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Facing economic meltdown in Sana'a's old city
Facing economic meltdown in Sana'a's old city
Laura Silvia Battaglia

SANA’A — Antar Al-Aldharij pins his opponent down on the mat without using a dagger or a rifle. Yemen"s national judo champion, who trains every afternoon in a gym just outside of the capital, Sana’a, just needs the strength of his arms and bare hands.

Al-Aldharij and his teamates share the small room of just a few square meters with some bodybuilders — the space divided by a simple sheet of fabric.

“This is the only place we have to train, but soon it’ll be closed because the electric generators are too expensive," he explains. "We are a team of champions, appreciated across the world from Japan to Italy, but here in Yemen there is no money for sport or culture.”

Since the end of the revolution in February 2011, which concluded with the fall from power of President Ali Abd Allah Saleh, who had reigned for 33 years, the economy has been in freefall. New presidential elections are slated for February.

Even before the protests that led to the deaths of 2,000 people, poverty was widespread. Forty percent of Yemen’s population lived on less than $2 a day, with one-third facing hunger. Today, it’s gotten worse: The rial currency's value fluctuates constantly, mirroring the unstable interim government.

There’s not just pressure coming internationally from the United States and Saudi Arabia, but internally from separist groups as well. A solution has had to be devised by the Conference for National Dialogue to split the country into two: The North keeps Sana’a as its capital and the city of Aden becomes the capital of the south.

Currency down, fighter jets up

The weight of the crisis is felt every day, and in every corner of society. Just ask Abu Ali, the moustachioed manager of the animal market in Sana’a, who sports a janbiya (the traditional dagger worn on a belt). “This time last year the market was jam-packed, but now it’s completely empty," he points out. "All the goats and cows for sale then are still here now. The people are tired and angry: How can they buy a cow for 200,000 rial when their salary is only 15,000?” The most expensive cow in the market costs 300,000 (about $1,200).

Mohammed Aljal sells the animals to Abu Ali wholesale. “Who buys cheap animals anyway when they don’t have enough money for electricity to be able to conserve the meat? The people come to buy meat now because the prices are so low, but it’s not even really a deal.”

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Spice market in Sana'a — Photo: oledoe

It’s not any better at the spice market in the heart of the Medina Kadima, the old town. Ahmad Addafaji sells beans, seeds and herbs — both local and imported from Turkey, China, India and Australia. “Before the crisis, people used to buy about a kilo of spices every week, but now they buy ounces of Chinese ones because they’re cheaper and seem fresh, even if they’re not.”

In reality it’s not the salaries that are dropping, but the rial’s value. Faisal Darem, who writes on economics for the daily Yemen Observer, noted that in March, the National Assembly presented a budget that predicted a deficit of 600 million rial ($2.6 billion), which was around 50% higher than Finance Ministry forecast. "Yemen is a poor country that risks becoming even poorer,” Darem said.

Even the happiest of special occasions are being hit by the crisis. Taher and Kamal Koooz are brothers who sell fashionable wedding dresses near the huge Saleh Mosque. “We can rent our dresses here, but nobody buys them," says Taher Kooz.

Mohammad A. Qubaty, member of the Assembly for National Dialogue, maintains that the economic crisis can be overcome if the deeper political issues are addressed. “The amnesty problems for the old leaders need to be confronted, as well as the age-old question of separatism," he explains. "The sooner this is resolved, the sooner the country can go back to the way it used to be.”

Kaled Hedrom, the largest fabric wholesaler in the old town, has a different opinion. American fighter planes, which are deployed in an ongoing battle against a strong local al-Qaeda faction, pass overhead. “Do you hear them?," Hedrom asks, pointing up with his finger. "They bring problems here that nobody talks about. We’re all optimists here, but the sound of those planes in the air makes us work less.”

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