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Yemen seen struggling to keep currency afloat

Yemen seen struggling to keep currency afloat

Rial seen coming under pressure as finances shaky; New weakness may spark social tensions; Tunisia highlights links between economy and stability.

January 20, 2011 11:00 by

Impoverished Arab state Yemen is struggling to keep its currency afloat as it ploughs through cash reserves to fight rebellions, al Qaeda militancy and crushing poverty in order to maintain social order.

Yemen’s central bank spent $1.6 billion last year — equivalent to a quarter of its current reserves — to lift the rial from historic lows and help fund imports of basic goods.

The bank’s sub-governor told Reuters in Sanaa recently that it would not allow further moves in the currency which it felt were not, in its view, economically justified.

Yet as Yemen edges closer to becoming a failed state, analysts believe that it will be harder this year to keep its currency stable in the face of declining confidence.

And as authoritarian Arab leaders look anxiously at Tunisia, where unrest fuelled by poverty has unseated a veteran autocrat, gloomy economic news may be troubling to the administration of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled since the 1970s.

“There are possibilities of all kinds of emergencies that may lead to additional pressure on the exchange rate,” said Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a political analyst in the capital.

“Given the fact that production of oil continues to slide, sooner or later there will be another exchange rate crisis they will have to deal with.”

After tumbling 17 percent to a record low of 250 rials to the dollar last year, policymakers determined to halt its slide hiked the key interest rate to 20 percent from 12 percent in a single move, sold dollars and capped currency outflows.

That, plus higher oil prices, has helped the rial rate to recover to around 214, easing imported inflation pressures.


Still, inflation in the Arab world’s poorest country is hovering at around 12 percent and unemployment at 35 percent. And more than 40 percent of the 23 million Yemenis live on less than $2 a day, making hunger a commonplace reality for many.

Retailers in Sanaa price more expensive goods such as TV sets in dollars to shield against sudden currency swings, although payments in rials are accepted.

The global rise in food prices is also a growing concern.

“In case the prices of food supplies continue to rise … this will lead to big risks to social peace and stability in the country,” said Abdul Karim Sallam, editor in chief of local al-Ektisad al-Youm weekly.

Widespread protests over soaring food prices and high unemployment were instrumental in toppling Tunisia’s ruler in the past week and Algeria is witnessing similar protests.

Libya is cutting taxes on food, and Kuwait introduced measures this week to subsidise food costs for its citizens.

“We had to increase prices repeatedly and customers turn away as a result,” said Ali Muhammad Nasser, a bakery shop owner in Sanaa. “Sometimes we don’t achieve profits because we sell with lower prices to encourage costumers to come.”

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