Too Much Freedom: A Case Study of Yemen

With the coming mid-day, most men in Yemen gather in their homes to chew on a shrub they know as khat. They have spent most of their day occupied with their jobs and they now head home with a stack of khat as their days salary; a salary of psychedelic stems and leaves. As much as 90% of the adult male population in Yemen chews khat on a daily basis. A newcomer might compare the apparent ritual to sights of a group smoking a joint or partaking in the addiction of other drugs more popular in the US.


The legality of khat in Yemen has wrecked the impoverished nation.  It has one of the worst economies in the Middle East and is one of the most socially deprived states in the region. The drug has established a firm grasp on the advancement and modernization of the nation, which it has held back almost entirely. The society has developed into one seemingly backwards, in which women are oppressed. This is arguably because people’s freedoms are too firmly established. They can choose not to go to work, they can choose to grow khat and chew on it all day, and they can choose to fantasize about their superiority in a psychedelic universe they sit in all day.

“You sit up discussing all your problems and think you’ve solved everything, but in fact you haven’t done anything in the last four hours, because you’ve just been chewing khat and all your problems actually got worse,” says Adel al-Shujaa, a professor of political science at Sana’a University and the head of the Yemen Without Khat Association. He aslo adds, “all the decisions you’ve made are bad because you’ve made them while on khat.”

The country is facing a food crisis and more than 5 million people, nearly a fourth of the country, have problems with hunger according to a U.N. Agency.  One of the reasons as to why there is a crisis at all is that a huge portion of fertile lands is used to grow khat. Nearly 50% of agricultural lands in the mountainous regions of Yemen, where people don’t have as much access to produce, are used to grow the shrubs.  Most families spend more money on khat than on food, according to many government figures. There is no federal say in what people can grow on their lands, and there is no federal encouragement or pressure to grow more beneficial plants and produce instead of khat.

A khat-addicted public is more inclined to complacency about the failings of the government. Khat ceremonies reinforce the exclusion of women from power and, as is obvious to anyone finding a government office nearly empty on a weekday morning, khat is keeping the country awake well past its bedtime.

Yemen is not completely at a loss, the ability to grow a cash crop does diversify the economy somewhat, and does serve as a source of income for many, but despite this somewhat small benefit the drug has taken over the minds of the people and has rendered them weak and useless. It has even corrupted the politicians there, with many prominent leaders on khat as well. An analogous situation would be if it was public that our president and his cabinet smoked marijuana while contemplating new policy.

Despite the danger, Yemen isn’t about to go cold turkey anytime soon. Not only are most of the country’s leading landowners deeply involved in khat production, but khat is only one of the few things still holding the country together following a quite recent unification of North and South. Khat does play a big role in keeping people calm and keeping society temporarily stable, but it is also delaying change and making it hard to convince people to act. The result is a sessile nation that refuses to deal with its problems and continues to allow a select class of politicians and landowners to undermine the power of any concern to boil over into some sort of a change.

Freedom is a wonderful thing, and yet it seems so that it can be abused and misused to such an extent that it acts as a detriment to society. Yet, any citizen must not concede to allow the government enough power to determine the freedoms of the people, because that is the job of the people. Nonetheless, there are many parallels to the US that may be drawn from Yemen and the khat issue, and those, LemonOpinion asks you to draw out by yourself and with context to your society.

*Article proposed and drafted by M.A.

  1. Nahitsjust Dapimp said:

    with all your wisdom, how would you go about solving this problem if you were taking place of the government?

  2. Askerm said:

    this conversation ensued on fb

    Naqib Rahman: Isn’t there sharia in Yemen? That should justify illegalizing khat

    Mohammed Asker: naqib…what?

    Mohammed Asker: khat is culturally accepted by the people there, and is not believed to be against religion in any way…does that answer it?

    Mohammed Asker: but thanks for taking your time to read it.

    Naqib Rahman: yea but im wondering why they dont illegalize it using sharia as justification

    Mohammed Asker: naqib over 90 percent of male population does it, why would they ban it, and they don’t see anything wrong with it. Let me give you an example. Lets see we all drink Pepsi, well we don’t think that there is anything really wrong with Pepsi besides it…See More

    Mohammed Asker: the article does not say that it conflicts with that.. that’s not really the point of the article but you do bring up a good point made in the article as well, its hard to ban it, most people like it and don’t realize its negative impact and there is nothing that can be done about it, and at the same time it does not directly conflict with the supreme law in the state.

    Mohammed Asker: 🙂 I hope that answers your question….thanks for bringing that up though…it would be nice if we could somehow have this conversation at the website.

    Naqib Rahman: Oh i was under the impression khat was a controversial/debated topic in the country such as abortion is here, but i guess its pretty one sided

    Mohammed Asker: its very one sided..its like vegetarians vs non vegetarians over here…if your a vegetarian most people kinda think your weird and nobody really cares what you think and most people don’t see anything wrong with eating meat…

  3. artjom said:

    which came first, the khat or the impoverished nation?

    • Khat has always been in Yemen, however, it is believed that it has been a big driving force in holding the nation back economically and socially. Yet, it can’t really be proved that if khat weren’t in existence that the nation would be an excellent one, though it would certainly be more productive.

      Probably the biggest reason for the impoverished nation is that when the mid-east was divided following WW2 Yemen didn’t get a share of the oil, as Qatar, Saudi Arabia or UAE got.

      • namaste said:

        I don’t know enough to make accurate statements, but maybe the Khat is an indicator of other underlying problems, such as the unequal oil shares you pointed out.

      • It would seem that corruption in government, unequal oil shares, low earnings from shipping in the red sea, north-south disunity, etc. all play a factor into why the nation is so poor. The big question this article tried to put out there was also to what extent has the poverty been perpetuated from too much freedom and decentralization in the country.

        Other nations like Libya or Egypt have grown much more than has Yemen. Is it because they were run under tyrannies where the government could force people to work?

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