Politics of Qat - The Role of a Drug in Ruling Yemen

by Peer Gatter

For Imam Yahya, one of Yemen's last kings, qat was a delight that he praised in poems. For his adversary, the revolutionary al-Zubayri, the plant was the "devil in the shape of a tree".

Still today the views on qat greatly diverge. For some, qat farming is the perpetuum mobile of Yemen's rural economy and qat chewing an age-old social pursuit that has helped to preserve Yemeni identity in a rapidly changing world. For others, qat is the main inhibitor of human and economic development in Yemen and is to blame for poverty and corruption, the depletion of Yemen's water resources and the country's sloppy approach to fighting Islamist terror.

While some believe that qat chewing was the very motor of Yemen's "Arab Spring", others hold it responsible for Yemen's muddled revolution with its high blood toll. In internet blogs even al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and sympathizers discuss the pros and cons of the drug, and a number of Yemeni suicide bombers have met their fate with qat-filled cheeks. A final decision of al-Qaeda on what stance to adopt towards the drug has seemingly been postponed. The Jihadists want to avoid alienating Yemen's population with a premature ban of the popular stimulant before having gained firm control over the country. Al-Qaeda has learned from the mistakes of its Islamist sister organization, the al-Shabab militia in war-torn Somalia.

With Yemen's 2011 "Youth Revolution", a decade of half-hearted qat policies and missed opportunities has come to an end - a decade, however, that has succeeded in lifting the veil of silence that was cast over qat in media and politics after President Ali Abdullah Salih came to power in 1978. This whitewash had been part of a ruling bargain between the Salih regime and the unruly tribes that had imparted highland Yemen several decades of relative stability and Salih a 33-year rule.

With the forecast depletion of Yemen's oil and gas reserves within the next decade, the economic importance of qat will further increase and will bring about an important shift in the balance of power from the central government towards the qat producing highland tribes. The challenge of addressing the qat problem is thus tremendous for Yemen's policy makers. While the transitional government is hesitant about its future qat course and anxious not to open a "war" on yet another front, Yemen's anti-qat activists have seized the current, favorable climate of change. Emboldened by Yemen's revolution and the ouster of President Salih they have recently launched a series of campaigns against the drug, dubbed a "revolution on one's self ".

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Vol. 20 of the series Jemen-Studien (Yemen Studies) of the Ludwig Reichert Verlag, Wiesbaden, 2012.
ISBN 978-3-89500-910-5 , 880 pages (hard cover, size 280 x 210 mm), 441 black & white illustrations, 79 color illustrations, 29 diagrams & 27 maps.

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Table of Contents
Sample chapter: Zaydi Insurgency - The Role of Qat in Sa'da Warfare
Sample chapter: Qat and Yemen's "Youth Revolution"
Sample chapter: How Qat changes the Island of Socotra
Map & color plate section (selected pages) (large file: 18 MB)
Index of the Book
Qat Publications by Peer Gatter

Table of Contents (Arabic version)
(Arabic version)


Editor's Preface


Links to further Studies by the Author
There are few publications regarding Yemen that omit the phenomenon of qat. Of the abundance of books and articles dedicated to this drug, not a small number address the question of whether qat is in fact a 'drug'. Even within the European Union, until today this question is discussed controversially: In Germany qat is banned, in Great Britain it is legal, and in the Netherlands a potential ban is debated fervently at present. Is not everything yet known about this substance that shapes the daily life of Yemen and of Yemenis to a greater extent than so many other things? A closer analysis of the literature on qat shows that we are very well informed about the history, pharmacology, biochemistry, the health effects as well as the social aspects of qat. But a literature review soon reveals that little is thus far known on the economics, not to mention the politics, of qat. The political dimension of the phenomenon - a pivotal topic - has so far been almost entirely neglected by scientific research: In what way is qat an instrument of power in the political sense? Peer Gatter presents a remarkable work hereto, based on his intensive knowledge of the subject matter: For many years he lived in Yemen and, at the periphery of his work for the United Nations and the World Bank and as an advisor in various Yemeni ministries and member of international committees, gathered an impressive material on qat - always accompanied by participant observation and numerous field surveys. He thereby gained deep insights into social, economic and political processes surrounding the qat issue that had so far remained sealed even to the eyes of experts on the region. Peer Gatter was given access to materials that open entirely new perspectives on the "phenomenon of qat". The revolutionary movements that have held Yemen in their grip for the past year have lent the study further relevance, as the qat problem plays a central role in this context. Indeed, it can be said without hesitation: power-plays, corruption, clientelism, and the personalized political system of Yemen become understandable only if the qat factor is appropriately taken into account. In this respect, the work in hand stimulates a deeper understanding of the functioning of Yemeni society. It not only encapsulates previous knowledge on qat, but also embellishes it with a highly important component - the political dimension.

Horst Kopp, June 2012

Some press reviews in Yemeni newspapers










Keywords: Khat Chat Gat Miraa Marungi Bushman's Tea Arabian Tea Eritrea Israel Germany United States US Canada Great Britain Sana'a Aden, Ali Abdullah Salih, Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din, Imam Ahmad Hamid al-Din, Shayk Husayn al-Ahmar, General Muhsin al-Ahmar, Badr al-Din al-Huthi, Yemen, Jemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sana'a, Sanaa, Aden, Taizz, Ta'izz, Sada, Sa'da, Marib, Mukalla, Seyoun, Sayun, Sey'un, Socotra, Sokotra, Hashid, Bakil, Bayt al-Ahmar, Hamdan, Arabic, Somali, Amharic, Socotri, English, drug policy, water, petroleum, oil, rentier state, market geograpgy, botany, biodiversity, agriculture, terrace agriculture, poverty, tribes, colonialism (Great Britain, France, Italy), Yemeni history, Islamic history, Islam, Ismailis, Yemenite Jews, Wahhabism, Arab poetry, Islamic terrorism, al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, corruption, secession, decentralization, Political Science, Strategic Studies, terrorism, Middle Eastern Studies, Arab Studies, Islamwissenschaft, East Africa Studies / (Ost-) Afrikawissenschaften, Medicine, Pharmacology, Ethnopharmacy / Medizin / Pharmakologie / Ethnopharmaka, Development cooperation / Entwicklungszusammenarbeit, Botany