Yemen’s warring factions battle over banknotes

Updated January 19, 2020

Email

SANAA: In this Jan 7 photo, employees count bundles of Yemeni riyal at the Central Bank of Yemen.—Reuters
SANAA: In this Jan 7 photo, employees count bundles of Yemeni riyal at the Central Bank of Yemen.—Reuters

SANAA: Yemen’s warring sides opened a new front in their five-year conflict on Saturday — a battle over old and new banknotes that threatens to create two economies in the same state.

As of midnight, the Houthi movement which controls the capital Sanaa outlawed the use and possession of crisp new Yemeni riyal bills issued by its rivals in the internationally recognised government based in the southern port town of Aden.

The Iran-allied Houthis, who say people should only use the old bills, have defended the ban as a move against inflation and what they call rampant money-printing by the government.

The government has branded the ban an act of economic vandalism.

SANAA: In this Jan 7 photo, employees count bundles of Yemeni riyal at the Central Bank of Yemen.—Reuters
SANAA: In this Jan 7 photo, employees count bundles of Yemeni riyal at the Central Bank of Yemen.—Reuters

Yemenis from both sides said the ban had effectively created two currencies with diverging values, adding to the turmoil in a state already governed by two powers and brought to its knees by the war.

In the one-month build up to the ban, people in Houthi-controlled areas have been queuing to try to exchange their new riyal notes for old.

The riyal stood at about 560 to the dollar across Yemen before the ban was announced in mid-December. The rate has since slipped a little in Houthi-controlled areas to around 582, but slumped much further to 642 in the south.

North-south trade has become far more expensive as traders have to buy and sell two types of riyal — told apart by the state of the paper and the different sizes and designs.

Many people in Sanaa said they felt the ban was needed to constrain inflation. But they were facing difficulties in the short-term.

“When people saw that new currency come into circulation, they held onto it as it was new and shiny. But now it’s a problem that they have it,” said 28-year-old Abdallah Bashiri, a private sector worker in Sanaa.

After the Houthis stormed Sanaa in 2014 and ousted the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s central bank split into two branches — one in Sanaa, under Houthi control, and one internationally recognised branch in Aden, which has access to money printers.

The Aden authorities have defended their decision to step up the printing of new money from 2017, saying it was an attempt to deal with a building cash crunch and pay public sector salaries.

Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2020