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FEATURE - Yemen gun culture harms stability, helps militants

SANAA (Reuters) - Business has been booming this past week at Jihana, one of Yemen’s biggest weapons markets. A deadly feud has erupted between two local tribes, and fighters from both sides have been rushing to stock up on weapons.

“We stayed open until midnight yesterday to cope with the demand,” said arms trader Muhammed Qubban. Trade is brisk and when a pick-up carrying four masked men arrives, Qubban and other traders are on their feet to sell guns and ammunition.

“They’re from one of the warring tribes,” said Saleh, another trader at the market, 30 km (19 miles) east of Sanaa. “When the fighting is going on, they rush to the market and don’t even bother to negotiate prices.”

Eight people have died so far in this dispute, the traders say, which started when a tribal sheikh was shot dead in broad daylight on a street in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.

Yemen’s gun culture is ingrained. As well as wearing curved daggers at their waist, it is not unusual for Yemeni men to carry AK-47 assault rifles, hunting rifles and pistols.

Yemen is known for its spiralling political violence. This year the country has seen bloody rampages by al Qaeda militants, another round of conflict with northern Shi’ite rebels and rising brutality in the secessionist south.

Fears are growing that the southern Arabian Peninsula country could be so damaged by these conflicts that it will turn into a failed state, threatening regional security and that of its neighbour, top oil exporter Saudi Arabia.

But Yemen’s social violence poses an equal danger to the country’s political stability, analysts say. Tribal clashes, most often caused by water and land disputes, claim thousands of lives each year and are set to worsen as the impoverished country struggles to cope with dwindling natural resources.


With an estimated average of at least two guns per citizen in its 23 million strong population, the sheer scale of small arms availability in Yemen is a serious cause for concern, the Small Arms Survey said in a report published in October.

“A wide range of anecdotal evidence suggests that recourse to arms to resolve conflict is increasingly common and that the proliferation of weapons is strongly associated with the rapid escalation of disputes,” the report said.

The weapons stem from Yemen’s violent past when warring factions battled each other and arms are still actively smuggled in. Many Yemenis bear arms from an early age with family honour and blood revenge traditional cultural cornerstones.

About 4,000 people die in land rows every year, according to the report which cites unpublished data from Yemen’s government, but the figure is probably much higher and is expected to grow because of problems associated with a booming population.

Harvests are shrinking as rainfall declines and groundwater dries up causing social tensions over water and food. Sanaa will be the first capital city to run dry, by 2050, experts say.

Yemen’s sinking economy, unemployment, widespread corruption and grinding poverty also contribute to grievances that can lead to violent conflict.

Centuries of tribal warfare have left Yemen with a tradition of bloodshed that is almost impossible to eradicate, especially in rural areas where the ownership and possession of arms is still entirely unregulated.

“The weapons issue must be dealt with through raising awareness and changing people’s attitudes ... (towards thinking) the Yemeni is a man without a firearm,” Yemeni anti-weapons activist Abdulrahman al-Marwani told Reuters.


But changing Yemen’s culture is no easy task. At weddings and social events, Yemeni men proudly display their weapons, firing bursts of gunfire into the air.

The abundance of weapons in Yemen also creates ample opportunity for militants to arm themselves and to operate more freely than they could elsewhere.

Yemen’s heavily armed society means the state can exert little control over certain areas, making it a perfect hideout for insurgents such as al Qaeda members.

“There is a culture of violence the Yemenis inherited from their very troubled history ... now we see radical networks using this,” said Vitaly Naumkin of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The Yemen-based regional al Qaeda wing has recently emerged as one of the most aggressive branches of the global militant group and one with domestic and international ambitions.

Last month, the branch claimed an attempt to send parcel bombs to the United States that sparked a worldwide alert and placed Yemen at the centre of global security concerns.

“The open (weapons) markets help extremist groups and tribes resist the authorities ... The government is suffering now from the availability of small arms that resulted from its negligence in the past,” Marwani said.

The Yemeni government has made some efforts to control the arms trade. In 2007, it launched a nationwide campaign to enforce a ban on carrying weapons in cities that is said to have had some, but limited effect.

The clampdown included the closure of arms bazaars, and although police forced around 300 weapons shops in 18 arms bazaars to close, the shops were allowed to reopen just six months later.

The concern is not just over small arms circulating in Yemen -- heavy weapons are also relatively easy to get hold of.

At Jihana, traders display machine guns, assault rifles and pistols in their shops. An AK-47 can cost between $500 and $1,500 depending on age and quality.

“These are what we are allowed to sell openly,” said dealer Yahya. “But if you want RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) or any other type of weapons, we can deliver.”

For ordinary citizens, the abundance of weapons in Yemeni daily life can be terrifying. A minor incident can quickly escalate to a full-blown gun battle and years of tribal feuding, costing many lives.

“I hate it. Of course I am scared. It means I try to never, ever get into a dispute with anyone,” said one Sanaa resident who declined to be identified.

“It’s just the way it is. If I have to, with a few phone calls I can have 50 armed men by my side --- it’s just a necessity,” another said.

Additional reporting and writing by Raissa Kasolowsky, editing by Peter Millership