The Role of Khat in Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis
Tom Ordeman, Jr.
The World's Greatest Humanitarian Crisis
Yemen tops the list of the world's humanitarian crises. According to a February 2019 article from the United Nations, close to eighty percent of the Yemeni population requires assistance. The UN has verified that during the last four years, the ongoing war - itself a hybrid civil and international war - has claimed the lives of nearly eighteen thousand civilians, and displaced more than three million. The World Health Organization reports more than two thousand deaths from cholera and more than one million suspected cases, arising from a compromised water supply and the disruption of basic medical care.
In recent months, voices throughout the international commentariat, notably those in the United Kingdom, have raised the subject of Saudi Arabia's role in the ongoing conflict. A February 2019 Intelligence Squared debate in the United Kingdom carried a motion that "The West Should Cut Ties With Saudi Arabia"; the intervention in Yemen featured prominently in the exchange. (Two years earlier, the American IQ2 franchise debated the motion, "The U.S.-Saudi 'Special Relationship' has Outlived its Usefulness"; the motion failed.) Many blame Saudi military action for exacerbating the very famine that has already claimed tens of thousands of lives, and could claim hundreds of thousands more without immediate intervention. In late 2018, The Guardian published a podcast highlighting "Britain's role in the Yemen crisis"; in early 2019, the BBC World Service's Inquiry program asked, "Why don't we care about Yemen?"
Media coverage confirms that the international community clearly cares about the crisis in Yemen. The aforementioned Guardian and BBC offerings both note, quite rightly, that one major aspect of the food crisis arises from the intermittent blockade of Hodeida, Yemen's chief Red Sea port; the BBC notes that Yemen imports ninety percent of its food, largely through Hodeida.
Despite these recent efforts - by international media, defense think tanks such as RUSI and CSIS, and other organizations such as Intelligence Squared, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, and the Council on Foreign Relations - to highlight Yemen's humanitarian crisis, conspicuously absent has been any mention of the particularly portly elephant in the room.
Yemen's National Pastime
Catha edulis is a flowering plant native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Known colloquially as "khat", its leaves contain a natural amphetamine. When chewed in a manner similar to tobacco, khat produces sensations of excitement and euphoria.
Mark Bowden famously documented Somali militia use of khat to fuel their high intensity engagements with American troops during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. Bowden is said to have paid Somali sources in khat; meanwhile, some allege that the khat trade exacerbated Somalia's long-running civil war. As of 2006, the daily trade in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, was estimated at $300k.
Khat consumption is, perhaps, more integral to Yemeni society. Its use is widespread: whether in business meetings, social events, or family evenings, Yemeni males are prone to sport a massive bulge in either cheek at any given time of day. Around ninety percent of males chew khat openly, while an estimated fifty percent of females chew in private circumstances. Whereas driven or desperate Western college students sustain a black market for Attention Deficit Disorder medications, Yemeni students openly and legally chew khat to similar ends. Even children under the age of ten are known to chew khat. Many Yemenis' entire daily schedule - not to mention their personal and family finances - are governed by khat consumption.
Khat is also known to have health effects beyond the side effects described previously. For example, while khat itself is not known to cause cancer, farmers' use of carcinogenic pesticides increases cancer risks from chewing. Khat has also been demonstrated to cause white oral lesions. Khat’s health and social impacts have led many countries to regulate khat, or to outlaw it altogether.
However, just as many Westerners ignore advice against the use of controlled substances, arguments against khat use fall mostly upon deaf ears within Yemen's borders. A Yemeni interviewed for a 2013 Australian documentary phrased the situation succinctly:
"As far as I'm concerned, I wouldn't attend a wedding if there was no khat."
The Agricultural Opportunity Cost
Khat's social cost could be dismissed as a case of a divergence in social norms, if not for its corresponding opportunity cost. Less than three percent of Yemeni territory is arable. While 41.7% of Yemeni territory qualifies as pasturage, Yemen's capacity to feed its population of nearly thirty million would be strictly limited under ideal circumstances. Unfortunately, as one farmer noted in a 2000 Australian documentary:
"[Khat] is five times more valuable [than fruit]. With [khat], we can pick it twice or three times a year. If this field is grown with fruit it will only yield five thousand riyals, but [khat] will give fifty to sixty thousand riyals."
In this sense, the situation in Yemen mirrors familiar challenges faced by international troops in Afghanistan. Just as Afghans elect to grow opium and cannabis in lieu of food crops like wheat or pomegranates, Yemeni farmers dedicate scarce arable land and irrigation resources to khat. Farmers surrender their opportunity to grow subsistence crops like mangoes or pears, or cash crops like coffee or cotton, for the sake of khat. However, unlike Afghanistan’s lucrative illicit cultivation, Yemen has little to no khat export market upon which to prevail. Yemeni farmers produce khat almost entirely for domestic consumption.
Of course, cultivation cannot pivot in real time. Prior to 2011, when Yemen's fragile equilibrium was upended by the Arab Spring, Yemeni farmers had spent years replacing subsistence and cash crops with khat trees. Even assuming a national consensus to scale back khat consumption in favor of domestic food production, a conversion back to food crops would take years to affect.
A Crisis in Context
Unfortunately, this important context offers little in the way of solutions. Instead, it undermines the insinuations that Saudi forces are deliberately aggravating Yemen's humanitarian crisis - or that the humanitarian crisis can be brought to a swift end by curtailing international support to the Saudi-led intervention.
The various Yemeni factions involved in the ongoing conflict are well aware of where Yemen's food is grown, and where Yemen's imported food comes ashore. At no point in the past two decades has khat's role in Yemeni society - or any of its corresponding liabilities - been a secret. The Houthis in particular - advised and equipped by the savvy operatives of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps - were well aware of the potential ramifications of their disruptive operations in Hodeida. Indeed, one could credibly conjecture that these ramifications were deliberately triggered in order to agitate international sentiment against Operations Decisive Storm and Restoring Hope.
Yemen's humanitarian crisis merits attention and intervention; indeed, Yemen's civilians are no less deserving of food security simply because their home has played host to a particularly nasty hybrid civil/proxy war. At the same time, Yemen's ongoing political crisis represents a strategic threat not only to Yemen, but to Saudi Arabia, other neighboring states, and also to maritime security in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. To suspend or demonize efforts to force a settlement to the crisis on the grounds of a khat-fueled humanitarian crisis, agitated by the cynical tactics of the Houthi-IRGC coalition, would be to ignore the conflict's broader context. This sort of tunnel vision is more likely to prolong the humanitarian crisis than to conclude it.