Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Qat: Devil’s Plant in Yemen

Yemenis prioritize buying Qat over their family’s primary needs and spend approximately 35% of their income on it. Yet, Qat cultivation exacerbates their suffering.

A Yemeni vendor carries a bundle of qat, the ubiquitous mild narcotic, at a market in the capital Sanaa on May 1, 2020. Mohammed HUWAIS / AFP

Abu Bakr Batheeb

Many Yemenis disregard all global health warnings and medical reports categorising qat as a narcotic plant. However, Yemenis find Qat a social and mental outlet to relieve their daily suffering.

Qat is exclusively cultivated in Yemen, Ethiopia, and the Horn of Africa, and its leaves contain cathine and cathinone, which have similar less-intense effects to amphetamine.

Chewing qat has become a prevalent social tradition in Yemen. People chewing it feel excited, euphoric, attentive and vigorous. A few hours later, they isolate and exclude themselves from conversations. Finally, its use results in countless health issues.

Yemenis defend qat and argue that it is a non-narcotic plant that cannot be compared to other drugs since it does not lead to addiction, and people can quit its use without immediate medical or physical side effects.

However, international organisations classify it as a harmful substance that leads to psychological dependence and several health issues. Hence, most countries list it as a narcotic and penalise its possession.

Qat is the one thing Yemenis unanimously agree on, regardless of their political orientations, social class and financial well-being. qat has become a social symbol and an item of priority on various occasions.

Most Yemenis chew on qat. One study suggests that around 90 per cent of men, 73 per cent of women and 20 per cent of children under 12 chew on qat daily.

Yemenis call the process “storing qat,” which describes chewing qat’s green leaves entirely before storing it inside the mouth for hours.

The individual storing the qat is called a “storer.” It is customary for Yemenis to store qat daily for over six hours. Depending on the user’s financial capacity, they may prioritise a bag of qat over their family’s primary needs.

Many Yemenis wake up early to earn money for their daily bag of qat. Yemenis used to eat their lunch around 1 pm to 2 pm, so they could start storing early.

The early hours of qat gatherings tend to be positive, filled with laughter and general conversations about politics and sports. These gatherings have a comforting, cheerful atmosphere but become serious and quiet as the storers fill their mouths with qat. Complete silence often ensues as storers zone out, oftentimes affected by a state of mood swings and gloom.

The Economy of Qat

Yemeni vendors show an expensive type of the popular plant, Qat, which costs about 100 dollars per bag, at the Qat market in downtown Sanaa 20 September 1999. RABIH MOGHRABI / AFP

Some studies confirmed that about 35 per cent of a Yemeni household’s income is spent on qat. An International Labour Organisation (ILO) report revealed that storers spend over $1.6 billion on qat annually.

According to UN reports, despite the stifling economic conditions leaving 17.4 million Yemenis in need of food aid, government studies indicated that buying qat came second to buying grains in rural regions several years ago.

This proves the extent to which Yemenis prioritise qat. It also proves that Yemenis manage to buy qat on a daily basis, sometimes with a value several times their monthly income. Storing qat, thus, exacerbates the suffering and need of Yemeni families.

Ahmed al-Ali, a qat dealer, told Fanack, “Prices and quality of qat vary depending on where it was cultivated. High-quality qat for one person could cost up to $100. Mid and low-quality qat costs up to $10. There are other low-quality and cheaper types.”

Reports have confirmed that more land is used for the cultivation of qat than for other crops. Qat is planted on approximately 15 per cent of the arable land in Yemen. It also consumes around 40 per cent of all water available for irrigation, as it is a highly water-intensive crop.

This is alarming since Yemen is threatened by water scarcity. Sanaa, the capital, suffers a severe water shortage, and its aquifers and wells are close to depletion.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, the land area used for cultivating Qat has increased 21 times over the last four decades. Qat is cultivated in 18 of the 21 Yemeni governorates, primarily in Aden, Hadramout, Al-Mahrah, Socotra, Shabwah and Sana’a Capital Municipality.

Qat makes up a third of the Yemeni agricultural GDP, and qat cultivation employs one in seven people in Yemen. According to studies, qat does not add any real value to national production and income for Yemen since it cannot be exported or used as a source of income in government revenue streams.

In an interview with Fanack, Salah al-Maktary, an economics expert and professor, said that the state has to work on curbing qat cultivation by increasing taxes and imposing other fees. In the early 1980s, taxes on qat amounted to 30 per cent. In 1991, the government issued Law No. 70, which cut taxation on qat cultivation to 10 per cent, encouraging qat farmers, dealers and, consequently, consumers.

Al-Maktary asserted there is no other way to cut down on qat cultivation and consumption than by raising taxes gradually until they reach 100 per cent. He also emphasised the significance of allocating these earnings to qat farmers to incentivise them to plant grapes, coffee and other crops.

