Qat’s Vicious Environmental Cycle

As more farmers turn to the stimulant shrub for their fields, seeds that bear food are no longer sown, and Yemen’s hunger crisis grows

Qat’s Vicious Environmental Cycle
A vendor picks through qat leaves in Sanaa, Yemen, in 2020. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images)

In 1972, Mohsin al-Aini began his fourth spell as prime minister of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). Upon his arrival in Sanaa — he had just come from Paris, where he was setting up the YAR’s embassy to France — the first item in his in-tray concerned Parliament’s proposals to increase government employees’ salaries. Aghast, al-Aini refused to implement such a proposal when the country was engulfed by drought and on the brink of economic collapse.

When government employees threatened to protest — they argued their salaries wouldn’t stretch to meet their families’ needs — al-Aini proposed a conference to find a creative solution. When he was called to the plenary to hear their suggestions, al-Aini found them amid piles of paper, engrossed in discussion and chewing qat, a leafy, green plant with a stimulant effect similar to caffeine that is absorbed through the gums. One by one, he asked the employees what their salary increase would be under Parliament’s proposals. He then asked them to share what they each spent on qat — and found that their expenditure on the stimulant was more than the planned increase in their salaries. If they were really worried about taking care of their families, he argued, it would be more cost-efficient to abstain from qat.

Years later, when al-Aini was asked to recount the denouement of his prime ministership, he would often return to this scene. Qat did seem to be a constant bone of contention in his final months in the post. After a particularly embarrassing meeting with U.N. officials and representatives of the international community, in which they questioned why they should offer the YAR aid when government officials were busy chewing qat, al-Aini decided he had to act. He introduced a bill proposing a prohibition on the production of qat for an “awqaf” (charitable endowment) that uses government lands and on the chewing of qat in government offices.

Three months after al-Aini tabled this bill, he was forced to resign, a lame duck premier without the backing of his staff. His premiership would henceforth be described as being a victim of Yemen’s national plant, the so-called “green gold.” The reality may well have been more complex than that — most writers on qat make little mention of the turmoil arising from the war between the northern YAR and the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen — but the vignette is a favorite among commentators struggling to find the words to convey the hold the plant has on Yemen.

Qat first reached Yemen in the 14th century from Abyssinia, modern-day Ethiopia. It emerged relatively unscathed from the Islamic jurisprudence of the early modern period, deemed distinct from alcohol, opium or hashish. Like its sister stimulant, coffee, qat’s permissibility in the medieval period was likely due to its religious usage: Early medieval treatises depict Sufis chewing qat and drinking coffee late into the night to aid in “zikr,” a form of prayer. With a clerical stamp of approval, the shrub soon spread outside of devotional circles. “Diwans” of qat, in which men would congregate over qat from the early afternoon to late in the night, provided an essential space for discussion and exchange, a microcosm of civil society in the early modern urban landscape.

Over the past 800 years, qat has proven a mainstay of Yemeni culture. With the exceptions of certain al Qaeda affiliates, who issued a decree banning qat, some sects in the Ismaili Shiite community who consider qat “haram,” or forbidden, and the people of the eastern governorate Hadramaut, for whom qat is incompatible with their tribal mores, the shrub is widely available, socially acceptable in most settings and used across class and gender.

Qat’s active components are cathinone and cathine, less potent forms of amphetamine. The effect is therefore relatively mild but qualitatively similar to other drugs in the amphetamine family, such as speed, crystal meth and methylphenidate (often sold under the brand name Ritalin). With effects including excitement, alertness, euphoria and arousal, users of qat argue that it allows them to maintain focus on tedious or repetitive tasks, to feel fully present in social settings and to suppress their appetite, likening it to the West’s addiction to coffee. Nonetheless, frequent use can provoke psychotic reactions or irritability and insomnia during come-down, and qat has been linked to certain oral, esophageal and gastric cancers.

Most of my Yemeni friends are extremely excited to introduce me to their national plant, which they describe as a delicacy unique to the country and the Horn of Africa. They deny that it has any serious side effects and argue that a couple of diwans will suffice to assure me of qat’s value, as has happened with their other foreign friends. “One of my colleagues was French and was stationed here,” a friend who works in an NGO tells me, trying to convince me that I’ll fall in love with the shrub. “She had a driver at all times in case she needed to evacuate, but she would make him drive across the city to get her qat throughout the night! She even stayed in Yemen longer than planned just because of how productive she was here.” He painted a picture of the few foreigners left in Yemen refusing to leave a civil war due to the potency of qat.

