Traders threaten strike in Houthi-controlled Yemen as rebels ban currency

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Traders in Houthi-controlled areas have called for an open strike starting on Wednesday to protest against the rebels’ decision to ban trading with new currency notes. (Supplied: Saaed Al-Batati)
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Workers at local exchange companies told Arab News on Monday that they would shutter businesses until Houthis revoked the decision or provided them with the old notes. (Supplied: Saaed Al-Batati)
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Workers at local exchange companies told Arab News on Monday that they would shutter businesses until Houthis revoked the decision or provided them with the old notes. (Supplied: Saaed Al-Batati)
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Updated 30 December 2019

Traders threaten strike in Houthi-controlled Yemen as rebels ban currency

  • The Houthis recently banned people from using newly printed notes
  • The Yemeni government in Aden has condemned the decision

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Traders in Houthi-controlled areas have called for an open strike starting on Wednesday to protest against the rebels’ decision to ban trading with new currency notes issued by the internationally recognized government in Aden.

Workers at local exchange companies told Arab News on Monday that they would shutter businesses until Houthis revoked the decision or provided them with the old notes.

The strike would be the biggest act of civil disobedience against Houthi suppression since the Iran-backed rebels seized power in late 2014. 

The Houthis recently banned people from using the newly printed notes, asking them to replace their notes with a virtual currency called the “electronic riyal.” The move has caused widespread anger, with people leaving Houthi areas with their cash to avoid confiscation.

The Yemeni government in Aden has condemned the decision, calling it a pretext for ripping off people and warned against trading with the Houthi currency or handing over money to the Houthis. Several cabinet ministers did not respond to Arab News requests to comment on the decision.

Speaking to Arab News from inside Houthi-controlled areas, people expressed anger as many have kept their savings in the new notes. If they comply with the Houthis, they will be broke overnight.

“The people in the Houthi-controlled areas are experiencing a complex frustration,” a Yemeni journalist who lives in a Houthi-controlled city told Arab News on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

“People face various security and economical troubles caused by the Houthis. They imposed the decision, indifferent to the already deteriorating humanitarian situation,” he said, adding that a large number of people refused to hand over their new notes to the Houthis, fearing bankruptcy or hunger. 

Residents say that the decision has created a black market where the new notes are changed with old ones at a lower price. Other residents have resorted to buying hard currencies from the black market at inflated rates. Some are smuggling themselves into government-controlled areas with bags of cash that they deposit into bank accounts or replace with old notes.

A trader in Sana’a who had 8,000,000 Yemeni riyals ($32,000) in the new notes traveled to the central province of Marib to replace them with old notes.

In September 2016, Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi moved the central bank headquarters from Sana’a to the southern city of Aden to stop Houthis plundering its reserves. From its new headquarters, the bank printed new notes when the country was experiencing a severe cash crunch. The Houthis deemed the new notes illegal and accused the government of sinking the market with liquidity.

Experts say that the Houthi decision would have disastrous effects on the country’s troubled economy, stabilization of the currency and people’s lives.

“This decision is disastrous, improvizational and illogical and will have a wider negative impact on the economy,” Mustafa Nasr, director of the Economic Media Center, told Arab News on Sunday, adding that the Houthis would fail to impose their decision due to public mistrust.

“The Houthis cannot cancel a circulating currency or initiate another one in the same country mainly with the scarcity of the old notes,” he said, arguing that the Houthis are using the currency as leverage to pressure the Yemeni government in Aden to deal again with the central bank in Sana’a. 

“The Houthi group would not be able to put into place their electronic riyal. They are using this as a pressure tool on the international community and the internationally recognized government (of Yemen) to restore the central bank in Sana’a.”

Shortly after the Houthis began confiscating the new notes, banks and exchange companies suffered cash problems, triggering them to increase remittance charges five times.

Nasr warned that the larger impact of the Houthi decision would be on the stabilization of the currency, affecting everyone in the country.  

“It puts the country’s economy in the wind by undermining monetary policies that led to the stabilization of the riyal this year. It will stifle the private sector and force it into using under-the-table options,” he said.

Lebanon’s coronavirus crisis spurs race to tackle looming ventilator shortage

Updated 53 min 49 sec ago

Lebanon’s coronavirus crisis spurs race to tackle looming ventilator shortage

  • Multiple teams of engineers take up the challenge to fabricate prototype of life-saving machine
  • Many Middle East countries stand to benefit if efforts to build affordable units are successful

DUBAI: As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the world, many countries are finding themselves in dire need of a machine that until now was used to support the odd patient with severe respiratory conditions.
In the Middle East, the problem is especially acute given the region’s history of conflict, instability and weak governance.
Buying ventilators in large numbers (at a rate of $25,000 per unit) was never a priority for governments with long, pressing to-do lists.
But now, suddenly, across the Arab region people face a choice between waiting and watching, or doing something on their own before coronavirus cases overwhelm their country’s health system.
In Lebanon, several groups of people have taken the second option. Their objective is straightforward: To build an affordable ventilator, a machine that mechanically assists a patient in the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide by a process of artificial respiration.


