Can Yemen Khat It Out?
Starting this week, The Asianist will also be featured on Wednesday in a weekly op-ed column for Tufts University’s newspaper, the Tufts Daily. Columns will be posted here once they are published. The first column is below, and the original link is here.
As protests rocked Egypt and reverberated throughout the Arab world in the past weeks, I asked my Yemeni friend at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Hazim, why his countrymen seemed to lack the revolutionary zeal to overthrow their strongman−president Ali Abdullah Saleh. “Khat,” he replied, mimicking the softball−shaped bulge that forms in one’s cheek when chewing wads of the leafy narcotic commonly found in the Horn of Africa and the Arab world.
His response wasn’t as facetious as you might think. While khat is popular in many countries, in Yemen it is a chronic national addiction. Chewing these tender oval leaves for at least three to four hours daily is a basic form of socializing for over 80 percent of Yemenis. As the leaves gradually break down in their mouths and flow into their bloodstreams, the country’s myriad problems — which include a bloody separatist insurgency in the south, an inefficient and corrupt government and a resurgent al−Qaeda presence — are either fiercely debated or relegated to the attic of their memories in evening khat ceremonies.
In Yemen, it is said, nearly everything stops for khat. Up to 50 percent of all household income, 60 percent of the land cultivated for cash crops and nearly 30 percent of groundwater is devoted to satisfying this oral fixation. Even the fierce protests that engulfed the nation’s capital, San’a, over the past few weeks reportedly fizzled out every day before 2 p.m., when most Yemenis begin their khat−chewing sessions.
Even if the drug isn’t the main cause of Yemen’s revolutionary fatigue, its pernicious effects have been well−documented. The World Health Organization does not classify khat as a “seriously addictive drug,” but chewers can still experience physiological repercussions including persistent hallucinations, disrupted sleep cycles and high blood pressure.
Socially, khat can break down families, as men and women chew in separate groups while their children are left to run astray (or, worse, chew as well, since — shockingly — up to 20 percent of children under 12 consume the drug daily). The hours spent chewing khat and the land used for cultivating it are a severe drain on Yemen’s economic productivity and dwindling water supply. Getting high on a drug that costs around $5 per bag per day is also a costly habit in a low−income country where slightly less than half the population lives below the poverty line.
Yet rehabilitation remains a pipe dream for now. Farmers are highly dependent on cash generated from khat because while food crops take a year or longer to harvest, khat leaves sprout within just a month and generate five times as much revenue as fruit. Even if some sort of crop substitution plan were possible in theory, the country’s powerful landowners would oppose it vigorously in practice because khat sales line their pockets. A government ban on khat would also be inconceivable because the government sees the drug as a vital source of social order.
But some basic regulation is clearly necessary in the longer term. McKinsey & Company projects that Sana’a will run out of water by 2025, partly because poor water resource management results in most of groundwater wells being used for khat, which requires nearly 50 percent more water than wheat and consumes twice the amount used by the city’s citizens. Khat irrigation must therefore be made much more efficient. And while an outright ban may be too extreme, a combination of public awareness campaigns to educate vulnerable groups and limits on the drug to certain hours of the day could mitigate its social and economic effects.
In trying to khat it out, however, the government could end up biting off more than it can chew. “Ironically, one of the few things that could cause a revolution in Yemen would be trying to regulate khat, because it is viewed as such an intrinsic part of society,” Hazim said only half−jokingly.