Women Only at Yemeni Gas Station as Shortages Strain Nerves

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A Woman Rides A Bicycle In Sana'a As Yemen Faces Fuel Shortage
Bushra Al-Fusail, a rights activist, organized a small group of women biking outdoors during the brief cease-fire to break the local stigma over women riding bicycles. Photographer: Bushra Al-Fusail/Bloomberg

The gas station Yemeni photographer Bushra Al-Fusail uses in Sana’a serves only women. Around the capital, others are open only to taxis, motorcycles or private cars.

As a war with Saudi-backed forces enters a third month, Shiite Houthi rebels ruling the city are trying to grant equal access to diminishing supplies to prevent a humanitarian crisis from boiling over into popular unrest.

“All our thoughts and worries are how to get water, petrol and electricity,” Fusail, who recently spent eight hours queuing for fuel, said by phone. “That’s what we think about when we wake up.”

When the Houthi rebels captured Sana’a last year, discontent over a government decision to raise fuel prices helped mute resistance to their rule. Now as fighting rages, shortages of food, fuel and medicine are angering both Yemenis who supported the Shiite takeover and those loyal to ousted President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, whose exiled administration has backed weeks of Saudi-led aerial bombardment.

“You can expect a reaction from the population at any point,” said Sultan Barakat, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “If it gets any worse it will have a negative impact on all sides. It will be a disaster.”

The United Nations says at least 1,800 people have been killed since March, when a Saudi-led coalition started bombing the Houthis and their allies to restore Hadi’s government. Dozens were killed and wounded on Wednesday when warplanes struck the headquarters of the special security forces in Sana’a and other locations, al-Masdar independent news website reported.

No Talks

The UN on Tuesday postponed peace talks that had been scheduled for Geneva on May 28, because Yemen’s parties aren’t ready. Hadi, who is based in the Saudi capital Riyadh, said his government wouldn’t attend unless the Houthis disarm and retreat from areas they’ve captured. The Houthis demanded an end to Saudi airstrikes before talks start.

A five-day humanitarian pause this month allowed more aid shipments into the country of 26 million. Still, aid groups say fuel scarcity slows their ability to transport supplies.

Local authorities in 11 cities, including Sana’a and the ports of Aden and Hodeidah, have asked aid groups to provide them with more than 2 million liters of fuel for their water supply systems, Oxfam said on Tuesday. They also say there isn’t enough fuel to pump and treat raw sewage.

Some hospitals have closed because they are unable to keep medical supplies refrigerated or perform operations since they can’t run backup generators, Grant Pritchard, head of advocacy for Oxfam Yemen, said by phone from Amman.

Meanwhile, fuel prices have spiked five times, according to the UN. On Thursday, Fusail said she paid 4,000 Yemeni riyals ($18.60) for 40 liters of gas. On the black market, 20 liters cost 18,000 Yemeni riyals, she said.

Military Operations

While the rebels’ military operations are unlikely to be affected by the shortages, they will struggle to control the institutions they have taken over, such as schools and hospitals, said Barakat of Brookings.

In the capital, more men are riding bicycles to get around. During the brief cease-fire, Fusail organized a public cycle ride for a small group of women in a challenge to conservative Yemeni society.

Despite the bleak outlook, Fusail, a rights activist, said that the women-only gas station offers some respite. On a recent visit, two women oversaw operations, while those in line talked and shared snacks. Men pumped the gas. She plans to return this week.

“When I went there, I saw all my friends,” she said. “Somehow, it was fun.”

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