Special from Yemen: Saleh’s ouster will quell gas crisis, economists say

Sanaa — With the opposition’s tentative endorsement of the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered deal aimed to oust Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office 30 days after signing, the country edges closer to ending its enduring political stalemate. The ramifications of a Saleh departure abound, but Yemeni economists say the regime’s speedy withdrawal is the sole means available to solve one pressing crisis that has plagued the country for a month now: its debilitating gas shortage.  

“The gas crisis is firstly political and social,” professor of economics at Sanaa University Dr. Ali told Al-Masry Al-Youm. ”It affects the limited income classes: the workers in restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels.”

Residents of Yemen’s main urban centers, such as the capital Sanaa, have faced problems finding cooking gas in recent weeks due to transportation and security issues. As the regime, the opposition and different tribes place responsibility on each other for the gas shortage, ordinary Yemenis are forced to pay more than 300% the standard price. Many other citizens have lost their jobs and only incomes as a result of the crisis.

The shortage is exacerbating an already bad economic situation in one of the Arab World’s poorest countries. In an attempt to pressure the government to solve the issue, Yemenis equipped with empty gas barrels are taking to Sanaa’s streets in protest.  

“I never thought that one day I will use this method to demand anything but life is hard, and I have to feed my family,” said one demonstrator. “The gas that we used to buy for YR1100 we now hardly find for even YR3500.”

Sanaa resident and former restaurant owner Twafiq Mohammed says he lost roughly YR2,000,000 due to the crisis. He was forced to shut the doors to all his establishments and fire his 160 employees.

“We used 35-40 gas barrels a day at the restaurant a week ago,” said Mohammed. “When the price became YR5000 I had to close down.”

Although meager amounts of natural gas come from refineries in Aden, the vast majority of the resource is found in Marib Governorate. The Marib supply must feed nearly all of Yemen’s 24 million people. The Yemeni government blames the gas crises on the political opposition and provincial tribes who control Marib Governorate.

“Marib is all under Major General Ali Mohsen [head of the first armored division] and his tribal allies that belong to Al-Qaeda,” said presidential information officer Ahmed al-Sofy.

In a move that tipped the balance in favor of pro-democracy demonstrations that have filled the streets of Yemen for three months now, Mohsen defected in March and vowed to protect the country’s protest movement.

But Major Colonel of the first armored division Abdalsalam al-Ayani says the gas crisis is fabricated by the regime to intimidate citizens and deter them from continuing to demand Saleh’s ouster.

“Everyone knows by now that there is no Al-Qaeda at all in Yemen,” al-Ayani told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Such logic is dismissed by some members of the international community, such as the United States, who consider Yemen a bastion of Islamist radicalism and President Saleh a bulwark against its expansion. US officials, however, have indicated in recent weeks they are withdrawing their unconditional support for the three-decade-long strongman.

After the onset of protests, the Yemen government lost control of vast swathes of the country. To fill the security vacuum, Marib’s Abeeda, Jehm and Al-Jda’an tribes have collaborated to protect the Marib–Sana’a highway, the primary conduit of gas to the country’s capital, when they seized control of the area two months ago.

Last Friday armed clashes reportedly erupted between those tribes and the Republican Guards in the Marib town of Sahn al-Jn. State media alleged tribal groups attacked the guards when they deployed to stem prevention of access on the highway by tribal groups.

Shiekh Naji al-Arada of Abeeda, Marib Governorate, on the other hand, accuses state security of seizing trucks passing along the conduit.

“The highway is protected by the tribes, at the beginning of the political crises the tribes in Marib gathered and agreed to protect the public interests in the governorates and never to prevent anything that the citizens benefit from such as gas,” said al-Arada. ”A month ago, when the gas crises started, national security detained 20 gas trucks en route from Mareb to Sanaa.”

In the wake of that incident, according to al-Arada, security seized another 20 gas trucks, claiming they feared the cargo would be confiscated by vandals.

Al-Arada on Friday said the Republican Guard’s Marib leader met with the area’s tribal leaders to apology for the supposed state-sponsored attack.

“The republican guards attacked us with around 40 tanks,” said al-Arada. “We managed to destroy two of them, kill three soldiers were killed, injure 15 and arrest 10 others. We used our Kalashnikovs and bazookas to defend ourselves.”

“The solution is to withdraw the regime as the security and economic crises won’t have a reason to continue.”

But even if Saleh’s departure returns security to the embattled country, Yemenis will be suffering aftershocks from the crisis for years to come. According to Ali Al-Ashal, a member of parliament’s oil and development committee, the gas crises will sustain itself through 2029 should the current production and distribution atmosphere remain in place.

Yemen produces 20000 barrels of gas a day. That amount sufficiently serves the local population. Back in 2005, however, Yemeni officials signed a contract to export natural liquid gas with the French company Total and the South Korean firm Co Gas. Gas exports, according to the contract, began a twenty-year term in 2009.  

The parties stipulated imbursement at US$3.2 for the one metric ton over the following 18 years of production when international prices, at the time, rated US$13.

Today that deal deprives Yemen of nearly half its reserves. Moreover, one metric ton figure now sells for US$16 on the international market. Yemeni MP’s are jockeying to push a corruption case against the regime. They say Yemen suffers substantial losses as a result of the deal.

In an attempt to cope with the crisis, Yemeni officials have imported three shipments of gas since the onset of the crisis. Twenty thousand tons of cooking gas, the Yemen Times recently reported, is due for arrival in the country this week.

“There are no doubts that changes in the regime will get Yemen out of this crisis. What led us to it in the first place is corruption and poor administration,” said Al-Ashal. “If the youth revolution succeeds it will put us in a better position to cancel this deal which harms Yemeni interests.”

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