A day in the life: War-ravaged Yemenis eke out meager living, if at all

In capital of Sana’a, citizens do what they can to get by and even express optimism for the future.

By YASSER RAYES/THE MEDIA LINE
February 25, 2019 10:58
The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic

The sister of malnourished Fatima Ibrahim Hadi, 12, who weighs just 10 kg, carries her at a clinic in Aslam of the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen February 12, 2019.. (photo credit: REUTERS/EISSA ALREGEHI)

 
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On a sunny Saturday morning in Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen, I head to the Al-Raqqas vegetable market. As soon as I enter, I am shocked by how small it has become over the past few years.

I am greeted from afar by a seller named Walid, who smiles and invites me over to his stall. Walid only has tomatoes, potatoes and onions, and he is keen on selling me some.

Walid, 18, tells me he has been working as a vegetable merchant for the past seven years. In the two years he has spent in this market, he has not seen many changes in people’s purchasing power. However, the small quantities of vegetables in his stall indicate that business is not booming. It is natural—war has been ravaging Yemen for nearly four years.

“Diesel [fuel] and seasons are what affect the prices of vegetables,” Walid told The Media Line. “When the prices of diesel are high, vegetable prices [also] increase. When vegetables are in season, their price decreases.”

“One basket of onions costs $12, while a basket of tomatoes costs $30 and a basket of potatoes is $20,” Walid elaborated.

Each basket contains about 18 kilograms of vegetables, and some families used to buy them in full or by the half. However, they do not do that anymore due to either a lack of electricity to power their refrigerator or a lack of money. According to the United Nations, more than 10 million Yemeni children are on the brink of starvation.

The Yemeni Civil War began in 2015 when Iran-backed Houthi rebels—unhappy with the transition of power from longtime authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi—took over Sana’a and other areas of the country. As the Houthi movement rose in power, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of mainly Sunni Arab states backed by the United States, UK and France launched an offensive aimed at toppling the group and restoring President Hadi to power.

While Sana’a has suffered economically from the years-long fighting, the port city of Houthi-held Hodeidah, once the entry point for the majority of Yemen’s commercial goods but blockaded by the Saudi coalition for the past three years, has been at the frontlines of clashes and subject to a number of major offensives.

Before the war, diesel fuel cost approximately YER 3,000 or $12 for 20 liters but has now tripled in price. Similarly, 20 liters of gasoline used to cost $11.20, hitting a high of $100 before stabilizing at roughly $27.

Later, I go to the Al-Rowaishan roundabout, in the capital’s Hadda area. It is a busy afternoon, with cars and motorbikes coming and going through the roundabout while vendors try to sell tissues, CDs, flowers and water bottles to drivers.

I speak with 32-year-old Ammar Al-Waddai, who is working as a taxi bike driver even though he has a bachelor’s degree in accounting. I am not surprised. Many people driving taxi bikes or taxicabs are public-sector employees who have not been paid their salary, or private-sector employees who lost their job due to the economic crisis brought on by the conflict.

Waddai previously was employed by the MTN telecommunications company in Aden, living there with his wife and two children. When the war reached the city, he and his family left and resettled in the Taiz governorate to the west. He started looking for work, yet the shadow of war engulfed that region as well and he was forced to leave once more.

“We came to Sana’a due to the war and blockade in Taiz,” Waddai recounted to The Media Line.  “I applied for work in several places but was not hired. The only solution was to work on a motorbike. I bought one through [payment] installments and started working with it. I will keep this job until I find something within my field of study.”

Earning his livelihood is not without its struggles. “The problems I face in this line of work are the increasing prices of gasoline and too many inspections at checkpoints,” Waddai noted.

Fluctuations in gasoline prices make it difficult for taxi bike drivers to calculate their fares and the frequent fuel shortages in Sana’a only compound the problem.

“Now they want us to pay customs in order to get license plate numbers” for security reasons Waddai underlined. “We just don’t have the liquidity for that.”

