Yemen: 'We have to go on with our lives'

How Yemen's struggling population is coping with heightened insecurity and a dire economic situation.

    Yemen: 'We have to go on with our lives'
    'People don't even want to get married these days because of the insecurity' [Reuters]

    Sanaa - Sidqui Abdulla is thankful there were no wedding parties scheduled that night. Had there been one, he says, there would have been casualties in the morning when a massive bomb exploded just blocks from the wedding hall which he manages in southern Sana'a. This caused the venue's ceiling to collapse. 

    During the peak of Yemen's wedding season - which immediately follows Ramadan - the hall can pack up to 1,000 people and make $2,000 a night.

    Normally awash with lavish chandelier lighting, elaborate wall decor and round-tables adorned with centerpieces of the bride's choosing, the structure sat in ruin a week ago. 

    "People don't even want to get married these days because of the insecurity," said Abdulla.

    At the beginning of December, a car bomb exploded outside the Iranian ambassador's residence in a populous neighborhood in Sanaa. Its shock waves buckled the nearby wedding hall's infrastructure and shattered windows of other homes and businesses in the area.

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    Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the attack which killed three (the ambassador wasn't home at the time). Several sources, briefed by Yemeni counterterrorism officials, said the bomb should have been more destructive given its composition.

    The soft surface on which it exploded and the walls of the targeted diplomat's home are believed to have blunted the blast's impact. 

    If you read the news, you find 10 people killed. Clashes here, a car explosion there. I don't read the news or I would be too scared to go to work.

    Mohamed al-Amudi, student

    While there was quiet appreciation that the explosion could have been worse, for many, the event was another reminder that Yemen's mounting instability is actually far reaching.

    Citizens say no one is immune as the struggle for political power continues to engender violence, playing out in the streets and giving groups like AQAP the opportunity to call for sectarian fighting. 

    "If you read the news, you find 10 people killed. Clashes here, a car explosion there," said Mohamed al-Amudi, gesticulating at the laundry list of deadly events that have marked recent months. "I don't read the news or I would be too scared to go to work." 

    But the 22-year-old university student and budding entrepreneur had no choice but to stay home from work at the end of September when Houthi rebeles poured into Sana'a, tipping the country into a new era of uncertainty. 

    Al-Amudi, who began a honey distribution company with his cousin two years ago, had to shut down operations for six weeks beginning in September as the Houthis stationed themselves throughout parts of northern Yemen, appointing their group guardians of the nation's security.

    Their expansion angered local tribesmen, sparking outbreaks of violence. The Houthis also began a campaign to drive AQAP out of their strongholds, prompting the latter group to carry out a number of attacks on Houthi targets.

    As the security situation rapidly deteriorated, al-Amudi's honey products could no longer be safely transported into Sana'a from the country's remote provinces.

    "We had to adapt, we call it surviving," al-Amudi said. The honey farmers, he works with, have now agreed to use the roads again, but his business, like Yemen's economy itself, has not emerged from the turmoil unscathed.

    Sales are way down and the small company has had to trim costs by laying off two employees of the six-man operation.   

    "You learn to do with less," al-Amudi said. "Ours is a small business. What about the big ones? [There are probably] thousands of redundancies."

    Economists point out that Yemen's financial system received its biggest blow in 2011 when nationwide mass protests, calling for the downfall of Ali Abdulla Saleh's government, plunged the country into political upheaval and mercilessly undermined the nation's economy.

    But, recent events have exacerbated an already dire set of circumstances, leading many to question how Yemen's struggling population will cope with further downturn and heightening insecurity.

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    Moneer Hasan Saif, a banking and financing consultant, acknowledges the economy's bleak indicators - dwindling oil revenue, increased government spending, the lack of a strong central government to provide security inviting investment.

    But, he says these macro indicators don't mean anything to citizens who see the economic deterioration as local businesses shutter around them.       

    "People measure [the economy] for themselves in their shops, asking themselves; are they making sales or not," said Saif, adding that "people are only buying what they need". 

    Citizens are learning to acclimatise to the new realities on the ground and build around it, says Abdulla. The wedding hall is again accepting reservations after repairing its ceiling.

    Abdualla says the business was lucky it was able to cover the cost of repairs. He points out that if other businesses on his street had sustained the same structural damage they would have closed their doors.

    Across the street from the wedding hall, 29-year-old Ali hunches over a sewing machine, putting the final stitches into the handmade abaya that will join the rows of other black garments in the small clothing shop.  The entire glass store-front was shattered the day of the attack on the Iranian ambassador's residence.

    Ali says the owner of the shop had to foot a close to $1,000 bill to replace the glass and abayas damaged in the blast - a sizeable amount for such a small business. He believes the shop will be able to stay in business for now, relying heavily on the glut income it pulls in during the Eid holidays, but that he feels less and less safe at work.

    "If it doesn't happen here again, it will be somewhere else," he said.

    And it did. On Jan. 5, an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded outside a Houthi residence where group members live and also hold meetings. This follows a series of other bombings in Sana'a and violent attacks in other parts of the country. 

    Like Ali, Yemenis are navigating their changing landscape the best way they know how. And they are doing so as faith in central government wanes, Said says. 

    A new Cabinet, appointed in November, is attempting to salvage what is left of Yemen's political transition, which is meant to accumulate in national elections this year. A national economic committee is also attempting to produce recommendations to revive the economy as unemployment rates creep towards 50 percent, some analysts predict.   

    In the meantime, the wedding hall Abdulla manages still has a docket full of brides waiting to celebrate their special day.   

    "Yemenis will continue to take risks. We have to go on with our lives," Abdulla said.


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