Yemen grinds to a halt as war starves it of gas
SANAA, Yemen — Hamoud al-Harazi’s brush with death happened while he was trying to buy gasoline this week. On his fifth day waiting at a filling station in Yemen’s capital, a fight erupted when armed men in a Toyota pickup tried to cut in at the front of the mile-long line.
They began trading gunfire with other frustrated motorists, prompting Harazi to run for his life, he said.
“It’s come to the point that we in Yemen may die just trying to get gas,” said Harazi, a minibus driver who lives in Sanaa.
Intense fighting, involving Shiite rebels and a Saudi-led military force, is starving Yemen of gasoline, leaving residents unable to drive to supermarkets or shuttle wounded people to hospitals. Citizens also are increasingly unable to flee bombing raids that have killed scores of civilians.
Ships carrying oil and other products have been unable to reach Yemeni ports, which have been blockaded by the Saudi-led coalition, according to local officials, aid organizations and the United Nations.
Exacerbating the problem, Yemen’s own oil infrastructure has been damaged by fighting and the airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition that began more than three weeks ago. Roads and bridges have been damaged. Truckers are reluctant to transport goods — from gasoline to food — because of the rising price of fuel and the risk of attacks while en route.
The shortages are intensifying a humanitarian crisis in an Arabian Peninsula country that already was struggling with grinding poverty before a conflict between the government and the rebels, known as Houthis, exploded into war. Saudi Arabia and several allies have been carrying out air raids in Yemen to support the ousted president and halt the advances by Houthis.
“The fuel crisis is a critical driver of the emerging humanitarian disaster,” said April Longley Alley, a Dubai-based analyst at the International Crisis Group who focuses on Yemen.
This impoverished country has been a relatively small oil and gas exporterby Mideast standards, and that production has declined in recent years. Yemen increasingly has become dependent on imported gasoline and diesel, importing about 300,000 tons of the fuels every month.
For Amer Ahmed al-Kharasani, a lack of gas means that he and his colleagues find it increasingly difficult to get to work at a psychiatric hospital in Sanaa. There is no fuel for their cars, and if the medical staff manage to find taxis, “they are now charging three times the normal rate,” the psychiatrist said.
Another problem is finding diesel to run the facility’s backup generator. Such machines have become critical since fighting has knocked out power-generation facilities, cutting the electricity supply to much of the country, including Sanaa and the port city of Aden.
At his hospital, Kharasani said, X-ray machines and other equipment are barely operating. Recently, the medical center was forced to send a patient suffering from a gunshot wound to a different hospital, he said.“We managed to stop the catastrophic bleeding, but there wasn’t enough electricity to run the equipment,” Kharasani said.
The capital’s usually congested streets are eerily quiet. Even its busiest thoroughfares are empty, like Jamal Street, which runs through a major shopping district and usually causes headaches for motorists. Most vehicles in the city are either parked at residences or stuck in days-long queues at filling stations.
In Aden, where fighting between Houthis and local militias has been especially intense, residents describe even more dire shortages of gasoline as well as essentials like food and water.
Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi politburo, said that coalition ships are preventing oil tankers from reaching the country.
“Such actions by the coalition forces have caused more suffering for the Yemeni people,” Bukhaiti said, adding that gas stations and oil storage facilities have been destroyed by airstrikes.
In an e-mailed statement, Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asseri, spokesman forthe military operation, confirmed that the coalition was imposing a naval blockade. He said that the Saudi-led forces were planning to allow transporting food in some ships. The statement did not give details on ships carrying fuel. Saudi officials have said they will allow humanitarian groups to deliver aid if they apply for permission.
On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, said that coalition warships are patrolling Yemen’s coasts to stop and search vessels for weapons before they can reach port.
“We have to make sure that anything that comes in or out of Yemen is inspected so that we don’t have anything being smuggled in or anything smuggled out,” he said during a media briefing.
According to U.N. estimates, some 120,000 people have been displaced by the fighting. But an increasing number of Yemenis who would like to leave their homes lack the gasoline to drive away, effectively trapping them, said Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, which is the world body’s refugee agency.
A shortage of gas also means that UNHCR staff face problems delivering aid, including to people fleeing their homes and cramming into schools and hospitals, she added. “It’s affecting our operations in some areas,” she said.
Trucks that used to transport goods to Tawfeeq al-Raimi’s supermarket in Sanaa’s central Algeria Street area are arriving less frequently these days, he said. Higher transportation costs and shrinking supplies of food have made stocking his shelves costlier, and he has had to raise prices on products from 20 to 100 percent, he said. Because of the lack of fuel, he can no longer use his generator to power his freezer cases.
“So I had to stop bringing in all frozen foods such as frozen chicken, meat, fish and also ice cream because these items need a freezer,” he said.
He added that he insists customers pay in cash up front, and has discontinued store credit that he once offered.
Such changes have angered Yemenis like Waleed Mohammed, 37, who spends his days with his two young children without electricity in their home. The government agency where he normally works has been closed since late March, and he is running out of cash.
“I don’t have a job because of this war, so I can’t make money. But now I can’t even drive! How can I provide for my children if I can’t even drive?” he said.
Even if he could find gasoline, he said, he doubted whether he could afford the black-market price as much as $14 a gallon, five times its pre-conflict level.
Shuttling people around the capital is essential for Harazi, the 27-year-old minibus driver. That’s why the father of four is willing to risk more gun battles at the gas stations in Sanaa.
“We’re suffering terribly,” he said as he waited in a filling-station queue that was going nowhere.
Naylor reported from Beirut.