Yemen’s Dangerous Addiction to Qat

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 15

Yemen faces an abundance of complex and interrelated social, economic, and environmental problems. Yemen’s many challenges are compounded by the country’s addiction to qat. Large parts of Yemen’s society and economy are organized around the consumption and production of this stimulant.

Qat consists of the tender leaves and shoots of the tree catha edulis, which contain the amphetamine cathinone.  Qat must be consumed soon after being harvested because the cathinone begins breaking down after 24 hours. When chewed, qat brings about a state of mild euphoria in the user, often followed by insomnia. Qat is considered a Class 1 drug in the United States and is illegal. [1] It is grown and consumed in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yemen. While Somalia and Djibouti both import and consume qat, Yemen is the largest net consumer of qat with more than 70% of Yemeni households reporting at least one user. [2]

There is much routine and ritual surrounding the chewing of qat.  Before lunch, the earlier the better, Yemenis make their way to the qat markets found throughout the country to purchase a bundle of qat that ranges in cost from three to as much as 60 dollars.  Then after lunch Yemeni men (Yemeni women also chew qat, though the percentage of women is thought to be considerably less) gather in their homes to chew.  A qat session often lasts more than six hours.  

Changing habits

The tradition of qat chewing in Yemen goes back at least 500 years. There is some question as to whether the plant originated in Ethiopia or Yemen.  Historically, qat chews only took place one day a week and qat consumption was limited to the wealthy and those who made up the sayyid and qadi classes, or those who were descended from the Prophet and those who were members of the educated elite. This pattern of consumption began to change in the 1970’s with the expansion of the Yemeni economy. From this period until the first Gulf War, Yemen’s economy benefited from the millions of dollars in remittances sent back by Yemenis working primarily in Saudi Arabia. The growing economy resulted in the increased consumption of qat by lower and middle class Yemenis along with a dramatic increase in qat cultivation. When the current Yemeni regime led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh decided not to back the U.S. led coalition in the first Gulf War, Saudi Arabia canceled the visas of Yemeni workers, resulting in the return of eight-hundred thousand Yemenis. [3] Despite the loss of revenue from remittances and the subsequent decline in the Yemeni economy from the 1990s to the present, qat consumption and cultivation have continued to increase.

Effects on the economy

While accurate economic statistics regarding qat are hard to come by, it is generally thought that the production and sale of qat accounts for 25% of the Yemeni economy; 20% of national employment is related to the production and sale of qat. A recent report produced by Yemen’s Ministry of Agriculture estimates that Yemenis spend 1.2 billion dollars on qat annually. Qat has long since replaced coffee as Yemen’s primary cash crop, the production of which has steadily declined since the 1960s (Yemen Today, November 21, 2009).  In addition to declining coffee production, land where drought resistant grains and cereals were traditionally grown is increasingly being planted with qat. The Yemeni Ministry of Agriculture estimates that qat production is expanding at a rate of four to six thousand hectares every year. Yemeni farmers can make up to five times more growing qat than grains.  Most of the qat trade is controlled by syndicates that buy qat from the farmers and then distribute it to a network of dealers and middlemen across the country.  As a result, most of any real economic gain is limited to the few who have the means to market the qat.

The Yemeni governorates levy a tax on qat (, March 14).   The tax is collected from dealers who pass through the governorate check points as they take the qat to market.  Figures regarding how much of a tax is imposed and how much is collected are almost impossible to come by.  However, government sources in Sana’a suggest the amount collected nationwide exceeds 20 million dollars.  However, the same sources suggested that only a small percentage of this tax revenue makes its way into the official government budget, the majority being lost to corruption. [4]

In addition to the legal trade in qat, there exists a lucrative illegal market that provides high quality qat to buyers in Saudi Arabia. Qat is illegal in Saudi Arabia but there is considerable demand for the expensive and potent Shami qat grown near the Saudi border in the Yemeni governorate of Hajjah (Saba, March 20). It is not known how much money the cross border trade in qat generates, however, sources in Sana’a estimate that smuggled qat generates revenues in excess of 30 million dollars a year. [5]

Environmental pressures

While qat trees are moderately drought resistant, yield increases three or four fold if the trees are irrigated. As a result, the number of wells dug throughout the highlands has increased dramatically. [6] Of an estimated 55,000 wells in operation, only a small percentage are state owned or regulated. This and the pressure of a high population growth rate have resulted in a severe water shortage (Yemen Observer, February 16; Yemen Post, June 28, 2009). According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Yemen’s population will exceed 40 million by 2025. Though Yemen has one of the world’s lowest freshwater availability rates, the Yemeni Ministry of Agriculture estimates that 30% of Yemen’s available water is being used for the irrigation of qat trees. A source within the General Authority for Rural Development estimated that the percentage was considerably higher than the official estimates.  

