Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat- Statistics show that there are over 60 million firearms in Yemen, which means that on average there are three firearms for every Yemeni citizen. This makes the proliferation of arms in Yemen one of the most severe problems currently being confronted by the government in Sanaa.
The Yemeni authorities began a campaign to hunt down the most prominent arms dealers operating in the country two weeks ago, and they have so far arrested 4 arms dealers included on this blacklist of 20 names. The most prominent figure on this list is Sheikh Faris Manna, who was arrested approximately 11 days ago at his home in Sanaa. 3 other arms dealers included on the governmental blacklist were also arrested in Saada Province; they were later transferred to the capital Sanaa.
The Yemeni government created this list of the most prominent arms dealers operating in Yemeni territory in October 2009, and observers link the recent arrest of arms dealers with the results of the London Conference on Yemen which took place in January. Observers also link the arrest of these arms dealers to the confrontation of the Al Qaeda organization in Yemen, and the war against the Huthi insurgents in the north because the proliferation of weapons in the country makes Yemen a desirable location for terrorist organizations, as well as smugglers wishing to smuggle arms into neighboring countries, particularly Saudi Arabia.
The Yemeni authorities recently seized a sizable weapons cache in the port of Hodeida. This weapons cache was coming from China under false documentation and was reportedly being imported by a number of Yemeni arms dealers.
A huge number and variety of weapons are available in the arms markets present throughout a large number of Yemen’s 21 provinces, however approximately 2 years ago the Yemeni authorities launched a large scale operation to shut down such markets, and they have been successful in shutting down the largest and best known arms markets throughout the country.
The Yemeni authorities also undertake sporadic operations throughout the streets of Yemen, and at the city entrances and exits, to confiscate illegal weaponry in the possession of Yemeni citizens. The security forces said that tens of thousands of weapons have recently been confiscated in Yemen, and the security forces reported that over the course of January 2009 approximately 131,000 items of weaponry were seized across the whole of Yemen.
The Yemeni Interior Ministry also said that the security forces had “seized 865 [of these] weapons in cities, while the rest of the weapons were seized in the security belts surround the provinces and at the entrances and exits of Yemeni cities.” Observers confirm that the problem of arms proliferation in Yemen is one that does not just exist in the cities, for more than 75 percent of Yemen’s population of 23 million people live in rural areas, and the majority of Yemeni citizens possess firearms.
The possession of weapons remains a part of Yemeni culture, and some have gone so far as to claim that this is part of Yemeni identity, however sociologists attribute the proliferation and culture of weapons in Yemen to be a result of the tribal structure and the ongoing conflicts and wars in the country. Dr. Abdul Baqi Shamsan, a professor of Sociology at the University of Sanaa believes that the weakness of the Yemeni state, particularly during the 4 decades following the 1962 revolution, has contributed greatly to the presence of many negative phenomenons in Yemen, including the proliferation of weapons. Dr. Shamsan said that it is as if weapons possession is a legal right in Yemen today, whereas in reality possession of [unlicensed] weapons is illegal under Yemeni law.
Approximately two decades ago Yemeni lawmakers implemented a gun control law; however an amendment to this law tightening gun control has languished in parliament for more than 4 years. Dr. Shamsan told Asharq Al-Awsat “Why is there no law to ban the possession and distribution of arms? Why is there [only] a draft legislation for this in a country that has a high illiteracy rate and which is dominated by tribal culture?”
Yemeni parliamentarian Dr. Abdul Bari Dagesh told Asharq Al-Awsat that the law that has been in force for the past 20 years is an “excellent” law however “what is needed is implementation” although he admitted that some of the articles of this law needed to be modified and developed.
For his part, MP Ali al-Ansi also told Asharq Al-Awsat that the current law “only needs implementation” adding “we have laws but no implementation.”
In the average market in Yemen, weapons of all kinds are sold, and this is not to mention the black market where one can buy weapons ranging from handguns to automatic weapons like AK-47s, to rocket-propelled grenades and hand-held missiles and other types of explosives.
The internal wars that have taken place in Yemen have given the people of Yemen the opportunity to obtain weaponry of all kings, and according to reports, during and immediately following the 1994 civil war between the north and the south, large quantities of various kinds of weaponry were looted.
The proliferation of arms in Yemen is also a major concern to its neighboring countries and even superpowers. Several years ago the US attempted to resolve this problem, and it provided the Yemeni government with the funds to buy the weapon stockpiles of the tribal leaders, instead of fighting with them to force them to lay down their weapons. This was after elements of Al Qaeda attacked the US Consulate in Jeddah in 2004, and it was uncovered that the weapons used in this attack belonged to the Yemeni Ministry of Defense.
However this US attempt to resolve the arms problem failed, and only contributed to raising the price of weapons in the country. The price of weapons in Yemen increased further following the government crackdown on the possession of arms in cities, and for example a Russian pistol has seen a price increase of almost 100 percent, from 50 thousand Yemeni Riyals or $250, to more than 100 thousand Yemeni riyals or $500.
Russian manufactured weapons are by far the most popular weapons throughout Yemen, followed by Chinese manufactured arms, Czech manufactured arms, and weapons made in Spain. As for weapons manufactured in the US, there are only a limited number of US manufactured firearms available in Yemen, and ownership of a US-made pistol is a source of pride.
The proliferation of weapons in Yemen is a major problem, not just for the security and stability of the country, but also to the region and the international community at large. This is an issue that must be resolved, as it is one that intersects with other problems being faced by the Yemeni regime, such as the presence of Al Qaeda and Huthi insurgents in Yemen. Yemen occupies an important geo-political location, and any problems in the country are bound to have wider regional ramifications.