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Yemenis struggle as rebels stop salaries

Rebels haven’t paid salaries for two months

SANAA: Yemenis beg drivers for money on a street yesterday. —AFP
SANAA: Yemenis beg drivers for money on a street yesterday. —AFP

SANAA: Abdullah Sarhan laments having to sell his furniture to feed his family, but he is only one of thousands in Yemen struggling since rebels stopped paying salaries two months ago.

The situation gets worse by the day for the inhabitants of Sanaa, controlled by the Huthi rebels since September 2014 and subjected to 19 months of air strikes and a blockade by a pro-government Arab coalition. “I had to sell my furniture to put food on the table for my family and ensure that my two children can continue going to school,” said Sarhan.

The finances of employees like Sarhan, and those who are retired, deteriorated further in September, when the UN-recognized government transferred the central bank to Aden, the southern city that serves as a temporary capital. President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi sacked the bank’s governor and relocated it to the port city after accusing the Iran-backed Huthis of diverting funds from foreign reserves.

A UN report revealed in August said the Huthis were diverting about $100 million from the central bank per month, and that the foreign reserves had dwindled to $1.3 billion from about $4 billion in November 2014.

The measure prompted an immediate halt in salaries payment in Sanaa and other regions under the control of the Shiite Huthis and their allies of renegade troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. “How can we continue paying rent if we don’t have enough to eat,” asked Ibrahim Ahmed, who was forced to move his family to live with his parents in the countryside.

Professor Jamil Aoun said he had to abandon lecturing at Sanaa University and work in a brick factory. “We have to earn our living,” he explained. His colleague Abdullah al-Muammar al-Hakimi resorted to selling qat, the mild narcotic leaf popular in the Arabian Peninsula country. “Selling qat… is more honorable than begging or having people’s blood on one’s hands,” Hakimi wrote in a post on Facebook announcing his decision to quit teaching.

The suspension of salaries is the latest sign of economic deterioration in Yemen, which was already the poorest Arab country before the deadly conflict escalated in March 2015 with the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition.

‘Disaster’ looming    
“It is the most dangerous measure as it affects the daily lives of seven to eight million Yemenis,” who live in rebel-controlled regions, said Mustapha Nasser, head of the Sanaa-based Studies and Economic Media Centre. “It is a sign of a total economic collapse,” he warned, urging the government of Hadi and the rebels to address the situation.

Nasser pointed out that liquidity was a problem even before the relocation of the central bank. “Even before this decision was taken, the Huthis were not able to pay salaries as they did in the past,” he said.  Last month the insurgents launched a fund-raising campaign aimed at raising funds from the public to cover for the central bank.

But despite images of people queuing to offer their own money, the rebels have so far only collected about eight billion riyals ($32 million), a fraction of the 75 billion riyals needed to pay two months’ of salaries, said Nasser.

Economist Saeed Abdulmomen warned the lack of an alternative to honor financial commitments could lead to “total chaos”. “An inevitable disaster is on the horizon,” he said. The conflict in Yemen has killed nearly 6,900 people and wounded about 35,000 since it broke out in March 2015, according to the United Nations.

An additional three million people have been displaced while millions more need food aid. The World Food Program on Tuesday warned of hunger in Yemen, which already had one of the world’s highest levels of malnutrition before the war. “Hunger is increasing every day and people have exhausted all their survival strategies. Millions of people cannot survive without external assistance,” said WFP regional director Muhammad Hadi.

WFP’s Yemen director Torben Due said “an entire generation could be crippled by hunger”. The UN agency said it needed more $257 million to provide vital food assistance until March 2017.-AFP

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