In-depth: Guns Out of Control: the continuing threat of small arms

YEMEN: When cultural norms underpin gun ownership

There are almost 17 million weapons in Yemen, according to unofficial figures.
SANAA, 21 May 2006 (IRIN) - “I have cannons, missiles, Kalashnikovs, anti-aircraft guns and hand grenades,” said community leader Mohammed Naji, sitting cross-legged in his house in the Yemeni capital, Sana. “This is a part of our culture, and a tribesman can give up everything except his gun.”

Though not everyone in Yemen has an arms cache the size of Naji’s, almost every household has at least one gun. Arms possession is particularly common in the north and northwest of the country.

Ethnic vendettas are a common problem in Yemen, resulting in the deaths of more than 2,000 people annually, according to government figures. In one example, revenge killings between the Hajerah and Annis tribes in Ibb and Thamar provinces, south of Sana, claimed the lives of more than 30 people and wounded 100 more in early July 2005. That particular vendetta, centred on a land dispute, has flared up intermittently for the last five years.

The crime rate in Yemen is soaring, with shootings almost daily to resolve disputes – or even just when tempers rise. The Ministry of the Interior reported that 34,655 crimes were committed in 2005, and government studies have blamed this high crime rate on the proliferation of firearms in the country.

The problem also has a regional dimension, with a 2003 United Nations report naming Yemen as the main conduit of weapons to the conflict-plagued Horn of Africa and parts of East Africa.

Following the recent wave of kidnappings of foreign tourists in December 2005 and January this year, there has been growing pressure on the government to tackle the problem of arms proliferation. Even before the kidnappings, protestors took to the streets of Sana in September 2005 to demand a parliamentary debate on a draft law to control the ownership and use of firearms. Led by the mayor of Sana, Ahmed al-Kuhlani, protestors marched from al-Tahrir Square to the parliament, where they delivered a letter demanding immediate action to stop the proliferation of weapons in Yemen’s cities. However, the parliamentary debate did not result in any legislation.

The availability of arms

There are no exact figures for the number of firearms in circulation in Yemen, but unofficial estimates suggest that there are almost 17 million weapons circulating in the country, which according to the latest census in March 2005 has a population of 19.7 million.

Whatever the absolute numbers, firearms are widely available and sold throughout Yemen. The most important markets are Suq al-Talh in Sana province, 242 km north of the capital, and Suq Juhainah, 40 km outside the city. There are three other regional markets located in Al-Jowf, Al-Baydah and Abyan. There are also an estimated 300 small gun shops in the country, with an average inventory of 100 weapons each. Some influential ethnic leaders in Yemen are also involved in the weapons trade.

In theory, arms traders need a licence from the interior ministry and have to give the government a list of buyers and their purchases. “The reality is different,” Eizz Eddin Saeed al-Asbahi, director of human rights information and training center in Sana'a said. “These provisions of the law are not enacted at all. The traders claim they just buy and sell what is available in the market, but the new stockpiles of firearms show they are coming from outside the country.”

The social significance of arms

For Yemenis, guns are not merely instruments of hunting, defence and attack, but symbols of status, power, manhood, responsibility, wealth – and celebration. Firing guns in the air is a traditional means of celebrating important social occasions, including weddings. On any given Friday, hundreds of men gather at Wadi Dhahr, a deep rocky canyon outside Sana, to celebrate the marriages of men in their community. Holding guns above their heads, they display them with pride, firing rounds in the air.

"Just as some people wear ties, some Yemenis will carry guns. It is a part of one's dress," said Ali Hussein, who had come to celebrate with fellow community members. The men around him brandished an assortment of AK-47 assault rifles, hunting rifles and pistols.

Ethnic customs, or qabalyi, also emphasise defence of the community, defence of land, water wells, women and honour. As these usually involve forms of violence, or at least the threat of violence, most entail the possession of weapons. International campaigners against small arms emphasise the importance of addressing customs and practices that promote firearm ownership when tackling the proliferation of small arms.

Reasons for the profusion of arms

There are several reasons for the widespread availability of firearms in Yemen throughout the last two centuries – and the enormous increase in recent years.

Colonial forces, such as the Ottomans and British in the nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, brought a large volume of weapons to Yemen. This pattern was exacerbated when the former Soviet Union became a strong force in southern Yemen following the British withdrawal in 1967.