The water shortage is particularly acute in Sana’a, where the UNDP estimates that the extraction rate from the aquifer that supplies Sana’a is 2.5 times the replenishment rate. Recent studies estimate that the aquifer that provides water for Sana’a could run dry by 2017.  [7] The growth of the urban centers of Sana’a, Ta’iz, and to a lesser extent Ibb is placing increasing pressure on the important agricultural belts that surround all three of these cities.  It is common for private tanker companies to raid unregulated wells just outside the cities so that they can provide their customers in the cities with water.  In Sana’a, almost every house either has a private well or a water tank. The pressure being put on the surrounding rural areas has already led to a number of violent confrontations.
Social problems

It is estimated that the average Yemeni household spends 10% to 30% of its income on qat. This would be a problem in any country, but the problem is particularly acute in Yemen, where the gross national income does not exceed $900. In a traditional society such as Yemen’s, men most often control the family’s income. Many men place more importance on the day’s qat purchase than on the needs of the family. This leads to much familial discord.

The amount of time spent buying and chewing qat every day also takes a toll on the country’s productivity. In the 1960’s, the Marxist government of what was then South Yemen estimated that more than four billion work hours were lost due to the consumption of qat.  While at the time this was clearly more propaganda than fact, this estimate may now not be much of an exaggeration.  

The effect of qat on users’ health is a matter of some dispute. Most experts agree that while not physiologically addictive, qat does have a number of side-effects. Among these are insomnia, paranoia, hypertension, cavities, and a tenuous link with some oral cancers. There is growing concern among Yemen’s doctors over the use of qat by children. It is not uncommon to see boys as young as 11 or 12 chewing qat. Some doctors believe that the side-effects of qat chewing are more pronounced in the young.

Controlling qat usage and production?

The Yemeni government has made no real effort to control the consumption of qat. Some efforts have been made to control or limit usage within the armed services. However, even this effort has been largely confined to certain elite forces. A number of private organizations have launched campaigns against qat but these have met with limited success. Much of the government’s unwillingness to confront the issue of qat arises from the fact that it is now a crucial part of the Yemeni economy. If qat were made illegal or even if it were heavily regulated, the already fragile Yemeni economy would unravel. The short term shock would be unsustainable and there would likely be a countrywide revolt. Many of the highland villages, home to some of the most powerful tribes, are now largely dependent on the money generated by the sale of qat. These villages and communities function as mini-states and often possess arsenals worthy of mini-states. The Yemeni government does not seem to have any short or long term plans to counter the increasing consumption and production of qat. A recent program to restrict the planting of more qat tress in the governorate of Dhamar has not resulted in any measurable reductions in qat production (Yemen Observer, February 16, Yemen Times, March 5). The poor rains of 2009 and increasing cost of water have driven qat prices higher, thereby encouraging farmers to continue to produce qat and in many cases expand production.


The Yemeni government faces a plethora of serious short and long term challenges. It is unlikely that it will at any point be able to tackle the country’s addiction to qat. The Saleh regime is currently facing multiple separatist movements as well as the perennial threat posed by Islamic extremists. Given qat’s popularity throughout the country, any attempts to tax or prohibit qat would result in further problems for the Saleh regime. Increasing food and water insecurity will likely lead to slow and sporadic measures undertaken at the local level to replace qat with food crops. These measures will almost certainly be driven by necessity rather than any governmental authority.


1. J.G. Kennedy, The Flower of Paradise: The Institutionalized Use of the Drug Qat in North Yemen (New York: Springer, 1987), p. 10-15.
2. Branko Milanovic, “Qat Expenditures in Yemen and Djibouti: An Empirical Analysis,” World Bank, January 2007.
3. Paul Dresch, A History of Modern Yemen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,       
2000), p. 186.
4. Author interview in Yemen (November 2009).
5. Author interview in Yemen (December 2009).
6. Leonard Milich and Mohammed Al-Sabry, “The ‘Rational Peasant’ vs. Sustainable Livelihoods: The Case of Qat in Yemen,” Society for International Development, 1995.
7. Author interview in Yemen (December 2009) – also see: “Human Development Report: Yemen 2009,” United Nations Development Fund.<iframe src=’’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>