 One of the initiatives is the brainchild of Dr. Hussein Al-Hajj Hassan, 30, who launched a Facebook drive to create an artificial ventilator entitled “A Breather for All Lebanon.”
Together with two alumni of the Lebanese University’s Faculty of Engineering, Hisham Issa and Hussein Hamdan, both engineers currently working abroad, Hassan has made it his mission to manufacture the machine.
“We might not be capable of serving everyone in hospitals, but there’s a possibility of manufacturing the machine here,” Hassan, who holds a Ph.D. in engineering from IMT Atlantique in France, told Arab News.
“So we conducted a study on the expertise we needed, whose results I posted on my Facebook page. The post went viral and people started calling me.”

To ensure its suitability for use by hospitals, the ventilator will be fabricated as per the specifications contained in a nine-page document issued by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
“We’re working to meet the MHRA specifications,” Hassan said. “We’re working in an incremental way, setting milestones and going forward toward each of them.”
According to the three engineers, although their ventilator is now in an advanced stage of development, they are struggling with the lack of availability of key components in Lebanon.
“If you want a perfect medical device, you need medical equipment, which isn’t available here, so we’re trying to find alternatives,” said Hassan.
Once the team has fabricated a successful prototype, ramping up production to meet the shortage of ventilators should not be a problem, he added. “What’s important is that the prototype meets all the requirements,” he said.
Hassan believes the Arab region is aware of the dangers of a shortage of ventilators at this time, pointing to countries such as Jordan, Palestine, Morocco, Algeria and others that have contacted him.

Employees of a private company spray sanitising liquid around a bank in a bid to limit the spread of the cornonavirus Covid-19, in the Lebanese capital Beirut. (AFP/File Photo)

“It’s nice to see that people are aware,” he said. “Lebanese people are skilled and full of energy. This, coupled with their determination, will enable them to achieve their goal.”
Another Lebanese innovator who is not counting on divine providence is Jad Berro, who said it became obvious to him about two weeks ago that the coronavirus pandemic was not going to spare Lebanon.
He began working in mid-March on a prototype of a basic automated bag valve mask.
“Lacking enough medical information at the time on mechanical ventilation, the general thought was that something simple could solve the imminent problem of ventilator shortage,” he told Arab News.



Number of ventilators needed globally

“I make a living out of making products and prototypes, so we had a basic ventilator running (within a few days). This was a record by any standards.”
Elaborating on the contraption, Berro said: “The prototype can control the tidal volume, breaths per minute and the inhale-to-exhale ratio, with monitoring of excess pressure and internal self-tests to guarantee that the mechanism is functioning normally at all times.” But the functions are “very basic” and cannot be a replacement for a ventilator, he admits. 
Berro said he halted production out of “ethical and moral concerns” as using it would have meant hooking patients to a device that had not been properly tested and did not offer any guarantee it would work for extended periods of time.
“What’s needed is a unified basic design that’s proven and tested, after which it might be possible to actually manufacture the machine,” he said.

Employees of a Lebanese public health company pose with their protective gear on in Beirut March 24, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

“Numbers in Lebanon show that we have close to around 600 ventilators. The absolute worst-case surge requirement would be around 2,800. The crisis is global and the deficiencies are the same worldwide.”
It is estimated that worldwide, about 10 percent of patients with COVID-19 infection need ventilators.
Reports say about 880,000 more ventilators will be needed to deal with the demand caused by the global coronavirus pandemic.
Berro said efforts are being made to technologically enable one ventilator to service multiple patients of similar lung capacities.
“As global manufacturers are gearing up production of ventilators and medical devices, we can expect a slight relief,” he added.



Percentage of COVID-19 patients who need ventilators

“China seems to have successfully flattened the curve and might be able to send ventilators and medical supplies to other parts of the globe. A used ventilator is certainly better than a makeshift one.”
Another Lebanese ventilator prototype has been unveiled by MP Nehmat Frem two weeks after he initiated a project in collaboration with a group of specialized engineers and doctors.
The machine, targeted for use in intensive care units (ICUs) in Lebanese hospitals, is being built to high specifications, incorporating the latest technological features developed by Phoenix Co., an affiliate of Lebanon’s INDEVCO Industrial Group.
“We decided to fight with all our means in Lebanon,” said Frem, who is also the group CEO. “We wouldn’t have accepted the prospect of dying without doing anything, so we decided to put in all our efforts and strength, and it’s starting to yield results.”
Clinical trials of the ventilators are estimated very soon, he said, adding that plans are simultaneously afoot to manufacture face masks.

“We still need some progress on the human-to-machine interface, which is the design,” he told Arab News.
“We’re fabricating the most complicated version of the ventilator — that is, the one used in ICUs.”
Phoenix Co.’s project had kicked off with a six-hour briefing by doctors, which was followed by the creation of a small taskforce comprising doctors, suppliers and biomedical engineers.
The challenge for Lebanon and other Arab countries, according to Frem, will be in purchasing material used to build ventilators in the needed quantities.
“I presume the coronavirus crisis will add stress on suppliers in Europe, the US and the Far East,” he said.
“So we’re now in sourcing mode — to locate what’s available, starting with our main suppliers.”
Frem feels Lebanon is not prepared for a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases, noting that at the current rate, “we’ll have big numbers in 50 days, which is worrying.”
Nevertheless, “it’s encouraging to see the fantastic work of startups and engineers,” he said. “We have to get rid of this ‘can’t do’ attitude in the Middle East once and for all. We’ll never surrender.”
Berro offered a similar take on the looming ventilator shortage amid the regional coronavirus crisis.
“Arabs survive on imports in times of prosperity as well as in times of crises,” he said. “This isn’t acceptable and needs to change.”



The approximate cost of a ventilator