Saturday, March 17, 2012

DeQatifying a Nation: A Ten Step Program for a Qat Free Yemen

A lot of controversy surrounded last week’s episode of the popular and controversial Al Jazeera talk show “The Opposite Direction المعاكس الاتجاه” which focused on the Yemeni Revolution.

Social networks were flooding with angry comments and demands for a public apology from the show’s host, Dr. Faisal al Qassem, who frustratingly described Yemen as a “drunk nation,” when he said to one of his guests:

“How do you expect your nation to rise when your people are drunk [drugged] 24 hours a day [on Qat]?”

The anger on Twitter and Facebook wasn’t just restricted to Dr. Al Qassem but was also directed at Dubai Police Chief Dahi Khalfan Tamim who criticized the Yemenis in his speech at the GCC National and Regional Security Conference in Bahrain in late January 2012, when he said:

If you go to Yemen during work hours, you will see that the people do not work… As long as they use Qat, Yemen will continue to be a burden on the Gulf States. Do not give them aid, unless they declare a revolution against Qat. Otherwise, our money will be going down the drain.”

After watching the video clips, I found myself embarrassed but not the least bit offended by the comments because they were, very simply, true.

While some might argue that better words may have been used by Dr. AlQassem in conveying his frustration, the essence of the message he was trying to get across pretty much flew over the heads of a majority of Yemenis, who took this as a personal attack on their identity and heritage.

The core of the message is simple: Qat is a national plague, chewing away at Yemen’s limited resources and causing alarming regression and systematic disintegration of the economy – not to mention the average citizen’s declining productivity, mentality, and work ethic.

Qat and Yemen’s Water Supply:

According to a report released by McKinsey & Company, an international management consulting firm, it is estimated that the capital city Sana’a will run out of water by 2025. It is also estimated that Yemen as a country could be the very first in the world to run out of water in 15-50 years as water consumption is four times the amount of water being fed back into the country’s aquifers. Currently, tap water is supplied to homes only once every four days in Sana’a and once every 20 days in cities like Taiz.

So where is our limited water going? It is estimated that over 40% of Yemen’s water supply is going towards the irrigation of Qat, a shocking figure which is, believe it or not, a conservative one.

Qat as an Economy and Social Practice:

Chewing Qat, due to its social participatory structure, has created a multimillion riyal economy of its own. The prices of Qat tend to increase during the winter, when the cold weather destroys many crops, and decreases during the summer. It is not unusual to find a case whereby a citizen, living on less than the equivalent of $3 a day, is spending the majority of his income on Qat for himself and for his nine children, instead of food, education, etc.

Qat has become an integral part of the Yemeni culture and identity, consumed daily in social gatherings, weddings and funerals by the majority of the country. Due to the long hours spent chewing, most Yemenis spend the majority of their day being unproductive in social gatherings, while Qat chews away at their mentalities leaf by leaf.

A common excuse you hear from Yemenis is, “Every country needs a drug. At least we are not all Hashish addicts,” a premise I totally reject. This sounds like what an alcoholic, yet to admit they have an addiction, would say, and is evidenced by a decaying mentality represented by pouches the size of tennis balls resting in the cheeks of Yemeni citizens.

The Health Risks:

Consuming Qat causes mild euphoria, an effect which is similar to that of having a few cups of coffee preceded by a sense of relaxation.  Studies have shown that whilst being a relatively mild drug, less harmful and addictive than tobacco and alcohol, Qat can cause many diseases in the long term including gum and stomach cancer, liver disease, diabetes, urinary tract infections, etc. Yet many Yemeni don’t believe that Qat has any effect on their health.

The Solution - 10 Steps for Gradual Eradication:

Eradicating Qat is necessary, but it’s certainly not going to be an easy job. Therefore, it is natural to say that eradicating Qat will have to be done in a gradual manner rather than an immediate “prohibition era” style discontinuation. So here are the key steps I believe should be undertaken in the short- to medium-timeframe to gradually rid our country of this terrible poison:

1. Introducing high taxes on the farmers growing Qat as well as distributors of Qat. This would cause an immediate rise in the prices making it less affordable.

2. Introducing financial incentives for farmers growing non-Qat crops such as fruits and vegetables, including easy long-term loan facilities (interest free of course).