The division of Yemen in the 1960s produced two warring states, the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. The two sides fought a number of border conflicts – each requiring new arms supplies – in the 1970s and 1980s. When the north finally conquered the south in 1994, under President Ali Abdullah Saleh, most of the southern stockpiles of Soviet small arms disappeared into the countryside. They are believed to have fallen into the hands of the ethnic groups living in the region.

Another factor that has helped promote the culture of firearms in Yemen, according to local observers, is the phenomenon of heavily armed escorts that accompany social dignitaries, from government officials to community leaders. Some 75,000 men work as armed escorts, including 1,500 who work for members of parliament alone, according to media reports. Current legislation in Yemen exempts the president, his deputies, current and past ministers, members of parliament, officials appointed by decree, police and military officers, judges, prosecutors and diplomats working in the country from needing a licence to carry a firearm.

Efforts to control firearms

Yemen’s current gun-control legislation dates back to 1992, but the law does not designate the necessary authority to control arms proliferation, according to the interior ministry.

In 1999, rising crime and violence involving firearms led the cabinet to draft a new bill to regulate the possession of weapons. The draft law stipulated that Yemenis living in urban areas obtain a licence for each weapon they possess. It also gave the interior ministry more power to control arms, since it reduced the number of people entitled to licences. However, that draft has languished in parliament for the past seven years, due in no small part to the opposition of parliamentary speaker Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmer, head of the powerful Hashid community and of the Islamist party Islah. According to media reports, he believes that the law is the beginning of a process to disarm the country’s ethnic communities. Other community figures share his concerns and have joined him in opposing gun control.

In March 2005, however, the General People’s Congress (GPC) parliamentary bloc of President Saleh, under popular pressure on the issue, threw its weight behind the draft law and voted to begin parliamentary debate the following September. Although the group stressed the urgency of discussing and endorsing the draft bill, the debate yielded nothing concrete.

At present, there is no law banning the trade of firearms, and this has also raised concern. “We believe that the question of trade in firearms is very dangerous and that the importing of weapons should be limited to the government only,” said Sultan al-Barakani, head of the GPC bloc of members of parliament. “It is interesting that the government has taken a decision banning the trade of explosives, but it should also control the trade of firearms.”

The regional factor

The government of Yemen’s new interest in arms control stems from its campaign against terrorism. Officials said that terrorist elements have flourished in the larger context of ethnic feuds and plentiful weapons. In an effort to remove heavy weapons belonging to ethnic communities from circulation, the government started a buy-back programme with the support of the United States. The effort has floundered, however, as a result of inadequate funding. “Yemen spent 8 billion riyals [$43.7 million] to purchase weapons from the tribesmen,” said foreign minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi. “We need to control the situation.”

The problem of arms possession in Yemen extends beyond its borders. There are serious concerns about weapons smuggled out of the country and used to fuel violent conflicts in the Horn of Africa, and notably in Somalia. A report submitted to the United Nations Security Council in November 2003 named Yemen as the chief source of weapons to a number of East African and Horn of Africa countries, including Kenya and Ethiopia. The report said it was relatively easy to obtain surface-to-air missiles in Yemen and export them to Somalia, noting that the missiles used in the failed attack on an Israeli airplane leaving the coastal Kenyan city of Mombasa in November 2002 were brought through Somalia from Yemen.

Following reports that some of the guns used in the al-Qaeda attacks against the US consulate in Jedah, Saudi Arabia in January 2005 belonged to the Yemeni army - which its government denied - Yemen announced on 27 October 2005 that it had taken some measures to prohibit weapons traders from purchasing weapons for the Yemeni military. This came after pressure by the US and Saudi Arabia, which accused Yemen of not controlling its borders and doing enough to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Saudi territories. The decision was welcomed by the US and considered a good step towards controlling arms trafficking in Yemen.

Al-Qirbi agreed that weapons smuggling is a very serious problem and said that Yemen was doing all it could to put a stop to it. He cited a coast guard project, which was started some years ago with the help of donors, including the US, and is expected to cost US $60 million and require around 150 boats and aims to patrol and monitor the coastal waters. “We have a long coastline of 2,500 km that needs a lot of logistical support for the coast guards,” Al-Qirbi said. “We hope donors will help us control the smuggling of weapons.”

Even if the coast guard does successfully combat arms smuggling and the government does tighten up gun control within Yemen, a critical challenge that still must be faced is how to address the cultural factors that fuel the proliferation of small arms.

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