Contrary to the positive associations of qat in Yemen, most Western commentators on qat have struggled to take off the Orientalist lens when discussing the shrub. It seems little has changed since British colonial officers Gerald Reece and Malcolm Clark described qat users as “listless, lazy, good-for-nothings,” unable to serve British interests because of their “obsession” with the plant. BBC articles from the 2000s describe Yemen as full of “men with cheeks bulging bizarrely as they get their fix.” It’s hard for Westerners to get past the extremely widespread use of the drug. The travel vlogger Drew Binsky more recently described qat to his avid viewers as “synonymous with Yemen.”

Two photographic tropes in reportage of Yemen seem to do most of the heavy lifting. The first features a sedated and bleary-eyed man gazing in the direction of the camera, his cheek bulging with qat as he reclines, sluggish. The second plays into the other Orientalist trope of the ominous Arab, the menacing trifecta of a gun slung around a chest, a fist thrust into the air and a cheek puffed out by a bolus of leaves. The implication seems to be that Yemenis, supposedly living in a backwater, spend their time in the absence of any other decent pastime plucking drugs off trees, which drives them to alternate extremes of lassitude and aggression.

Yemenis are well aware of the double standard. My friends question why Yemenis are seen as “backward” for chewing qat when the West is blighted by drugs. More than 140,000 people die from excessive alcohol use in the United States each year. The percentage of the U.S. population that uses another stimulant drug — caffeine — is similar to qat use among men in Yemen. But our ability to analyze these mainstays of our culture is stymied by their familiarity. California’s wine country is associated with luxury resorts, Michelin-starred restaurants and boutique hotels: Yemen’s qat farmers are said to feed the underdevelopment of the country.

But there is one major difference between the West’s predilection for alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine, marijuana and the like — and it’s the only one that matters. Qat flourishes in countries where the local population is looking for an outlet (often because of poverty and mental health crises amid war) and where regulating the drug is an uphill battle. Of six countries where qat is widely used — Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Uganda, Kenya and Djibouti — the first three are beset by conflict and each is considered to have a largely low-income or lower middle-income population. All six are at the fault line of climate change, and thirsty shrubs threaten to accelerate environmental degradation.

Limiting qat’s use — when large swaths of the country’s territory are contested, taxation regimes are extremely hard to impose, resources for environmental protection are scarce and government salaries go unpaid — is no mean feat. The effect on Yemen has been devastating: 90% of adult males, 50% of young women and 15-20% of children chew qat for three to four hours a day.

In the past 50 years, the average temperature in Yemen has increased by 1 degree Fahrenheit. Some 3% to 5% of arable land is lost to desertification annually. A devastating drought in 2022 plunged over half of Yemen’s population into crisis levels of food insecurity. Felix Arabia, as the Romans dubbed Yemen, the breadbasket of the Arabian Peninsula, is perpetually teetering on the brink of famine.

Yet qat consumes more than 40% of Yemen’s renewable water resources. Since qat’s harvest cycle is just two weeks, many farmers depend on the shrub to turn a profit, as traditional agricultural produce such as coffee repeatedly fails. Qat trees have the dastardly combination of being able to withstand drought whilst also producing much more yield when irrigated, meaning that after a drought, the only vegetation still alive is qat, in which farmers promptly invest their limited water resources. The shrub has caught Yemen in a devilish vicious cycle: As drought intensifies, more farmers turn to qat, and environmental disaster gains speed. And as more farmers turn to qat, seeds that bear food are no longer sown, and Yemen’s hunger crisis grows.

The intersection between qat, hunger and environmental crisis was what prompted Hind Al-Eryani, one of Yemen’s most prominent female activists, to take on qat. “I grew up in Ibb, which is known for its rich soil,” she tells me. “They used to say nobody will die in Ibb because there is always food. But now they only grow qat. I wanted to raise awareness about how it’s not just about our health, but also about the country.”