The customs costs involved potentially reach $90, a price too high for taxi bike drivers—who make as little as $6 a day after gasoline and bike rental fees—to pay.

If they want the process to be over in a day, most of the time they wait and it takes them as much as two weeks.

Women have also been hit hard by the war, especially single mothers like Um Suhail al-Jarmouzi.

I visit her in her newly established pastry shop near the Sam Mall near Algeria Street. As soon as I enter, I smell freshly baked goods, including Qafou, a traditional Yemeni bread made with lentils.

Jarmouzi used to work as an office manager at an import-export company. However, when the war came and the company closed, she had to find another source of income.

“We thought about what we could do,” Jarmouzi related to The Media Line. “Do we keep sitting in our homes and consuming whatever we have saved, or [would it be better to] start a project?”

She consulted with her eldest son and former boss, who all agreed on opening a bakery for traditional pastries and bread.

“I went back to the default position for a [Yemeni] woman, which is homemaker,” Jarmouzi emphasized. “We make the basic items and thank Allah that we are still going, even if slowly.”

Opening a business in Sana’a during a time of war is no easy feat. Not everything is readily available and the ever-increasing exchange rate with the U.S. dollar makes many items expensive.

For instance, cooking gas is a scarce commodity in Sana’a. In order to regulate its price, the authorities decided to distribute it through community leaders.

“It is difficult for this business to cover all the expenses because sales are slow, ingredients are not easily obtainable and I can barely afford to pay my employees,” Jarmouzi explained.

The pastry shop owner currently has four girls helping her. Though she used to pay them salaries, she now pays them on a daily basis due to business being slow.

“I tried to market my products to supermarkets. When I visited them later on, I found out that they did not sell [quickly enough] and became stale. After that, I limited the scope of my business to my own shop,” she said, qualifying however that she expects the situation to improve.

I go to the General Investment Authority in Sana’a to meet the deputy chief, Khalid Sharaf Addine, in order to speak about the status of the Yemeni economy and how it has affected nearly everyone’s lives. In fact, around three quarters of the country’s population or some 28 million people, are presently in need of humanitarian assistance.

“Due to the current aggression and blockade, five million people are unemployed,” Sharaf Addine conveyed to The Media Line. (“Aggression” is a term used by many who are opposed to Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the war.) “Add to that another million in the public sector [who are not being paid their salaries] and another million in the private sector, mainly in agriculture.”

According to Sharaf Addine, some seven million people across Yemen were employed and provided for their families before the conflict erupted. There is huge pressure on those who remain employed to provide for family members who cannot do so for themselves.

“The dependency ratio before the aggression was 4.2 percent, meaning that every working person supported at least 4.2 people,” he explained, specifying that due to the war and the collapse of the economy that ratio has doubled, meaning that every working person is now supporting 8.4 people. “This has caused a disaster for nutrition, health and the standard of living in general for citizens in Yemen.”

Nevertheless, Sharaf Addine is optimistic about the economy and has figures to back it up.

“Things began to recover gradually in 2017,” he stated. “And in 2018, we gave out investment licenses for 82 new projects with a combined capital that is a 9.5% increase over 2017 figures.”

Some economic analysts nevertheless argue that the scale of issues faced by Yemen are difficult to measure owing to a thriving shadow economy aimed at countering soaring fuel prices.

“The Yemeni economy cannot be described as anything but an economy that is being controlled by the black market,” Ahmed Seed Shammakh, an economic analyst and the head of the Financial and Economic Media Studies Institute, told The Media Line. “Therefore, we can’t apply any economic theory in terms of what is happening with regards to supply and demand in the country.

"The Yemeni Central Bank is completely disabled and the gap between expenses and revenues is huge,” Shamakh continued. “Yemen as a country used to depend [mainly] on oil for about 85% of its public budget. Currently, the country is relying on money transactions from Yemenis who have immigrated abroad as well as international organizations and [humanitarian projects]."

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