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Staples become luxuries as costs rise in Middle East

  • Story Highlights
  • Across the Middle East rising food prices are making ordinary people poorer
  • Staples like bread, cooking oil, rice are becoming unaffordable
  • From Morocco to Yemen, the rocketing inflation is stoking social unrest
  • Only oil-rich countries like U.A.E can afford to raise wages to cushion citizens
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By Mairi Mackay
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Going to to the supermarket is a chore at the best of times.

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Bread, cooking oil, rice: becoming unaffordable even for the middle classes in Jordan

But imagine if every time you went shopping prices were higher than the last time -- so high you might not be able to afford them.

This is exactly what Jordanian Lina Qatalani experiences every time she she goes to the market.

"By God they are on the rise. Not like before. There are things that went up, way up," Qatalani says shaking her head.

She is one of the many ordinary Jordanians being pushed towards the poverty line by skyrocketing prices for staples like bread, dairy products, and cooking oil.

"How does it affect my life? We are civil employees. Even our salaries will not be enough for us to cope with such prices. For example, if I need to buy a yogurt container every day, I will not be able to make it," Qatalani told CNN.

Qatalani's experience is typical of many middle class Jordanians who are struggling to cope with the country's rocketing inflation rate -- which increased by nine percent in February alone.

A recent survey by the University of Jordan found that Jordanians believe steadily rising prices represent the Kingdom's biggest domestic challenge.

The Jordanian government has tried to soften the blow by raising the wages of public-sector employees earning less than $423 (300 dinars) per month by $70 (50 dinars). But this only compensates for a fraction of rising cost of living and private-sector workers get no such help.

The fact that the inflation is concurrent with Jordan's new oil wealth has made some Jordanians think that corruption is behind the country's problems.

"About two-thirds of Jordanians now believe there is widespread corruption in the public and private sector. The middle class is less and less able to afford what they used to and more and more suspicious," Mohammed al-Masri, the public opinion director at the Center for Strategic Studies, University of Jordan told The New York Times.

Jordan is not the only country affected by rising costs. Sky high prices are causing issues across the Middle East.

In neighboring Syria, food prices have risen 20 percent in the last six months. Yemen has experienced a doubling in the price of wheat since February.

In Saudi Arabia where, after a decade with inflation running at almost zero, it recently rose to 5.6 percent, there have been public protests and boycotts.

In Egypt and Yemen, the disparity between the soaring prices and low wages has led to social unrest -- and even violence.

In Yemen, prices for bread and other foods have nearly doubled in the past four months setting off a series of demonstrations and riots in which at least a dozen people were killed.

Earlier this week, a teenage boy was shot and killed by police in northern Egypt during riots over low wages, government corruption and soaring food prices. In Cairo, two people were stabbed to death in arguments over bread and a further five collapsed and died after standing in line for hours to buy the flat, round loaves.

Like the rest of the world, the Middle East is being feeling the knock on effect of record oil prices. The ever weakening dollar has led investors to sink their money into tangible assets like commodities sending prices ever higher.

The Middle East, which relies heavily on food imports is especially vulnerable to upsurges in world commodity price and the domino effect sends the price of staples like food through the roof.

Countries awash with petrodollars like the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia can afford to spend more to soften the blow. The U.A.E. increased public sector salaries by 70 percent in February and Oman by 40 percent.

Bahrain set up a $100 million fund to be distributed to those most badly affected by the rising prices.

Back in Jordan -- a country more representative of the rest of the Middle East -- financial pressures forced the government to stop subsidizing fuel which caused prices to jump 76 percent overnight.

What this means for consumers is that things that were once the basics are turning into luxuries

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"It's not only me, on many people I know now, their income, if it's still the same, they cannot get -- no way they can still get -- the same things they use to get," Qatalani said.

As the market turmoils continue it looks as if -- for Qatalani and other ordinary people across the region -- things could get worse before they get better. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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