It was during the Arab Spring that qat first caught Al-Eryani’s attention. “In 2012, the youth were very excited about the change in Yemen, and we realized that we didn’t just have to change the president but also our society.” Al-Eryani’s initial policy demands were modest: She began campaigning on Twitter for the government to inaugurate an annual day without qat. Initially, she was mocked for challenging one of Yemen’s largest industries. “The speaker of the Parliament, Yahiya Al Raee, told me that Yemen would run out of food before it would run out of qat, because so many parliamentarians own the lands which qat is farmed on,” she told me.

But by 2013, the movement to regulate qat had captured the imagination of the nation, propelled by the heady winds of the Arab Spring. The language for the campaign was revolutionary, taking aim at the status quo to rebuild Yemen in the image of human rights, socioeconomic development and respect for the environment. The activism even came with a song: “The Revolution Without Qat.”

“The people have declared their revolution against qat,” it starts. “Civilizations rose without qat, Sheba and Himyar all existed without qat, Arwa said that our history took place without qat,” it continues, referencing Yemen’s most illustrious empires and leaders before and after Islam. The video of the song Al-Eryani has shown me is one she filmed in the men’s room of a wedding (such occasions are typically gender-segregated). “The first thing I did was look at the floor,” she told me. “Normally in weddings the floor is full of qat leaves, but here it was clean.”

For a period, it seemed that Al-Eryani might succeed in her dream of regulating qat. A member of Parliament, Najeeb Saeed Ghanim, wrote a draft national strategy in collaboration with the ministries of water, education, agriculture, economy and youth, which proposed obligating farmers to fell 5% of their qat trees each year, with compensation thereafter. Other proposals included banning the import of qat and the manufacture of imitations of the drug, as well as preventing farmers from using pesticides whose chemical effects last more than a month and moving qat markets into the suburbs. After the strategy was unanimously passed, it was referenced in Article 69 of the 2015 draft constitution. “If I died after this, I would have died happy,” Al-Eryani told me. “But then the war started, and everything was gone.”

Yemen’s civil war has been one of the bloodiest in modern history, with civilians bearing the brunt of casualties and fatalities. The latest figures, as of the end of 2021, estimate that the war has claimed 377,000 lives since the Saudi-led intervention began in 2015, 70% of whom were children. As many as a quarter of Yemeni children are engaged in child labor. Cholera has swept through the country, resulting in 2.5 million suspected cases. The U.N. continues to call Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

It has been eight years since the movement to regulate qat evaporated into the fog of war, and the conflict in that time has plunged Yemen further into economic crisis. There is little hope of transforming Yemen’s position on qat when government employees go months without receiving their salaries. Neither would any politician suggest regulating qat when it is one of the few income sources available in the most rural areas of Yemen.

Hopes of regulation have faded into the sunset just when it is needed the most. The war has brought with it a mental health crisis from which there is little reprieve. For every 750,000 Yemenis, there is only one psychiatrist, fighting the uphill battle of treating the 80% of Yemen’s children who show signs of PTSD. Public spaces where Yemenis can find distraction, such as parks, historical sites or shopping centers, lie in rubble. Conflict lines have shifted, meaning that Yemenis in major cities have ventured back into pastimes they abandoned for years. But the place that qat holds in their routines is hard to shake. As for Yemenis in contested areas, qat remains one of the few outlets for the stresses of war and poverty.

Given the woeful conditions that many Yemenis live in, it’s no surprise that qat usage is increasing, even to the detriment of users’ ability to meet their own basic needs. “The average income of a Yemeni household is [$4] a day,” says Nabila Alkumaim, the executive director of the Yemeni civil society group Life Makers Meeting Place Organization. “But priority remains on qat. Even when education, healthcare, food expenses are there, still qat remains the priority.”

Worse yet, Alkumaim is convinced that the war has removed the stigma once placed on certain groups using qat. “Four years ago it was socially unacceptable for children to take qat,” she said. “But there’s nothing else for children to do now. When the blockade of Yemen began there was nowhere to go. When the war came close we couldn’t even leave the house. There’s nothing left for anyone to do.”

I remember a conversation with a friend who told me that he allows his 10-year-old son to chew qat, since he prefers for him to participate in the diwan of qat rather than his playing sports with his friends in areas that may be unsafe or littered with explosive remnants of war.