According to al-Maktary, implementing these measures would simultaneously cull qat production and consumption. He believes that the state can implement the experiment in regions that have the potential to grow other crops.

Qat Life Cycle

In an interview with Fanack, Mohsen Saleh, a farmer from the Alahjer region in the al-Mahwit governorate, said, “Though it is difficult and requires intensive effort and care, farmers get massive returns of what they put in to cultivate qat.”

He adds, “These earnings encouraged many farmers to replace coffee, vegetables and fruits with qat. Also, cultivating qat makes the most and the fastest income over the year, unlike other crops.”

According to Saleh, qat cultivation initially requires a great deal of time, care and investment. qat branches cannot be harvested until at least two years after planting. Also, yields will not be sufficient for trade for another two years.

He adds, “Cultivating qat has many stages. It starts with land grading and then planting the seedlings in columns spaced at a certain distance. It is then irrigated with plenty of water. We also invert the soil around qat trees every 15 days to ensure no weeds surround them. We spray the trees with chemical pesticides to eliminate rot and fungus during cultivation to enhance their growth.”

After this long period, farmers start selling qat three or four times a year. A qat tree can then yield continuously throughout the year, particularly with plenty of pesticides and fertilisers to boost productivity, despite their severe health implications.

After harvesting, farmers wrap qat in banana tree leaves to preserve its quality and protect it from withering as it is vulnerable to hot and cold weather. Qat has many types and names, like Arhabi, Shami, Hamdani, Mafsal, Soti, Sabri and Gheeli. There is even a Houthi qat.

Awareness Against Qat Harmfulness


A Yemeni boy takes a whiff of his father’s newly-purchased qat, a popular narcotic drug, at a market in Sanaa 20 September 1999. RABIH MOGHRABI / AFP

Associations specialised in spreading awareness about the dangers of qat have organised awareness sessions for farmers. They have also encouraged farmers to cultivate cash crops that generate money and provide real value to farmers and their country. They, however, remain humble attempts that cannot be replicated given the lack of state support for these efforts.

The awareness campaigns also face social and popular resistance, nullifying their effectiveness. This may explain why previous Yemeni governments have not bothered to take measures to curb the cultivation of qat and its circulation in markets.

Concurrently, the cultivation and sales of qat have damaged the general appearance of Yemeni cities. According to Riyad al-Ahmadi, a professor and researcher, qat and its markets have deprived cities of many of their aesthetics. In an interview with Fanack, al-Ahmadi said, “Qat markets have become a fertile environment for chaos, noise and conflict. Things might escalate to violence and the use of weapons.” He describes these markets as “visual distortions, environmental pollution and much akin to cattle barns and stables.”

Al-Ahmadi says qat cultivation affects the interior design of Yemeni houses and turns social gatherings into uncivilised scenes. He adds, “Chewing qat is usually coupled with bad habits, like smoking and drinking soft drinks. Also, qat chewing is unsightly and often coupled with mode swings.”

On the other hand, Yemenis chew qat during all sorts of occasions, be they weddings or funerals, men’s or women’s gatherings. As this is now a social custom in Yemen, not bringing qat to a social event is considered ill manners and may cause embarrassment or be deemed disrespectful.

Chewing qat is also a trivial sign of masculinity in what some parents describe as a “false culture.” At the same time, many fathers encourage or force their sons to chew qat when they consider the child to be grown since chewing is part of being a man.

Fathers encourage their sons to chew on qat during exams as a stimulus for energy and attentiveness under the pretext that it helps people to focus, memorise and stay awake.

Medical reports indicate that the disease map of Yemen has been altered due to the Yemenis’ daily usage of qat. Certain diseases have become widespread among qat users.

The list includes mental and physical illnesses that cause insomnia, sleep disorders and a lack of productivity. It also includes oral diseases, chronic gastritis, constipation, haemorrhoids, weight loss and duodenal ulcers. Additionally, gastrointestinal cancer and cirrhosis have spread among users.

Qat and War

The qat economy has produced bizarre customs between the warring parties in Yemen as they created new practices when transporting qat from Yemeni cities and villages to markets. In recent years of the war, fighters would cease fire during the early hours to store qat.

A resident who lived through days of confrontations said that citizens would take advantage of the qat transportation breaks to move and buy supplies from markets since they could move between districts during that time.

Qat is deeply rooted within Yemeni society, despite its negative impacts on the environment, economy and Yemenis’ lives and health. The odd fellow now is he who encourages people to resist qat or calls for the regulation of its consumption.

Because of its deep assimilation, qat certainly creates additional challenges for a society already suffering the woes of war, a divided authority and a shattered geography.

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