By Vivian Salama and Mohammed Hatem
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Safiah Hussein al-Raimi stood for hours outside a store in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, for five straight days to buy a tank of cooking gas to prepare food for her husband and four children. She left empty handed each time.
“Life is becoming hell here and we can’t afford it,” al- Raimi, 43, said as she lined up during her fifth attempt. “We have no gas, no power, not enough food.”
As President Ali Abdullah Saleh clings to power and Yemen edges closer to civil war, the country has become paralyzed by shortages of fuel, bread, sugar and milk. Power cuts, which were the source of riots in the south last year, are now commonplace across the country, already the Arab world’s poorest and a base for al-Qaeda terrorist activity.
With the wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East in its fifth month, the issue of how long Saleh’s regime will last in Yemen is being compounded by the question of what would be left of the country should he be ousted.
“Yemen’s economy is already at a crisis point,” said Will Picard, director of the Yemen Peace Project, a U.S.-based group. “No one is earning money, save the gasoline sellers, arms dealers, and foreign journalists.”
Gunmen from Yemen’s most influential tribe clashed on May 24 with security forces loyal to Saleh, 68, in Sana’a, a day after he refused to sign an accord to give up power.
Dozens were killed or wounded in an assault on the home of tribal chief Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar, said Sheikh Saleh al- Mihjani, a member of the tribe. The Interior Ministry said that 14 policemen were killed, 29 others wounded and two are missing.
Shortages of cooking gas and petrol are being reported across the country, and cars are often turned away as they try to refuel. The shelves at local supermarkets are increasingly barren, with basic food items marketed up amid low stock.
The price of a 50 kilogram (110 pound) sack of sugar jumped 22 percent to 11,000 rials ($51.50) at al-Raimi’s local grocery store since the protests escalated in February.
Yemen already faces a severe water shortage, with the World Bank forecasting that Sana’a will be the first capital city to run out of water by 2025. More than half the country’s population of 23 million is under 20 years old and about 40 percent of the people live on the equivalent of less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations.
Oil accounts for 60 percent of government revenue and 90 percent of exports, the International Monetary Fund said in a report on April 8. Oil reserves are expected to be depleted within a decade, the Washington-based organization said.
Saleh said yesterday that the economy is “not in good shape.” Industry and Trade Minister Hisham Sharaf said the protests cost Yemen $4 billion and a growing budget deficit, now expected to reach $3 billion, threatens to destroy the country.
“The government is running out of money,” Abdul Ghani Aryani, an independent political analyst, said in a telephone interview from Sana’a. “The deficit is now close to half the national budget and as a consequence there isn’t enough foreign exchange to import food stuffs.”
The country postponed the sale of a 25 billion-rial Islamic bond indefinitely as a result of the political unrest, Kamal Al- Rabie, general manager of the central bank’s Islamic unit, said in an interview on May 17.
Black markets are burgeoning across Yemen as people look to profit from the shortages. Khalid Saleh, a supermarket owner in Sana’a, said he’s losing business by the day and revenue has fallen 30 percent since the uprisings began. Al-Raimi said she can’t afford the marked up prices.
“I bought a cooking machine that works on electricity but it’s impossible since power goes off four times a day, each time for three or four hours,” she said.
Yemenis struggled to make ends meet before anti-government protests seeking to topple Saleh deepened the economic crisis. Demonstrators, like their counterparts in Libya and Syria, are demanding an end to corruption, and more jobs and freedom.
The difference in Yemen is that Saleh’s opposition is fragmented along tribal lines, posing the biggest challenge to the country since north and south were unified in 1990. Saleh said yesterday that recent violent threatened civil war and accused al-Qaeda of inciting protests.
“Every day Saleh stays on the throne is another day that Yemen’s already non-existent wealth is divvied up among his allies-for-hire,” Picard said by e-mail on May 23. “Economic recovery of any kind would be impossible given that fact.”
A U.S. ally and the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, Saleh also struggled to quell the threat of terrorists. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based branch of the group, said in a May 10 statement that it would avenge bin Laden’s death in a Pakistan raid on his hideout by U.S. forces.
This week, prospects for peace grew dimmer after the six- nation Gulf Cooperation Council abandoned efforts to broker an agreement between the country’s political parties that would pave the way for a transition of power in Yemen.
Saleh, who reiterated yesterday that he would be willing to sign the agreement, earlier called the deal a “coup on constitutional legitimacy.” Anti-government protesters maintain the only acceptable solution is for Saleh to leave immediately.
“Outside investors and foreign donors will not put a penny into this country if things continue to looks so unstable,” Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism research at the Gulf Research Center, said by telephone from Dubai. “These problems will not go away with a magic stick.”
The grievances of Yemenis are similar to those of young people across the Arab world, though regional and sectarian.
Separatists claim the government discriminates against southerners, claiming the north seizes the proceeds of Yemen’s southern oil reserves for its own purposes. Shiite Houthi rebels have also been battling the government, claiming discrimination.
Saudi Arabia sends about $1 billion a year to Yemen in an attempt to keep the country “contained” and buy tribal support, according to Alani. The U.S. gives Yemen $300 million a year mainly in military aid.
“The Yemeni government has been mismanaged for more than three decades so there is no shortage of things that have to be done and quite quickly,” Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, said by telephone from Cairo. “One of the main things is job creation but that can’t be done over night.”
The IMF said on April 27 that aid talks with the government of Yemen are on hold until there is greater stability. While unemployment in Yemen stood at 15 percent in 2008, the rate for youths between 15 and 24 years old climbed to 52.9 percent that year, UN figures show.
In the line for cooking fuel in Sana’a, al-Raimi is itching to get back to her kids at home, though she is unsure what kind of meal she’ll be able to prepare.
“I’m not able to cook for them,” al-Raimi said. “We just need the basics to live and we are not able to get them.”