Mustafa al’Absi, a Yemeni academic who is a professor of behavioral medicine at the University of Minnesota, has also found through his research that qat usage sharply increased after the war. “Boredom is a major risk factor for drugs,” he tells me. He is deeply concerned about what he calls an epidemic of qat use in Yemen. “Is it as harmful as cocaine or heroin? No. And it’s true that globally the two substances that kill the most people are alcohol and tobacco. But when we say that qat is not as harmful as other drugs, that doesn’t mean it’s good. Qat is a drug, and of course no one wants to call themselves a drug user. But two wrongs don’t make a right – just because other drugs aren’t legal doesn’t mean qat has to be legal.”

There also seem to be more nefarious reasons behind the increasing difficulty of regulating qat post-2015. “Warring factions use qat as a cash crop,” al’Absi tells me. “Also, since it makes you worried, stimulated and anxious, it’s conducive to violence.” Reports indicate that child soldiers recruited in Yemen are frequently given qat, both as a pull factor for mobilization and as a lubricant when entering direct hostilities.

The threads of Yemeni society are already fraying with the war, and qat also threatens to upset the social balance. One of my friends, who has two children and works full time, told me about how qat can lead to women’s exclusion in the workplace. “Often senior management prefers not to put women in high positions because they know that most decisions are made by guys chewing in qat circles,” she said. “Because women and men cannot be together in these circles they prefer not to hire women.”

Al-Eryani, the activist who probably came closest to regulating qat, has become remarkably pessimistic. “I don’t talk about qat anymore,” she tells me. “The war has made it worse because people have to distract themselves. Talking about qat would mean I’d take away from people the only things they have to distract themselves.” I remember the words of my driver, whom I asked why he chewed qat. “Qat is ecstasy in an otherwise boring life,” he told me.

Policy over qat in Yemen has ranged from the technocratic to the outright cringy. Perhaps the most ridiculous attempt at curbing qat’s harmful effects was a 1999 campaign that featured Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s notorious strongman and first president after unification in 1990, riding a bicycle and taking computer lessons to persuade Yemenis to replace chewing qat with new hobbies.

If regulating qat is to succeed, it will have to address the root causes of qat usage. Subsistence farmers are unlikely to be convinced by awareness-raising campaigns about the harmful side effects of qat when money is otherwise so hard to come by. Neither will consistent users of qat who have little else to distract them. One woman I meet in a displaced-persons settlement in the north of Aden tells me that she struggles to curb her household’s qat usage, even though she often finds it difficult to feed her four children. “If I tell my husband not to chew qat,” she tells me, “he says that I’ll pay the same or even more in food, so it will cost us less this way. Rather than eating he says that he prefers to chew.”

There’s also the importance of qat to Yemeni culture. An outright ban on qat in Yemen has the same likelihood as a ban on wine in France. As with alcohol, the most commonly used addictive substance in the world, qat users praise the substance for the convivial atmosphere it creates, the social lubricant it represents and its ability to alleviate stress. Though it is these fundamental characteristics that lead to qat’s addictive potential, the path to prohibition is littered with criminalization of the most vulnerable and the corpses of bodily autonomy and the right to one’s culture.

Most of my Yemeni friends regard qat with national pride and insist that it is so integral to their culture that I cannot leave Yemen without trying it. Having resisted throughout my trip — in large part because of my sensitive stomach — I finally relent. We drive to the seafront and, after inspecting the bundles of qat in different blue plastic bags, they choose the freshest handful for me: delicate, aromatic leaves that are crimson at their edges and green around the veins. It’s certainly an acquired taste — it’s a little astringent for my liking — but one that I can imagine would be enjoyable in the long term. The sensation is that of eating an unripe banana that coats your mouth with a layer of fur. I persist but accidentally swallow the leaf instead of storing it in the side of my cheek (hence the term for chewing qat in Arabic, “takhzin” — storage). My friends joke that the only effect of qat I’ll be feeling that night is gastric.

Though I can’t attest to qat’s effects because of my amateur chewing, what I witness is a peaceful evening at the seafront in the company of qat users, relaxed and chatty for once. Surrounded on both sides by rubble from shelling, we look onto a waterpark, deserted since the war began. Qat is a polycentric phenomenon, bolstered through plentiful supply after other industries collapsed in the face of climate crisis and economic collapse, and through unrelenting demand due to its ability to distract users from their material and psychological needs. Prohibition is bound to fail, but regulation has a shot. That is, as and when Yemen can recover from the war.

“Spotlight” is a newsletter about underreported cultural trends and news from around the world, emailed to subscribers twice a week. Sign up here.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy