A man driving a tank stops at a military checkpoint in Yemen. “Do you have any weapons on you?” the soldier at the crossing asks him. “No,” the tank driver replies. “Okay,” the soldier says. “Go right ahead.”
Nothing could illustrate the Yemeni weapons problem better than this post-civil war joke.
Yemen is swarming with arms.
An alarming figure recently published in the London-based A-Sharq Al-Awsat
suggests there are around three weapons to every Yemeni citizen, amounting to some 60 million units. The proliferation of unlicensed weapons in Yemen has become one of the chief problems in a country currently engaged in conflicts on three fronts.
“There are no statistics about the number of weapons and types of weapons, whether licensed or unlicensed,” Sheikh Abdul Rahman Yahya al-Marwani, director of the Dar A-Salaam Cultural and Social Organization for Combating Revenge and Violence, told The Media Line
Marwani, also known as the Peacemaker, is a recognized figure in Yemen for his efforts to defuse tribal conflicts, and has become an informal bridge between the government and the tribes.
“Weapons are associated with masculinity in Yemen, and all the country’s revenues are dedicated to purchasing weapons instead of being spent on development,” he said. “This is the problem of the Middle East.”
The knock-on effect, Marwani explained, was that it is turning Yemen into a violent society.
“It undermines security and stability and spreads violence among the tribes,” he said. “No one can really estimate the scope of damage that these weapons have caused in terms of physical health, mental health and material loss. In the current atmosphere there is a rise in extremism, violence and terrorism, all of which are exploiting the economic conditions.”
“Weapons come into Yemen via several weapons-manufacturing countries through well-known dealers in the country,” Marwani said. “We’re talking about huge quantities and all different types can be found in the markets. The current war between the government and the so called Houthi rebels is fueling this, and it’s making the government think about solutions and restraining the problem wisely by using dialogue.”
The Yemeni government recently began a campaign to clamp down on illegal weapons dealers. Under the campaign, the government arrested at least four people on its list of weapons traders. One was arrested in the capital Sana’a and three others were arrested in the northern Sa’ada region, where the army is trying to quash a Houthi rebellion.
The government has been pressuring parliament to issue a law that will regulate the possession of weapons but this bill is facing opposition from religious leaders and tribal representatives.
“The government must take the lead in controlling the weapons, by addressing the reasons that are prompting tribes to carry them,” Marwani said. “They should bolster security and recruit the official state media for awareness campaigns, as well as help people find employment by encouraging investment and promoting tourism.”
“This campaign will help to control weapons to some extent but the demand for weapons will generate more sources,” he said. “This requires that the matter be tackled by changing the mentality of the people and creating conditions that will make Yemeni tribal members turn in their weapons.”
The government prohibited the carrying of guns in cities and closed some of the gun markets in 2007. Despite several government clampdowns on unlicensed weapons, observers say these sweeps were largely ineffective as they focused on big cities, when most of the armed population lives in rural areas.
Khaled al-Anasi, executive director of the Yemeni Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, said a lot of people possess guns because they do not feel safe and it gives them a means to protect themselves.
“The problem is there is no equality in society, so people resort to tribal laws to protect themselves,” Anasi told The Media Line. “If they try to pursue a legal process, they find it’s difficult to get their rights because they need to bribe officials, so people say ‘I will not be safe, so I have to protect myself.’”
“In my opinion, the problem is not with the people who are trying to protect themselves,” he argued. “The problem is the people who collect guns for extremist ideas, and who wish to control the country when the regime falls. People don’t feel safe when there is no one to protect them. They are afraid to leave the city without guns so they’re preparing for a future conflict.”
If the government collapses, it will not take much for armed groups to take advantage of a power vacuum, Anasi said.
“The Yemeni government is so weak and it could collapse at any time,” he said. “This will give a chance for the people who want more power, to use it easily. They will try to get power and control the country by using these guns and we will face a conflict.”
The Yemeni army is presently stretched across three separate fronts.
Five years ago a conflict broke out costing hundreds of lives in northern Yemen between the Yemeni army and a group of rebels known as the Houthis. The militant group belongs to an offshoot of Shia Islam and wishes to restore a Zaidi imamate to Yemen after it was overthrown in a 1962 coup. They accuse the Yemenite government of being too closely allied with the United States.
The second conflict involves Yemen’s alliance with the US in its fight against terrorism, specifically al-Qaida, which Western governments fear is exploiting Yemen’s unstable political climate to establish a base from which to launch attacks against foreign interests. The would-be bomber of Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines Flight 253 last December reportedly said that he trained in Yemen and that a senior al-Qaida member in Yemen provided him with the bomb.
The third front is a separatist movement in the south protesting against government discrimination.
Beyond these conflicts, there are numerous local wars that break out among different tribes, who pay little heed to state law.
Several socio-political analysts have suggested that the possession of weapons in Yemen is an integral part of Yemeni identity and heritage, linked to a history of tribal feuds.
Carrying weapons from an early age is a widely accepted part of Yemeni tradition. Many Yemenis have disputed that the possession of arms is a violation of the law and claim it is within their legitimate rights. Almost every male Yemeni over the age of 14 carries a dagger on his abdomen, known as a janbiya
. Though the dagger is a sign of maturity and coming-of-age, and rarely used in combat situations, it is often viewed by Western eyes, insensitive to its wider cultural significance, as a sign of heightened militarism.
In the past, Anasi said, the government armed certain tribes to buy their allegiance during times of war, and is now paying the price.
Internal wars, such as the civil war between north and south in 1994, made Yemen a breeding ground for weapon acquisitions. Arms that were looted are still making the rounds among the population.
“After the war, they can’t take them back,” he said. “If they take them back these people will become enemies.”
The fact that Yemen has long, permeable and largely uncontrolled borders only makes the problem worse.
Many neighboring countries, as well as the United States, have
expressed anxiety concerning the proliferation of weapons in Yemen.
Analysts say the prevalence of weapons in Yemen is making it a magnet
for terrorist organizations, which are obtaining the readily available
arms and smuggling them into neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia.
Yemeni government forces recently caught a shipping container loaded
with weapons at the Al-Hudeida port on the Red Sea coast, originating
from China. The container, it later transpired, reached Yemen with
forged Defense Ministry documents.
When gunmen attacked the American Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in
December 2004, the serial numbers on the attackers’ weapons were traced
back to the Yemeni Defense Ministry.
After the strike, the Yemeni government tried to buy weapons from
tribal leaders, rather than take them by force. The tactic failed and
pushed the price of weapons up by as much as 100 percent on the black
market, where goods on offer range from Kalashnikovs and rocket
propelled grenades to mobile rockets.