A devastating suicide bomb in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, may have grabbed international media headlines and highlighted known security problems, but ordinary people are quietly fighting more mundane battles to make ends meet.
Three months after Yemen’s new government took office, frustration is growing, with people in Sana’a saying the pace of economic reform is not fast enough.
“Eighty percent of my income goes on education, food, and medicine for my family,” said Adel Aklan, a teacher who lives in Sana’a. “The government should subsidize basics like wheat, sugar, rice, medicine."
Nuha El Arashi, a college student, told IRIN: “We can barely afford our necessities. Before, it was easy to afford things like milk, bread, water, and vegetables. Nowadays we can hardly afford these, and we avoid all the luxuries. Before, it was cheap and easy to get around in a taxi, but fares have now doubled because the cost of fuel is so high.”
For the last two decades Yemen’s economy was largely driven by oil, but this is quickly running out, according to an April report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But with 70-80 percent of government revenue still coming from oil, Yemenis are vulnerable to shifts in international commodity prices and domestic oil output, according to think-tank Chatham House.
It said the 2011 political crisis created high levels of inflation and disrupted supplies of basic goods. “There is a need to reinforce existing social protection mechanisms and bolster humanitarian aid to ensure the availability of, and access to, basic commodities for the country's most vulnerable people,” stated a recent brief.
Walking around Sana’a it is easy to find disgruntled people: Fawzia, an Ethiopian-born woman working in a khat market, told IRIN: “Tribes are closing roads. Electricity is always out. Even if you stayed in Yemen 100 years, you wouldn’t see a change.”
“Structural unemployment is a very real problem in Yemen, because we can’t send our workers to the Gulf states, because we don’t have the right kind of workers, even for our own businesses,” said Ali El Waafi, an economist and former member of parliament.
“There are jobs [in Yemen], but those who are not working cannot do these jobs because they lack training and education… We need two to three years of training in the short term so that we can have competent workers for our own businesses, then we can send them to the Gulf states.”
Wilfried Engelke, a senior economist at the World Bank, said the exact level of unemployment was difficult to gauge. Some estimates put it at around 20 percent, and up to 50 percent among the youth. Other studies indicate higher figures, he said.
Mostafa Nasr, an economist at the Studies and Economic Media Centre in Sana'a, suggested that the only jobs being created were ministerial jobs.
A survey conducted in November and December by aid agencies found that 44 percent of Yemeni households could not buy enough food to feed their families. Since 2009, food insecurity has doubled, according to the European Commission. Furthermore, one in three Yemenis has gone into debt to buy food for their family, according to an April report.
A food security specialist in Sana’a, who requested anonymity, said the price of staple foods rose 50 percent between January and April 2011 and remained at record highs throughout much of the year. Fuel price rises also hiked food prices.
“Even without increasing food and fuel prices, the depreciating rial would still make the daily household budget stretch less far,” said the specialist. A year of high food prices and a depreciated currency would adversely affect food security for the most vulnerable, he added.
A restaurant worker in Sana’a’s historic old city, Saeed El Usheri, said increasing fuel prices had reduced profits and many former clients had lost their jobs and could no longer afford to eat out.
“We used to have 30-40 clients here daily. Now we’ve got 12-15 a day, maybe. It’s a drop of 60 percent at least. Customers used to come and buy a whole lunch. Now they just buy a sandwich or something small and go, because that’s all they can afford.”
El Usheri said his salary of 30,000 rials a month (US$140 dollars) was not enough to cover all his expenses.