Friday, February 11, 2011

Yemen's revolution stymied by qat addiction

From Al Arabiya/Reuters:
Yemen's opposition has drawn tens of thousands of people to the streets to rally against three decades of autocratic rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but by noon the protesters quietly vanish.

Many head straight from the streets to the souk, or market, to buy bags stuffed with qat, the mild stimulant leaf that over half of Yemen's 23 million people chew daily, wiling away their afternoons in bliss, their cheeks bulging with wads of qat.

"After I chew I can't go out. When I chew qat, the whole world is mine. I feel like a king," said Mohammed al-Qadimi, a student who has attended Yemen rallies but said it would be hard to motivate himself to protest all day.

"When we have protests, they quiet down quickly because of this Yemeni habit. Qat is a negative influence. Every afternoon people go chew qat and the protests don't last more than a few hours in the morning," journalist Samir Gibran said, as he sat chewing qat with friends. He said he only chews once a week.

Yemen, vital to the United States in its fight against al-Qaeda, faces economic conditions often worse than those that helped spur revolt in Tunisia and Egypt. Economists put unemployment at 35 percent or higher, while a third of Yemenis face chronic hunger.

"Qat time is from one to two in the afternoon. It's not possible for a protester to use that time for something else. For him, qat time is the most important," said Marwan al-Qalisi, an accountant in Sanaa, his cheek bulging with qat.

Qat, which sucks up around 40 percent of Yemen's rapidly dwindling water resources, plays such a large role in the country's economy that the central bank calculates indicators both with and without qat. The plant accounts for 6 percent of Yemen's GDP and a third of its agricultural GDP.

The World Bank estimates that Yemenis spend a tenth of their income on the plant and lose about 25% of potential work hours to qat chewing.