Tough Times In Yemen: Economic Crisis Leaves Nothing Untouched

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.”

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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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