirut.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has compounded the misery, pushing inflation and prices even higher. Many shelves in Bazazo’s shop were empty on the eve of Ramadan. He said he was even struggling to get flour, buying it on the black market at high prices.
Hassan Ibrahim, a shopper, said he couldn’t keep up with the prices. “Only those who are stealing or selling drugs or politicians can live. Other than that, no one else can,” he said.
Some among Lebanon’s Shiites, as well as Shiites in Iran and Iraq, were marking the start of Ramadan a day later, and would begin fasting on Sunday. Jordan, a predominantly Sunni country, also said the first day of Ramadan would be on Sunday. Muslims follow a lunar calendar, and a moon-sighting methodology can lead to different countries declaring the start of Ramadan a day or two apart.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, millions of people in the Middle East whose lives were already upended by conflict, displacement and poverty – from Lebanon, Iraq and Syria to Sudan and Yemen – are now wondering where their next meals will come from.
Ukraine and Russia account for a third of global wheat and barley exports, which countries in the Middle East rely on to feed millions of people who subsist on subsidized bread and bargain noodles. They are also top exporters of other grains and the sunflower seed oil that is used for cooking.
In the Gaza Strip, only few people were shopping Friday in markets usually packed at this time of year. Merchants said Russia’s war on Ukraine has sent prices skyrocketing, alongside the usual challenges, putting a damper on the festive atmosphere that Ramadan usually creates.
Families across the region often go on shopping sprees before Ramadan to pick up dates, special Ramadan desserts and decorations. During Ramadan, Muslims must abstain from all eating, drinking or smoking from dawn to dusk each day for the entire month.
At al-Zawya traditional market in Gaza City, people walked through the narrow alleys flanked by stalls showcasing Ramadan lanterns, desserts, and food. They inspected the goods, but were not buying much.
“You can say prices are 150% up. You can’t buy nuts, foodstuffs, flour, and sugar as in the past, it is all so expensive now. And people are going through tough circumstances, with no good income,” said one shopper, Mazen al-Muzanar.
The living conditions of the 2.3 million Palestinians in the impoverished coastal territory are tough, compounded by a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since 2007.
Last year toward the end of Ramadan, a deadly 11-day war between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel took much joy out of the festivities, including the Eid al-Fitr holiday that follows the holy month. It was the fourth bruising war with Israel in just over a decade.
Associated Press writers Fay Abuelgasim in Beirut, Jon Gambrell in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, and Wafaa Shurafa in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed reporting.
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