As Yemen Teeters From Political Unrest, a Humanitarian Crisis May Not Be Far Off
By Laura Kasinof
The New York Times
June 27, 2011
SANA, Yemen — While Yemen’s political crisis stagnates — a popular uprising has stalled and a wounded president has not been seen publicly for weeks — its economic crisis has only grown worse.
The breakdown of public services, shortage of fuel and rising prices for food and water have made life exceedingly difficult for most Yemenis, and threaten to become a humanitarian crisis that could overshadow the political one.
“I sat at home for four days because I couldn’t get gasoline for my car,” said Ahmed al-Dubae, a taxi driver. “Those who have money, they can still get around. But those who don’t have money, their only choice is to go home and sleep.”
Residents of the capital, Sana, say they cannot remember when living conditions have been this bad, and their patience is running thin. Aside from the fuel crisis, Yemenis say that they are rationing water and food because the prices have soared. Darkness shrouds the capital at night because there is limited electricity and no diesel to fuel generators.
Mr. Dubae shook his head in disgust as he drove by a long line of cars in front of a gas station clogging busy Algeria Street in Sana’s upscale Hadda district. Other cars sputtered down the road because they were filled — at four times the normal price — with black-market gasoline, which is frequently mixed with water. Some gas stations here closed after deadly shootouts among those who had waited for more than 10 hours in line.
“If this condition continues in this way, there is going to be an uprising, but it’s not going to be the political uprising we have now,” said Abdel Rahman al-Ashwal, a university student who had to abandon his car at his family’s village and return the 125 miles to Sana by motorcycle because he could not find gasoline. “It’s not going to be organized. It’s going to be chaos.”
President Ali Abdullah Saleh had warned of such chaos after the protest movement started in late January calling for his ouster. Certainly, the political crisis contributed to the economic crisis. The currency has crashed, and many businesses have closed. Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s largest patron, has cut off payments to tribal leaders.
In March, antigovernment tribesmen blew up an oil pipeline and disabled the main oil production facility, forcing the government to import almost all of its fuel. The fuel shortage, in turn, created a water shortage because there has not been enough fuel to run the well pumps that keep this arid nation viable.
Yet there is widespread suspicion that the government is manipulating the crisis precisely to deflect attention from the political chaos.
Hafez al-Bukari, director of the Yemeni Polling Center, an independent political research organization, said many Yemenis believe the government wanted to increase the burden on the average Yemeni.
“Saleh’s family is holding up the transfer of power with the argument of waiting for Saleh to return, but if this situation continues for more weeks Yemen will witness humanitarian and security disaster,” Mr. Bukari said.
Musa Ahmed, a human rights activist, accused “the security apparatus” of fomenting the crisis. “They want to make a humanitarian crisis so that people ignore the political crisis,” he said. He said he no longer buys vegetables for his family because they are too expensive.
A deadly attack on the presidential palace three weeks ago wounded Mr. Saleh and a number of other government leaders, who went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. Mr. Saleh has not appeared on television since, and rumors about his health run rampant in the capital.
In this land of conspiracy theories, where even in better times there is little government transparency, some believe Mr. Saleh was killed. Others have said he ran away to one of his residences in Europe. His supporters insist that his return is imminent.
A government press officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the Yemeni leader’s health was “improving” and that “there were serious discussions on Sunday as to whether he should make a media appearance.”
Vice President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi has become the acting president, in accord with the Constitution, although Mr. Saleh’s relatives appear to be running the country. International pressure for Yemen’s leadership to agree to a deal to transfer power continues.
Islamist militants have exploited the security vacuum to gain ground in the south, and even in the capital there are new signs of a breakdown in security.
One of the few laws that the government enforced before the political uprising, that in major cities weapons must be concealed, is now often ignored. Men are frequently seen on the street or riding in the back of pickup trucks carrying guns. At a popular pizza shop last weekend, a man in civilian clothes walked in with an AK-47 on his back.
“There is no feeling of security now inside Yemenis,” said Mr. Ahmed, the rights activist. The thinking is that “when there is one person with his weapon on the street. I’ll take my weapon too because I don’t feel security.”
The American Embassy in Sana said in a statement that “the U.S. is deeply concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen,” and is “committed to assisting the Yemeni people.” The United States is Yemen’s largest donor of humanitarian aid, and has provided $45 million in relief assistance so far in 2011. *Blogger's note: Last year, the United States Central Command proposed supplying President Saleh's government in Yemen with $1.2 billion in military equipment and training over the next six years. So while better than nothing, in perspective the humanitarian assistance is quite negligible.
Still, international aid organizations here say that funding must be dramatically increased to deal with the current situation. Nearly half of Yemen’s 23 million people live in poverty and, according to the international aid organization Oxfam, 7 million do not have the money for three meals a day. That number, the group says, is bound to increase.
“We are worried that people are busy with the political situation and the poor people will be forgotten,” said Aziz al-Athwari, Oxfam’s acting country director. “This is the time for action.”
Abdo Abdullah, who sells the jasmine necklaces that some Yemenis hang on their cars’ rear view mirrors, says he does not care who is behind the crisis. He is just desperate.
Now he has to bring diesel from Sana to run the irrigation pump back at his farm in the western coastal city of Hodeidah, before returning to the capital once again to sell his wares.
“What existed before is definitely better than what’s to come,” he said.