Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat- Yemeni authorities are currently seeking to restrict the spread of arms in the country, in fear of weapons falling into the hands of terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda for example. Last year, Yemeni authorities discovered that weapons belonging to the Yemeni Ministry of Defense had reached members of Al Qaeda who attacked the American consulate in Jeddah in 2005. However there are many obstacles in the way of controlling the arms trade in Yemen, for example buying and selling weapons is deep-rooted within Yemeni tradition and linked to the concepts of revenge and settling tribal conflicts. There are approximately 18 legitimate markets for the arms trade all over Yemen, the most prominent of which are Jahana and Ataleh, north of Sadah near the Saudi/Yemeni borders.
Jahana, which lies 25 kilometers east of the Yemeni capital Sanaa is a small town and is famous firstly for its ancient history, and secondly for the arms trade. Here, one can ask any passerby, regardless of age, about the arms market and would easily be pointed in the correct direction. There are shops lined up on both sides of a wide unpaved street, and immediately upon arrival, young sellers and brokers will approach you to ask whether you are buying or selling.
Asharq Al Awsat visited the Jahana market where a wide range of weapons are on display including light arms of different brands, various hand guns, machine guns, AK-47s, modified weapons, old rifles (Abu Sahan/Thompson sub-machine gun), and Al Jarmal (a popular weapon in Yemen). There are even RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenades) available and various kinds of ammunition.
Sheikh Ahmed Saleh Al Azouby, an arms dealer, told Asharq Al Awsat, “In this market we sell light arms; Yemeni people have always carried weapons, and the civil war of 1994 between the north and south reinforced this practice”. Al Azouby regards the arms trade as one that is unprofitable, however it will always exist, “especially since arms dealers have invested so much into it”. He avoided answering a question about business with major arms dealers in Yemen and the methods of buying weapons from them, highlighting that the shops that operate in the largest markets in Yemen do so without licenses or without paying taxes.
Al Azouby stated that customers can expect to pay between 100 and 150 thousand Yemeni Riyals for an RPG (US $1 is equivalent to 197 Yemeni Riyals). As for an AK -47, this would cost between 50 and 100 thousand Yemeni Riyals. Al Azouby says that there has been an increase in the price of weapons recently due to the government’s aim to limit the widespread possession of arms in Yemen. He emphasized that no receipts or official papers are used in transactions between arms dealers and customers, or between large and small dealers. He stated that some deals are settled using “both Yemeni and Saudi Riyals, especially in markets close to the Saudi/Yemeni borders.” He explained to Asharq Al Awsat that Chinese weapons are the most common at present, indicating that the market also has Russian, American, Czech, and German weapons. Al Azouby denied knowledge of government arms being traded on the market, saying, “We only receive civilians, but even if some customers are members of the armed forces, they come here as civilians”. He describes Jahana market as “the free market” in that it is not subject to government regulation in the same way as all shops in Sanaa.
A former leader of the Al Qaeda network in Yemen, Rashad Mohamed Saeid, otherwise known as Abu al Fedaa, who lived in Afghanistan for a number of years, told Asharq Al Awsat, “America and its allies aim to disarm the Yemeni people not because of terrorists but to get rid of their means of protection and defending themselves, thus making them submissive.”
Abu Al Fedaa indicated that Al Qaeda is not interested in acquiring or possessing weapons such as AK-47s and the like as such weapons can be found “where the battles are going on right now. The Mujahideen in Iraq, Ansar al Islam or Tawheed did not even have AK-47s, however the battles erupted and they developed their own weapons and utilized their skills to develop missiles and other things. Furthermore, Jihad movements are not concerned about weapons such as the AK-47, as they now rely on weapons that are lighter in weight and more effective and harmful to the targeted opponent; it is not difficult to produce explosive material.”
Abu Al Fedaa stressed the difficulty of the government to achieve its targets in its campaign to limit the number of arms in the country. He says, “That which is prohibited is desired. Closing down arms markets in Yemen will not solve the problem but will rather advance the trade; there is an international mafia, who is it that exports arms to Somalia? The Yemeni coastline stretches far and so too do the borders and the country has many foes. Closing down the markets will never solve the problem but will increase the prosperity of the trade because it will become a valuable profitable commodity.”
Yemeni parliamentary representative, Sheikh Sultan Asamei, who is a member of the Yemeni Socialist Party, attributes the arms phenomenon in Yemen to the “inefficiency of the state to maintaining security in the country, so people are forced to carry weapons to defend themselves and their rights, however if the state has the intention and ability to protect people, the carrying of arms will end”. He also told Asharq Al Awsat that arms markets in Yemen exist with approval from the government and that everybody is aware of this fact. He claims that some markets are even in partnership with some government officials, hence they profit from such trade.” Asamei stressed that the Yemeni parliament has not practiced any control over the arms trade in Yemen until now, in the required manner; “Parliament had a proposed law for the possession of arms that is yet to be discussed.” He continues, “As for the government, it benefits from the arms trade, the inability of the people to reach a degree of consciousness, and from the continuation of chaos and depletion of people as a result of this trade; in short, there is no intention to build a state that is controlled by law and order and that is responsible for the safety of all”.
