One of the more intriguing and unexpected consequences of the fall of President Saleh in Yemen is that the national pastime of
chewing qat has begun to be seriously challenged. An ambitious plan presented to parliament last week seeks to eradicate qat from Yemen by 2033.
Politically, the idea of trying to wean Yemenis away from their favourite leaf – even if it is spread over a 20-year period – is no less challenging and risky than President Obama's move to wean Americans from their love of guns. (Yemenis, incidentally, have a penchant for guns too, but that's another issue.)
Qat in Yemen is a national institution. Most men chew it, as do a sizeable minority of women. Communal chewing sessions begin after lunch and often continue until sundown. It's a pleasant, sociable way to spend an afternoon but, repeated day after day as tends to happen in Yemen, it clearly doesn't help the nation's productivity. There are also health risks associated with long-term qat use.
In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, qat is banned on religious grounds and offenders can be executed but in Yemen even al-Qaeda has shied away from expressing a view on it.
According to Peer Gatter, author of a new book, Politics of Qat – The Role of a Drug in Ruling Yemen, the jihadists fear that taking a stance against qat at this stage would alienate too many people. So if jihadists are nervous about grasping the nettle, why is Yemen's transitional government – which already has a daunting array of problems to deal with – apparently preparing to do so?
The main reason is economics. With Yemen's modest oil and gas reserves in decline, the country has to look for other ways to earn its keep. Among other things, it needs to produce crops that feed the domestic market and provide revenue from exports.
Qat has no nutritional value and virtually no serious export potential, and yet the amount of land devoted to qat cultivation is said to have increased 18-fold during the last 30 years. Meanwhile, production of coffee – which does have export potential – has seen a significant decline.
For growers, qat is a very lucrative crop but it is also water-intensive. This has led to excessive drilling of wells to ever-deeper levels as the underground supplies become depleted until, as many reports have warned, the country is now on the brink of a water crisis.
Aside from these economic issues, the Yemeni moves against qat can also be viewed as an interesting experiment in managing change. Effective governance has always been one of Yemen's weak points – as it has to varying degrees in other Arab countries too. In the past, Arab regimes have tended to govern by diktat, issuing decrees that often proved futile – the attempts to ban camera phones in Saudi Arabia and female genital cutting in Egypt are just a couple of examples. Such laws generally turn out to be unenforceable unless a substantial body of the public sees merit in them.
Even the most ardent anti-qat campaigners recognise that a ban in Yemen, certainly at this stage, would be impracticable and unworkable. Instead, the aim is to bring about a gradual change in people's attitudes – making qat less socially-acceptable – accompanied by legislation to discourage production and consumption.
Under the latest plan, shops selling qat would need a licence and sales of qat on the street would become illegal. Qat growers would also receive government help in switching to alternative crops. Converting new land to qat production would become illegal, as would the digging of new wells to water the plants.
In parallel with that, the plan envisages a public awareness campaign on the dangers of excessive qat use as well as "social support and medical assistance" for those suffering from qat-related illnesses. There are similarities here with government campaigns in other countries to discourage smoking.
This approach may smack of paternalism but it's also very much in line with the spirit of the Arab Spring – the idea that government action needs public consent.
Qat has been chewed in Yemen for centuries, though in the past it was regarded as an occasional pleasure rather than a daily necessity. Consumption has increased dramatically in recent decades, prompting some to describe it as an epidemic. There have been attempts to curb the habit before (most notably when sourthern Yemen was ruled by Marxists) and in 1999 President Saleh announced that he was giving up qat and taking up exercise and computing instead. It is unclear whether he actually did so.
One important consideration in the latest campaign will be the attitude of tribes in the qat-growing areas who are capable of causing havoc for the government if they feel their economic interests are threatened. A lot will depend on how they perceive the incentives to switch to potentially less lucrative crops, such as coffee.
That is certainly a daunting task and it's possible the current moves against qat will fizzle out as others have done before. But the government does have strong economic reasons for staying the course this time and there is also more information available now than in the past about the health risks. Mouth cancers are one of them, and unwashed qat leaves are often tainted with pesticides.
Government efforts could also be helped if Yemen's still-small band of anti-qat activists manage to keep the isssue in the public eye. Last month they had a modest success when human rights minister Horriah Mashhour forbade qat chewing on ministry premises during working hours. Employees were urged to consume raisins, almonds and tea instead.
With qat sessions taking up such a large part of the day, though, Yemenis who want to give up or curtail their habit face the question of what to do instead. Apart from work and TV, Yemen doesn't have many alternatives to offer.
A recent article in the Yemen Times claimed to detect the emergence of a qat-free cafe culture with youth appeal. Two new cafes in Sana'a – the Frisco Cafe and the Facebook Cafe – aim to provide a social space away from the temptations of qat. Frisco says it wants to become a forum for "creative literary and artistic talents" and is also holding hip-hop dance contests every Thursday.
Yemen, however, is one of the world's poorest countries and such ventures tend to attract only the urban elite. And, given a choice between hip-hop and qat, most Yemenis would still probably settle for qat.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 December 2012