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Overthrowing Yemen's King Qat

A Yemeni boy sits next to bags of qat, a mild natural narcotic widely used in Yemen, as antigovernment demonstrators protest against President Ali Abdullah Saleh nearby in Sanaa on May 29.
A Yemeni boy sits next to bags of qat, a mild natural narcotic widely used in Yemen, as antigovernment demonstrators protest against President Ali Abdullah Saleh nearby in Sanaa on May 29.
The world has a lot at stake in Yemen. Down but not out, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is currently recovering from wounds suffered during an attack on June 3 on his compound in a Saudi hospital. His future remains unclear as Yemen lurches toward a Libyan-style civil war.

Meanwhile, the recent deaths of prominent Al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and elsewhere have made it appear that Al-Qaeda is slowly disintegrating. But this is not the case in Yemen, where Al-Qaeda is on the march. Al-Qaeda-inspired militants have seized control of two towns in central Yemen in recent days, and the prospect of an Al-Qaeda takeover in Yemen is far more likely at present than in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Yemen's problems are both political and economic. President Saleh epitomizes the political corruption that has held his country back. But Yemen is also held down by a second tyrant: qat. Indeed, Yemen's long-term stability rests on breaking the grip of "King Qat" on its economy.

Qat is a leafy intoxicant grown across Yemen. The majority of Yemeni adults are at least occasional users of this amphetamine-like alkaloid. While some health studies have shown that chewing qat is both less addictive and less harmful than alcohol, the effect of the drug on Yemeni society is egregious.

In Cairo, I recently spoke with a Yemeni medical student and user of the drug. She acknowledged that chewing qat was unhealthy, but also mentioned that it contained significant quantities of vitamin C. Like alcohol in the Western world, qat has been blamed for many social ills in the Muslim-majority country. Many Yemenis reserve an hour or so each afternoon for chewing the plant. But qat's greatest damage to Yemen is economic.

Qat farming is water-intensive, and about 40 percent of Yemeni water usage goes to growing it. Yet 80 percent of the population suffers from water shortages, a particularly disturbing sign given that the country is set to double its population by 2025. In 1970, less than 10,000 hectares was used for qat production. Today, over 100,000 hectares is consumed by qat farming, and production increases roughly 10 percent every year.

One study suggests that well over a quarter of the national income is spent on its consumption. A 2008 report from the World Health Organization found that Yemenis spend 14.6 million man-hours daily chewing qat. Little wonder that another study suggested that growing the drug was five times more profitable than harvesting fruit.

Back To The Future Export

To overthrow "King Qat", Yemen needs to slash subsidies, reform its agricultural sector, and join international trade blocs. Currently, only 4 percent of Yemeni exports are nonpetroleum in nature. Yet agriculture currently employs 53 percent of the Yemeni workforce. If more markets can be made accessible to Yemeni goods, then more farmers will have incentives to grow crops besides qat.

In addition to being water-intensive, qat is energy-hungry as well. Diesel expenditures remain 80 percent of qat cultivation costs. If the Yemeni government further slashes its fuel subsidies, this could accelerate the transition to other crops. In the past decade, the Yemeni government eased back on fuel and flour subsidies despite protests from consumers.

The secret to Yemen's success may lie in the development and export of another stimulant: coffee. In the 1970s, Yemeni coffee production outstripped qat. Once prized the world over, Yemeni coffee now accounts for less than 1 percent of global production. For Rwanda, specialty coffee has been a key to the country's postwar development strategy.

Increased coffee production could bring increased stability to Yemen as well. Yemeni coffee has real branding and marketing potential. Indeed, the world's first coffee exports originated in Yemen. The country dominated world supply until the 17th century. Global coffee consumers need to be reminded that the word mocha refers to a Yemeni port, the center of the coffee trade in past centuries. And Yemeni farmers could be reminded that the developed world is almost as thirsty for quality coffee as it is for oil.

If Yemeni growers are to be convinced that coffee or another good is more lucrative than qat, richer markets will need to be found for Yemeni exports. To do so, Yemeni membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) must become a priority.

Bringing Yemen In From The Cold

Yemen joining the WTO would lead to the normalization of Yemeni exports. The country started the process of joining the body in 2000, yet 11 years later it remains one of the few states outside the WTO. Last year, the United States threw its diplomatic and technical support behind Yemeni WTO membership. But, protests against the Saleh government -- which broke out on January 18 -- have derailed that bid for the time being. WTO membership would also boast Yemen's case for GCC membership. The GCC is the natural source for foreign direct investment in Yemen.

Technically, Yemen remains on track for eventual GCC membership perhaps as soon as 2015. But even before the "Arab Spring," the GCC had begun to slowly distance itself from any hard timetable. Last month, the GCC celebrated its 30th anniversary by extending membership offers to the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco. The move was largely interpreted as a "circling of the wagons" designed to bring all the Arab world's monarchies into a single union. Some in the GCC believe that the fates of the Arab monarchies are intertwined: The fall of any one Arab king would trigger a domino effect across the region. But the GCC should recognize that a stable and prosperous Yemen is as important to Persian Gulf security as the fate of the Hashemite or Alaouite dynasties.

These moves could encourage other industries, make Yemen richer, and increase the price of qat. The more expensive qat becomes, the less Yemenis will be able to afford it. Already during the winter, qat becomes scarcer in certain parts of Yemen; the inevitable rise in price leads to a drop in consumption.

Some may wonder why a topic like drug use in a poor, sparsely populated country should concern us at all. Yemen sits on the narrow straights of Bab el-Mandeb, where nearly half of the world's container traffic travels. Across the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden sits Somalia, a "failed state" in the truest sense of the word. An economic rejuvenation of Yemen is the surest way to increased stability of the country, regardless of who rules.

Increased economic opportunity will undercut the draw of extremist groups in the country as well. We must avoid a situation where the straits of the Bab el-Mandeb become that unfortunate intersection of global jihad and the Jolly Rodger. While Yemeni membership in international economic institutions, an end to fuel subsidies, and a revived coffee trade may not be enough to break the grip of "King Qat" on the Yemeni economy, it is something to chew over.

Joseph Hammond is an RFE/RL correspondent in Cairo. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL