Qat joins al Qaeda as Yemen threat

February 3, 2010

YEMEN-QAT/U.S. lawmakers, convening a meeting on Wednesday to discuss the threat posed by al Qaeda in Yemen, found themselves focused on another problem stalking the impoverished Arab country:  the mild drug qat, which permeates Yemeni society.

Rep.  Howard Berman, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, launched the discussion of Yemen’s drug problem in his opening remarks, noting that qat was “a narcotic plant that produces feelings of euphoria and stimulation, but ultimately undermines individual initiative — sort of like being in Congress.”

Berman noted that many people chew qat regularly  in Yemen — pushed close to the top of the U.S. security watchlist after the Christmas Day bombing attempt on a U.S. airliner by a Nigerian with Yemeni links  —  and that cultivation of the drug consumes about 40 percent of Yemen’s fast diminishing agricultural water supplies.

The focus on qat continued with Rep. Gary Ackerman, who mused that Yemen’s drug habit might be undercutting its readiness to sign on to a more forceful campaign against al Qaeda militants within its borders.

“These people spend the afternoon getting away from reality, getting high…it’s like, wow,” Ackerman said.

Rep. David Scott told the panel that on a recent trip to Yemen he had been appalled by the widespread use of qat, which he called “grotesquely disfiguring” as Yemenis plugged big wads of the plant into their cheeks to chew.

“These weren’t just young kids. They were police officers, they were businessmen,” Scott said, adding that the water demands of Yemen’s qat industry were helping push the country to economic ruin.

“It is the driving characteristic of that economy, of that culture,” Scott said. “That is not only making Yemen a failed state — it has become a failed state.”

Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, who spent most of the morning outlining U.S. plans to help Yemen improve both security and governance to fight off the al Qaeda threat,  conceded that there were no quick fixes in the offing for the qat problem.

“Qat is depriving income from families. It is preventing people from effective employment. It is using up precious water resources,” Feltman said, noting that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was working with the World Bank and others to develop agricultural business initiatives in Yemen in hopes of spurring farmers to start growing more productive crops.

But he said qat use in Yemen was a “severe problem” that still needed to be addressed.

“I don’t think there’s any short-term fix to the long-term qat problem,” he said.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah (Yemeni farmer sells qat from truck in Sanaa)

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