September 2, 2018 / 11:45 AM / 20 days ago

Protests over Yemen's weakening currency paralyze Aden

ADEN (Reuters) - Hundreds of demonstrators protesting against Yemen’s deteriorating economic situation and weakening currency blocked major roads and burned tires in the southern city of Aden on Sunday, with shops and government offices closing.

Protesters block a street with burning tires after the Yemeni Riyal has severely plunged against foreign currencies, in Aden, Yemen September 2, 2018. REUTERS/Fawaz Salman

By evening, the country’s internationally recognized government ordered a temporary halt on imports of luxury goods like automobiles and a 30 percent salary increase for public-sector employees, including pensioners and contractors.

The Yemeni rial has lost more than half its value against the U.S. dollar since the start of a civil war in 2015 between the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, based in the south and backed by Saudi Arabia, and the Iran-aligned Houthi movement that controls the north including the capital, Sanaa.

Soaring prices have put some basic commodities out of reach for many Yemenis and the central bank has struggled to pay public-sector salaries on which many depend as foreign exchange reserves dwindle.

Yemen is one of the poorest Arab countries and the war has pushed it toward humanitarian collapse as hunger and disease spread. The United Nations has convened talks in Geneva on Thursday, the first effort to negotiate the conflict in more than two years.

Aden’s usually bustling markets were empty on Sunday after the coordinating council of the General Confederation of Southern Workers’ Unions called for civil disobedience. Plumes of smoke from burning tires filled the air, including in the main square where a National Bank of Yemen building is located.

There were reports of smaller protests in nearby municipalities.

Protesters block a street with burning tires after the Yemeni Riyal has severely plunged against foreign currencies, in Aden, Yemen September 2, 2018. REUTERS/Fawaz Salman

“There is no alternative to change the situation except popular revolution against corruption in all its forms,” said one of the protesters, Fadl Ali Abdullah. “The people have lost confidence in everything around them.”

SHARP DROP

One of the organizers said demonstrations and civil disobedience would continue daily from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. except on Fridays until the current government resigns and prices for consumer goods are reduced.

Authorities have sought to boost liquidity by printing money, but the rial plunged to 350 to the dollar from 250 after the first batch of newly printed notes was rolled out last year. It was trading at 440 to the dollar by the end of last year and declined to about 500 in January.

Slideshow (3 Images)

Saudi Arabia, which is leading a military coalition against the Houthis, then deposited $2 billion in Yemen’s central bank to shore up the rial, but the currency later weakened again.

By Sunday evening, bankers and currency traders in Aden said it had dropped sharply, reaching 610 to the dollar.

Hadi, who has lived in exile in Riyadh since 2015, directed the government’s economic committee to find “effective measures and solutions to overcome the current situation,” in comments carried by state news agency SABA.

In addition to the import ban and salary raises, the government ordered an unspecified increase in production from the Maila oilfields in Hadramout province, the export of oil from Shabwa province, and urgent measures to export gas, according to a statement tweeted by Information Minister Moammar al-Eryani.

It also said that unregistered money exchangers would be closed and government entities would need a license to deal with the foreign exchange market.

Following the meeting, Hadi traveled to the United States to receive medical care including routine exams. The 73-year-old leader has been treated for a heart condition since 2011.

Reporting by Mohammed Mukhashaf; Additional reporting and writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney

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