In March, tribesmen blew up the main pipeline in Marib province, the legendary birthplace of the Queen of Sheba and home to roughly half of Yemen’s oil reserves. The attack was carried out by a powerful tribal leader, Ali al-Shabwani, whose son was killed in a U.S. airstrike in May 2010.
The pipeline funnels crude to the nation’s main oil terminal in the southern port city of Aden for export and to be refined into gasoline. With Yemen bogged down in a popular uprising, the pipeline remains ruptured, with Shabwani and his heavily armed tribesmen refusing to allow the government access to the site until he gets justice for the airstrike, Yemeni officials said.
Around this sprawling, dun-colored capital nestled among jagged mountains, the consequences are apparent, including water shortages, high transportation costs and soaring food prices — posing great hardships in a nation where 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
Lines stretch for miles at gas stations that sell fuel at government-subsidized prices. On the black market, fuel costs three times as much. At some gas stations, gunfights have erupted.
“The sheik has no right to do this,” said Yahya Saleh Mohammed, 27, an accountant in Sanaa. He had been waiting in line for gas for two days in his green SUV; he was still a mile away from the gas station, a wait that he estimated would take one more day.
“Yes, [Shabwani] has suffered from the airstrike, but how can he make all the people suffer?” he said.
Many restaurants and stores are shuttered. Beggars have multiplied. At night, large portions of Sanaa are enveloped in darkness; electricity is available only for a few hours a day. The attacks on power plants and pipelines have continued, carried out from both sides of a widening political divide.
“Initially, these were anti-government tribes who wanted to place pressure on the regime,” said Adil Abdul Ghani, an official in the Electricity Ministry. “Now, however, they are pro-government ones attacking the plants because they want to show that the state cannot function without Ali Abdullah Saleh,” the longtime president.
‘Everybody is lost’
The contributing role of the U.S. airstrike in the fuel shortage is an indication of the growing fragility of Yemen’s economy during the five-month-old revolt. It also highlights the potential for U.S. policies to have harmful, if unintended, consequences in this politically brittle nation, where Washington has stepped up counterterrorism activities in recent months, with plans for the CIA to work closely with the Joint Special Operations Command in carrying out attacks with armed unmanned aircraft.