Work crisis in Yemen as 800 Sana’a firms close

Unrest in Yemen takes back seat for many as price rises force desperate families to beg and amid fear that the country will run out of food in three weeks.

Yemenis shop for foodstuffs at a market in Sanaa: there are fears that the country will run out of food in three weeks. Mohammed Huwais / AFP Photo
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SANA'A // Many families in Yemen are not worrying about the political crisis in the country. They are too hungry to care.

The violence spawned by the once-peaceful protests has left many people scrambling to feed their families and find work. The fighting has ruined an already weak economy. Prices are rising, businesses are closing and jobs are disappearing.

More than 800 local companies in Sana'a alone have closed, a ministry of trade official said yesterday. At least 21 foreign businesses and embassies have closed, according to the foreign ministry.

Since May, the price of petroleum has risen 160 per cent while the cost of home cooking gas quadrupled. Heat and flour costs doubled over the past month, forcing some families to resort to begging.

Government price controls have disappeared, prices are soaring and there is little hope anyone will contain them any time soon.

Sameera Goba, a widow and a mother of four, said: "People are poor and unemployed." She complains that her children are eating only two light meals a day: "We couldn't afford food goods on normal days, so how are we expected to live today?"

Farmers complain that the rising cost of fruits and vegetables is not their fault. They blame the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh for cutting off electricity.

Ali Jubari, a farmer in Dhammar province, said: "We don't have refrigerators to store the goods so the food goes to waste. We are losing as well. The economic crisis is on everyone."

Mr Jubari said that without electricity, farmers decided to transport the crops immediately but that tactic failed.

"There was no diesel or petroleum in the country to ship the crops to major cities, and when we found diesel it was being sold for three times the original price," Mr Jubari said. "It's not our fault. The people should blame the government for trying to starve its people."

The Chamber of Commerce Union in Yemen announced on Saturday that the country was facing a food shortage. It estimates that the country will run out of food in three weeks.

"The food shortage in Yemen will have catastrophic results and people could risk dying from hunger if a solution is not reached immediately," a statement from the union said. "People cannot live with prices increasing nearly 200 per cent in two months. The international community must interfere to save the millions suffering in Yemen."

The union also warned that the banking industry is losing millions of dollars each day and that at least four Yemeni banks risk closing if the chaos continues.

Citizens complain about the rising prices but merchants say they are being charged more for goods and must pass on the increases. Abdullah Kaff, a store owner, said the government is selling wares to them at a high price. "Residents want to fight us because they think we are raising the prices. When we complain to the police station, they [police officers] ask us for money to solve the problem. The government is not here to serve us," Mr Kaff said.

Abdul Basit Kumaim, the general manager at the ministry of trade, admits that hundreds of companies have closed and thousands of people are now unemployed, but he blames opponents of the government. He said the government is desperately trying to solve the economic problems and insisted that the government is not intentionally creating these problems. "Yes, prices did increase but it's not the government's fault. The opposition are causing unrest in the country and this forces prices to increase and business to close down."

Business owners said they had closed not only for economic reasons, but security reasons as well.

Yahya Madwami, a travel agent, said that his company employed 90 people three months ago, and now his office had shut.

"People are not coming in Yemen anymore and Yemenis can't get visas to leave the country. We were forced to lay off employees at the start," Mr Madwami said. He said that gradually he cut the workforce until he was forced to close his business. "Our business thrives on tourism. But Yemen now is lawless and people travel to relax and not to get killed."

Fatima al Areki lost two sons last week in fighting in Taiz. They were her only source of income. She cries and remembers when her sons insisted on going to Freedom Square, hoping for a better future.

"They would not come home for days, and when they called they tell me that they will be remembered in history as revolutionist," Mrs Areki said. "They came home one day before being killed, gave me some money and kissed me on the head. They told me that they smell victory."

Her sons, Ahmed and Mansoor, were 19 and 22 years old. Mrs Areki said: "Their innocence was killed in cold blood by the Saleh regime."

For many Yemenis, the political crises is the least of their worries. "I am forced to live in the streets and the government insists that Yemen is stable. I want a chance to live, with or without President Saleh in power."