Ramadan kicks off in much of Middle East amid soaring prices

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Ramadan Mubarak, Islam,

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan — when the faithful fast from dawn to dusk — began at sunrise in much of the Middle East, where Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent energy and food prices soaring.

The conflict cast a pall over the holiday, when large gatherings over meals and family celebrations are a tradition.

Many in the south-east Asian nation of Indonesia plan to start observing Sunday and some Shiites in Lebanon, Iran and Iraq will also mark the start of Ramadan a day later.

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.

Muslim-majority nations including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and the United Arab Emirates had declared the holiday would begin Saturday morning.

A Saudi statement was broadcast on the kingdom’s state-run Saudi TV on Friday, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, congratulated Muslims on Ramadan’s arrival.

Jordan, a predominantly Sunni country, also said the first day of Ramadan would be on Sunday, in a break from following Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom said the Islamic religious authority was unable to spot the crescent moon indicating the beginning of the month.

Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic group, Muhammadiyah, which has more than 60 million members, said that according to its astronomical calculations Ramadan begins on Saturday, but the country’s religious affairs minister had announced on Friday that Ramadan would start on Sunday, after Islamic astronomers in the country failed to sight the new moon.

It was not the first time the Muhammadiyah has offered a different opinion, but most people in Indonesia — where Muslims comprise nearly 90% of the 270 million population — are expected to follow the government’s official date.

Many had hoped for a more cheerful holiday after the coronavirus pandemic cut off the world’s two billion Muslims from Ramadan rituals for the past two years, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means millions in the Middle East are wondering where their next meals will come from.

Rocketing prices are affecting people whose lives were already upended by conflict, displacement and poverty, from Lebanon, Iraq and Syria to Sudan and Yemen.

Ukraine and Russia account for a third of global wheat and barley exports, which Middle East countries rely on to feed millions of people who subsist on subsidised bread and bargain noodles. They are also top exporters of other grains and sunflower seed oil used for cooking.

Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer, has received most of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine in recent years. The country’s currency has also taken a dive in recent days, adding to other pressures driving up prices.

The soaring prices also exacerbated the woes of Lebanese already facing a major economic crisis. Over the past two years, the currency has collapsed and the country’s middle class has been plunged into poverty. The meltdown has also brought on severe shortages in electricity, fuel and medicine.

In the Gaza Strip, merchants said Russia’s war on Ukraine has sent prices soaring, alongside the usual challenges, putting a damper on the festive atmosphere that Ramadan usually creates.

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.

Towards the end of Ramadan last year, a deadly 11-day war between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel cast a cloud over 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.

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