3. Collaborative campaigns lead by the Ministries of Agriculture, Trade & Manufacturing to provide government-sponsored farming equipment and aid to farmers growing non-Qat crops.

4. Establishing quasi-governmental and private institutions mandated with marketing Yemeni fruits and vegetables in local and foreign markets, boosting Yemen’s agricultural exports.

5. Creating new local and foreign markets for Yemeni harvests through inter-governmental trade agreements. The perfect clients would be the GCC countries and the rest of the Arab world. This is a guaranteed way to increase profitability and create jobs. It also doesn’t hurt that many GCC countries have already expressed their interest in creating such markets as well as assisting in combating Qat.

6. An immediate ban on the sale of Qat within all the major cities in Yemen, restricting the sale of Qat to designated markets situated on the outskirts of the cities. This should be coupled with hefty fines for anyone selling Qat outside the designated areas or to anyone under the age of 18.

7. Enforcing strict working hours in government and private institutions (8 am to 3 pm). This would not allow the average employee enough time to travel to the outskirts of the city to purchase Qat and be home for lunch and prayers. Consequently, the consumption of Qat will be postponed to the weekends.

8. Providing social alternatives to Qat. This requires investments in sports centers, youth centers, cultural programs, extracurricular activities and campaigns, etc.

 9. Aggressive nationwide media awareness campaigns highlighting the health effects of Qat. This should run parallel to intensive awareness programs embedded in school and university curriculums.

 10.Banning the consumption of Qat in all civil, military and governmental institutions, clinics, hospitals, airports, private companies and public areas with hefty fines for non-compliance enforced by a dedicated task force.

These steps will undoubtedly face a lot of resistance and rejection, as they demand a cultural and societal change. However, it is important for us Yemenis to realize that unless the population goes into collective rehab using the above steps as their guidelines, we risk undoing all the achievements we have gained through our most recent revolution.

If the last year has proved anything, it’s that the youth of our country are capable of fighting through social norms and habits to demand and achieve change. We need a fresh revolution on Qat and for the first time in decades, we have the soldiers to implement it.

Let’s get to work…


Mohammed Khamis


  1. There isn't really much more to add on what you wrote up there. Loved the 10 steps.


  2. Frankly Mohd, it will be difficult (I am not saying impossible), since a good number of those 'soldiers' where themselves using Qat while demonstrating during the revolution.

  3. One thing you can add Mohd, that infrastructure needs to be greatly improved to help the farmers get their products to export markets cheaply and within a short timespan. For instance, Ibb is considered one of the food baskets of Yemen, with a lot of agricultural land. Imagine the route farmers have to take to send their produce to say, neighboring Saudi Arabia. While a decent road network existed (at least during my my visit in 2010 double carriage to both Taiz and Sanaa was there if not mistaken), it can be further improved. What if further to that, a special airport is equipped in the area or nearby cities with cold stores to cater for the farmers to immediately ship their produce to export markets. The same can be replicated in all areas having agricultural potential even if in different forms like railways depending on the area. The government should work to make it sensible to the farmers to grow other crops as the incentives you discussed, though important in the beginning, may not be sustainable in the long term.

  4. Thanks for your comments Said. Unfortunately many of the demonstrators in our revolution were not only using Qat, but also putting their revolutionary activities on hold at around 2pm to go and purchase Qat. This is evidence of how deep this epidemic is rooted within our community.

    I still however believe that we have enough people who are anti-QAT and could very well spearhead this campaign even at an awareness level. More and more people are now admitting to the problem at the very least (something that was impossible at the past). But we have to remain positive and attempt in any way possible to suggest and implement the solutions.

    As for your second comment, I am absolutely and 100% in agreement. Lack of infrastructure remains one of the key obstacles in exploiting Yemen’s potential. Not only in agriculture but also in Tourism, Social Services , and connecting rural areas to urban cities.

    Whilst you mentioned inadequate routes to neighboring countries, I believe we should focus on building adequate transportation routes to neighboring cities with in Yemen as well. Currently the route from Sana’a to Hodaida for example takes over 3 hours. If Tunnels were built through the mountains, the distance could be covered in half the time.

    The specialty airports suggestion is also a fantastic idea and one that could all the more give incentives to farmers to participate in the expansion of the exports market. Its this kind of governmental support that would make the fight on Qat a more believable one.

    Thank you very much for your comments,