International reports have estimated that there are approximately 40 to 50 million weapons in Yemen that is two pieces of weaponry per citizen as the population of Yemen is just over 20 million. However, Eiz Eddin al Asbahi, the director of the Human Rights Information and Training Center, and the coordinator of the regional network to limit the misuse of light arms told Asharq Al Awsat that the most recent study in Yemen that was carried out by both organizations found that nine million was an approximate figure for the number of small arms. He adds that in relation to the population of Yemen, each adult male citizen owns 3 or 4 weapons. The study indicates that arms are common in certain geographical parts of Yemen, and that each citizen in such areas has a large share of arms.”
Al Asbahi attributes the spread of weaponry in Yemen to “the weakness of the law, because in principle, Yemeni law permits the acquisition of arms as it considers the possession of arms a right and so seeks to regulate it. The current law, which maybe amended in the next parliamentary session, in fact significantly adds to the spread of arms because it states that the presence of weapons outside of major cities does not require a permit.” He continues, “Some points of weakness of the proposed law amendment are that it loosely states that each citizen can possess a weapon and a suitable amount of ammunition and this is a dangerous issue internationally. We believe that the main solution lies in reconsidering laws and regulations.” He regards the biggest problem to be the multitude of passages of entry and exit to Yemen as he states, “There are over 2200 kilometers of coastline, and the tumultuous terrain and distance between cities causes the spread and trading of arms to be effortless and widespread to a large degree”. Al Asbahi attributes the spread of arms in Yemen to two chief reasons, the first of which is that carrying a weapon is considered a way for young men to prove that they have reached adulthood, which is a traditional culture that contributed largely and incorrectly to the belief that weapons are a positive thing.” The second reason is, “the fear of tribal and governmental powers; many Yemenis especially in areas of the north which has a strong tribal system, believe they are living in a state within the state, an issue that promoted the necessity of acquiring arms to protect oneself and interests whether during internal tribal wars or in the case of disputes with state institutions. This contributes to the fact that weapons become socially and culturally acceptable and a significant justification for the majority of the public.”
The Yemeni activist looks at a cultural point, which is a widespread belief amongst Yemenis and Arabs in general that there are “advantages” to carrying a weapon “in case of invasion for example as the case was in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq; at the same time if we subjugate the issue to reason and rationalism, we find that light arms did not contribute to liberating the land, but rather to the killing of many innocent people especially women and children. This factor created much havoc and debilitated the notion of a central state”.
Dr. Abdul Salam al Hakimi, a professor of social science at Taaz University in Yemen confirmed to Asharq Al Awsat that “A percentage of Yemeni women also use weapons just as men.” He said that women in rural Yemen are capable of handling arms in the same way as men are because of the ownership of weaponry by rural families. “They are used for family protection; a husband teaches his wife or daughter how to shoot before he leaves the village.”
Dr al Hakimi also indicates that in light of a study concerning the crime rate in Yemeni society, it was discovered that many women use weapons to carry out crimes such as murder, specifically premeditated murder. Dr al Hakimi attributes the use of arms by women in particular to the presence of weapons in the home; he points out the use of weapons by children under the age of fifteen in some crimes.
The Yemeni academic stated that “the possession of weapons is an international phenomenon, but carrying arms openly in public is a Yemeni phenomenon as there are no other countries where weapons are openly carried.” He indicated that the Yemeni government has spent approximately 11 billion Yemeni Riyals to buy arms, which led to the decrease in the number of weapons circulating the market due to the rise in prices as a result of increased demand. He believes that the rise in prices of weapons could lead to the elimination of the arms trade, “because the average citizen earns 30, 000 Yemeni Riyals per month will find it difficult to buy a weapon that costs 80,000 or 100,000 Yemeni Riyals. Therefore, buying weapons is now limited to affluent classes for the purpose of showing off and boasting”.
The spread of weapons of various sizes and kinds in Yemen contributes to the increase in revenge crimes, and criminal activity in general especially in major cities.
Calls from Asharq Al Awsat to the Interior Ministry undersecretary, General Mohamed Abdullah al Qawsi, Colonel Yahya Mohamed Abdullah Saleh, head of the central security forces, Colonel Mohamed al Hawry, and the head of the defense and security committee in the Yemeni parliament to comment on the subject were not returned.
Dr Hakimi told Asharq Al Awsat that the results of the most recent study that he conducted in Yemen regarding the improper use of weapons included over 2083 participants and revealed that over 60% of men and women own weapons.