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The qat’s out of the bag

The qat’s out of the bag

Yemen’s leafy stimulant is either destroying the country or saving it from disaster. Which is it? Part 1 of a series

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October 23, 2008 10:50 by



Scott MacMillan

To dispense with the obvious question first: Imagine two strong shots of espresso plus half a hash brownie. That’s what it’s like – that’ the best concise description this author can offer, anyway – to chew qat, the leafy stimulant that plays such a crucial role in daily life in Yemen.

In any discussion of development in Yemen, the most impoverished corner of the Arabian Peninsula, qat is the elephant in the majlis. Most of the country’s population likely chews the leaves of Catha eduli on a regular basis, an estimate supported by the green blotches that litter the streets of the capital, Sana’a, where users have spat the leaf’s masticated remnants. The indigenous evergreen shrub makes up more than half of Yemen’s cash crops by weight and by land area, according to one government study. And 10 to 15 percent more is cultivated each year.

Yemenis spend almost a fifth of their national household income on the plant. It uses up scarce water resources – development experts say around half of the country’s water goes to qat irrigation – and contributes to massive government fuel subsidies. Yet despite mounting evidence that the cost is too much for the country to bear, the government is unwilling to even study how qat is affecting the country, making accurate data almost impossible to come by. This all points to the conclusion that the plant’s aggressive cultivation and consumption amounts to a looming economic and ecological disaster for Yemen.

That’s the downside, anyway. The larger picture is more complicated. For all its negatives, the culture of qat also helps Yemen in many ways. Although cartoonish misconceptions abound concerning what the plant does to users’ minds, most business in Yemen is done over qat chew sessions. A popular criticism is that nothing gets done after 2 p.m. because the entire nation is high on the plant. Actually, given the chance, merchants will sell, …



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