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Conflict-affected people wait to receive food
aid from a local relief group in Sana’a on March 4. EPA

Yemen food shipments hit as banks cut credit

LONDON/ABU DHABI, March 5, 2016

Banks have cut credit lines for traders shipping food to war-torn Yemen, where ports have been battlegrounds and the financial system is grinding to a halt, choking vital supplies to the state.

Lenders are increasingly unwilling to offer letters of credit - which guarantee that a buyer's payment to a seller will be received on time - for cargoes to a country plagued by a civil war between the government and Houthi militia as well as an al Qaeda insurgency, say banking and trading sources.

"Western international banks no longer feel comfortable processing payments and are not willing to take the risk," said an international commodities trading source active in Yemen.

"What this means is traders are saddled with even more risks and have to effectively guarantee entire cargoes, usually millions of dollars, before the prospect of getting paid," said the source, who declined to be named, citing security concerns. "There are just more and more obstacles now to bringing goods into Yemen."

Traders that procure food for Yemen are mostly smaller, private firms based locally or regionally that buy the goods from international markets. Reuters spoke to several sources who declined to be identified, also citing security concerns.

The situation has worsened rapidly in the past month after Yemen's central bank stopped providing favourable exchange rates for local traders buying rice and sugar from global markets, say the sources, further hindering trading of food, which accounts for a large proportion of the country's imports.

The decision to limit such rates to wheat and medicine - deemed more nationally crucial - was a bid to preserve fast-dwindling foreign currency reserves.

The financing difficulties have been one of the factors behind falling shipments to Yemen, according to the sources. In January, around 77 ships berthed at ports in Yemen, according to UN data, down from around 100 ships in March last year - when the civil war escalated - and a far cry from the hundreds of ships that called every month in previous years.

The consequences could be grave for Yemen, which the United Nations says is "on the brink of catastrophe". It relies on seaborne imports for almost all its food and 21 million out of 26 million people are in need of humanitarian support, with over half the population suffering from malnutrition.


A European banking source said some banks had decided to completely withdraw from offering credit lines on food trades to Yemen. "Even if a bank is willing to process a payment, which relates to food, they have to be careful," the source added.

Trading sources said banks that had been involved in Yemen's food trade have included Commerzbank, Deutsche Bank and HSBC as well as regional Middle East banks.

Commerzbank and Deutsche Bank declined to comment. HSBC said it continued to support customers trading across the Mena region including Yemen "subject to relevant regulatory and commercial controls".

Yemeni banks are also feeling the pressure. Aidros Mohammed, an official with state-run National Bank of Yemen, said since the end of last year it had stopped opening letters of credit for the trade of goods in general "as outside banks have stopped dealing with us".

Watheq Ali Hamed, the manager of a store in Sanaa, said the decision by the central bank regarding rice and sugar purchases would be felt by ordinary Yemenis.

"Prices are already going up because of the war and the rise in the cost of securing the goods," he said. "The full effects of that decision will be felt going forward. Luckily, we still have some stocks."

Slowing of imports and rising prices could pose grave problems for Yemen, where areas are at risk of famine.

The country lacks sufficient seasonal rains, has limited access to farming areas and facing rising costs of agricultural supplies, a report by a UN food agency said in January. – Reuters

Tags: yemen | traders | Food crisis | bank credit |

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