The peaceful youth revolutions of the Arab Spring toppled military dictatorships that had maintained tight grips on power for more than half a century. However, though the path ahead is not easy, one dictatorship seems more resilient than its predecessors. That is the dictatorship of hunger and unemployment in Yemen, which threatens to transform the Arab Spring into an autumn of shame, and perhaps the harshest winter in years.
There is no food, no water, no oil. These are not political issues, but rather socioeconomic disasters in the poorest country in the Middle East. According to local and international reports, Yemen is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster due to a severe food crisis and depleted water and oil supplies. A recent economic conference confirmed that this year the poverty rate has reached 70% of the total population. The unemployment rate increased to 35%, and the investment sector has almost broken down.
According to a study by the World Bank, Yemeni oil and water reserves are expected to be depleted within 10 to 12 years. Yemen depends on its limited oil supply as the main source of financing the state budget. Furthermore, oil is the main reason behind the political and armed conflict — the civil war — that ended in the summer of 1994. Oil also fueled the start of the separatist movement, as the movement accuses the regime of looting the natural-resource wealth of the south.
While the youth revolution that erupted last year forced former president Ali Abudllah Saleh to transfer power to the vice president — in accordance with a political agreement that stipulated the formation of a national unity government — the growing challenge is economic. This challenge manifests itself as a struggle for wealth between the political and economic forces which are dominating the country rather than protecting the public interest and its future.
Ghaidaa Hassan, a university student, fears a repeat of the 1948 tragedy, when a violent conflict within the regime led to an increase in taxes and famine. Unlike many young voices that are clamoring for the recovery of public funds that were stolen by the former president and his family members, Hassan believes that the main goal should be the dismantling of the socio-political regime. To her, this regime's modern appearanc is a lie.
For more than three decades, Yemen’s economy had survived on Cold War-linked money, through the support of the West and the Gulf states in North Yemen and the support of the Soviet Union in South Yemen. Once the Cold War ended and the two systems were unified into one country, the economy’s defects were revealed and aid and loans became the main sources of survival. Moreover, the political factions in the government and the opposition have never contributed toward a national vision that rectifies the structural imbalances of the national economy.
The threat of starvation for protesters in Sanaa’s Change Square, due to a lack of funding, may reflect the overall situation in the country: a comprehensive plan to achieve food security in Yemen does not exist.
Some experts warned that poverty and illiteracy are creating an enabling environment for terrorism and political unrest. Nevertheless, these warnings rarely receive a response from Yemen, the US or the other governments of the West, which allegedly combat terrorism.
A report that was issued by the seven aid agencies that attended the Friends of Yemen Conference in Riyadh last month warned of a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. While the total amount that was donated in Riyadh did not exceed $1 billion, Yemeni authorities said that their country requires roughly $15 billion. According to aid agencies operating in Yemen, five million people are in need of urgent assistance. These aid agencies also accused donors of giving priority to security at the expense of humanitarian issues.
The anti-government protests and the repercussions of armed conflict in Yemen resulted in a horrendous deterioration of services and living conditions. UN figures indicate that Yemen’s poverty rate has increased to 54% this year, compared to 32% three years ago. The displacement of thousands of people in the south and north and the influx of roughly 200 thousand African refugees into Yemen are exacerbating the crisis. The aid agencies (CARE, International Medical Corps, Islamic Relief, Merlin, Mercy Corps, Oxfam and Save the Children) that attended the Riyadh conference said that Yemen is on the brink of a catastrophic food crisis. Roughly 10 million Yemenis — which constitute 44% of the population — will not have enough to eat. Malnutrition rates recorded by the UN in some parts of the country were alarming, with one in three children being severely malnourished.
Penny Lawrence, Oxfam Great Britain’s international director, said, “Yemeni families are on the brink of catastrophe and have exhausted their methods of coping with this crisis. A quarter of the population has fallen into debt trying to feed their families. Mothers are taking their children out of school to beg on the streets to get money to survive. Donors are focused on politics and security, but the failure to respond adequately to the humanitarian needs now will put more lives at risk, further entrench poverty and could undermine the political transition in the country.”