Can a drug and the many people who use it really explain the problems of an entire country? That’s the thrust of Peer Gatter’s photo series over at Foreign Policy and, presumably, his $160, 900-page book Politics of Qat: The Role of a Drug in Ruling Yemen (which VM has not yet read). Qat, if you don’t know, is a mildly narcotic plant grown in the Yemeni highlands. Just about every single Yemeni man chews it after lunch and sometimes throughout the day. It is said that producing qat employs one in seven Yemenis and uses 30 percent of Yemen’s (dangerously limited) water supply.
Gatter blames all of Yemen’s problems on qat. “The Politics of Qat: How one plant explains Yemen’s dysfunction,” is the title of his photo essay. Poor qat chewers, he says, are prime recruiting targets for al Qaeda. “Efforts to reduce qat consumption might over time be more effective in securing Yemen against militant Islam than measures to boost the drone program in the country.”
Gatter isn’t the first to make these allegations. In 2010, Congressman David Scott (D, SC) said of Yemen’s many qat chewers, “They were police officers, they were businessmen … It is the driving characteristic of that economy, of that culture. That is not only making Yemen a failed state — it has become a failed state.” Former Representative Gary Ackerman elaborated: “These people spend the afternoon getting away from reality, getting high…it’s like, wow.”
Blaming qat for all of Yemen’s problems is, you might say, not the entire story. “You, Gary Ackerman, know absolutely nothing about qat,” wrote Brian O’Neill, an experienced Yemen analyst. “People aren’t walking around like Fonda and Hopper down the streets of San’a. Qat is a mild stimulant that helps you relax and converse. It doesn’t make you flip out, see things, forget about life, wonder if clouds ever argue with each other, drive really slowly or like Phish. To do a stoner impression—and then to imply (muse) that said stoners are too, you know, baked, to worry about al-Qaeda is the height of ignorance, and it is dangerous ignorance when it comes to making policy.”
Yemenis dearly love qat. They chew it to concentrate, to relax, to chat, to daydream, at work, on break, at night, in the blazing heat of the Yemeni afternoon—qat is as much a part of Yemeni society as the sun.
If you want to talk about Yemen’s problems—does anyone, really?—you better focus on the real ones: a popular rebellion in the south, an alarming al Qaeda assassination campaign, an economy hanging by a thread, and a divided, weak leadership. Most worrying are signs that radical, sectarian groups are being armed and supported by Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other: in January, Yemeni authorities intercepted an Iranian ship in Yemeni waters carrying bombs, suicide belts, surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, and other heavy weapons.
Yemen matters to the United States—a number of terrorist plots were hatched there, like the failed underwear bombing on Christmas Day 2009 and a 2010 plan to bomb cargo planes en route to the United States. Westerners sometimes dismiss Yemen as a failed state or suggest that the country’s many problems don’t play a role in American security policy in the wider Middle East. Sometimes analysts and lawmakers in the West place the blame for many of those problems on a plant like qat. Both of these conclusions mistakenly characterize Yemen as both distant and unimportant. Half right: Yemen is a long way off, but what happens there matters too much to us to ignore.