From anger to support, Yemenis react to qat ban in city of Aden

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The mild narcotic is seen as part of Yemen's social fabric, but can also lead to addiction and societal ills

Qat sellers display their wares at market in Aden (AFP)
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Friday 20 May 2016 9:38 UTC
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ADEN, Yemen - After authorities banned the sale of the mild narcotic qat on workdays, some Aden residents were unhappy about it, and some were not.

Akram Obadi, 36, has chewed qat for 15 years and considers it an important aspect of his daily life as a smith in the al-Sheik Othman district. Without qat, he said, he has been unable to sleep properly or work.

"I never stopped chewing qat for a single day over the years, even if I was sick. When they banned it, I couldn't sleep well because I suffer from nightmares like any man used to chewing qat daily, so I can hardly work," Obadi told Middle East Eye.

Qat is an evergreen herb that people chew to produce a stimulant effect similar to drinking numerous cups of strong coffee.

Aden's government has banned sellers since Monday, and allows them to do business in the drug only on Thursdays and Fridays.

Obadi said he tried to find alternatives for the narcotic, but was unable to, and complains that his addiction even interferes with family time.

"I went with my family to picnic and we tried to enjoy our time in the city. I played with my sons on the beach, but all these things cannot be an alternative for qat. I am waiting for Thursday to chew qat as much as possible, and then I can work," he said. Obadi said he understands the downside of qat very well, but he cannot give it up at once.

Many Aden residents expressed similar thoughts, and want the city authority to provide initiatives for people to wean themselves off the drug.

Some Aden residents, however, welcome the ban and are happy to see their city without qat.

"I believe qat is the main reason behind many social and economic problems, so I don't use it and I support the ban," Ammar al-Da'as, 28, told MEE.

Especially among poor families, some devote substantial portions of their incomes to the narcotic.

There are no qat trees in Aden province, so most qat sellers come from the south-central province of al-Dhale. The drug arrived in Yemen from Ethiopia more than 500 years ago and quickly took hold as a cash crop.

Today, many chew qat daily in Yemen, where it is often seen as part of the fabric of social life when discussing problems with families and friends or when it is given to the bride’s family during weddings.

Restrictions on qat consumption were applied in formerly independent South Yemen before it united with the north in 1990. 

Government power lacking

In an odd turn of events, Yemeni government officials in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who have set up Aden as a temporary capital amid the current civil war, have been silent on the ban.

Political analyst and head of Madar Strategic Studies Centre in Aden, Fadhl al-Rabei, said the Yemeni government had lost control of Aden and that "gangs" were in control and trying to create chaos in the city.

"The ban of qat in these conditions does not serve the city government either, as many people will lose their jobs and they may join extremist groups that fight against Aden's authorities," Rabei said.

Aden's city authorities have their own economic and political plans and the national government does not know anything about this agenda, which aims to achieve the independence of the south, according to Rabei.

He added: "Aden needs to stop attacks on the city by al-Qaeda and IS fighters. There is no need to ban qat now."

A source within Yemen’s security apparatus told Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity that the authorities "banned qat because of various social and economic reasons, but the main one was that qat markets create traffic jams that hamper the work of security forces”.

The source declined to disclose further details.

Travelling for qat

After the qat ban, sellers resorted to peddling their wares in other provinces outside the city, including Ibb, Taiz' al-Turbah and Lahj provinces.

Hael al-Shoaibi, 33, who hails originally from al-Dhale but is now a resident of Aden, said he cannot live without qat and has resorted to making his way to Lahj province to buy it.

On Monday, Shoaibi waited in Aden for the qat sellers from 3pm until sunset. "After sunset, I felt I couldn't last through the night without qat, so I decided to travel to Lahj to buy some," Shoaibi told MEE.

Shoaibi rode about three hours there and back in a car, which cost him $10, and bought qat for $8, but the most difficult part was getting the drugs back into Aden.

"There are many checkpoints looking for qat, but I was lucky that a woman in the same car concealed it," he said.

At military checkpoints, women often are not inspected as closely as men because guards usually do not think they will smuggle qat or other forbidden items.

Shoaibi purchased enough of the drug for two days, and said he will continue going to Lahj for supplies. He does not like to buy qat from smugglers who have started selling it in the city.

There are several varieties of qat, with prices differing according to quality. Shoaibi said: "There are some smugglers in Aden, but they often sell bad qat at high prices." Smugglers have doubled their prices amid the intense demand, he said.

Shoaibi also claimed that some security guards allow smugglers to bring qat into the city, while accepting some of the drugs as fees or bribes.

Many supporters of the ban say it will ultimately help improve the economy of Aden.

Economic analyst Ahmed Saeed Shamakh, however, said the ban had come at a bad time, though there were positives and negatives.

"Qat trees consume 30 percent of the water and they have replaced fruit-bearing trees in several parts of Yemen, so the national government has to fight their spread," Shamakh told MEE. The government should take steps such as imposing high taxes on qat and banning its chewing in public institutions.

He added, however, that qat is a narcotic and it is difficult to leave it at once.

The main problem with Aden's ban, Shamakh said, is that it tries to force people to halt chewing qat immediately, but that is difficult because they will need time to break their habits.