Two new currencies menace Yemen’s economy

Yemen’s warring sides opened a new front in their five-year conflict on Saturday, a battle over old and new banknotes that threaten to create two economies in the same country.

As of midnight, the Houthi militia which controls the capital Sanaa outlawed the use and possession of crisp new Yemeni riyal bills issued by its rivals in the internationally -recognized 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. And the population, as ever, have been left stuck in the crossfire.

Yemenis from both sides told Reuters 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, turning the grubby and torn bills into a prized and relatively scarce commodity.

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, an area now awash with new bills.

That relative strength might look like a boon for northerners, if only they could get hold of enough of the old notes in time to keep afloat in the largely cash-based economy.