Yemen, awash in guns, wary about unrest

Yemen has the highest guns-per-capita ratio in the world after the US. Tribesmen – some of whom have camped out in Sanaa's Tahrir Square – are widely said to have grenades, mortars, and even a rare tank.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP
Yemeni demonstrators demand the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen, Friday.

As Yemeni protests escalate, tribesmen from rural parts of the country have come to Yemen's own Tahrir Square. But despite sharing the same name as the epicenter of Egypt's revolution, this central square in Sanaa has yet to attract throngs of antigovernment protesters – perhaps in no small part because the tribesmen occupying it are armed.

They're not the only ones carrying guns, however. In Yemen, which has one of the highest guns-per-capita ratios in the world and a weak central government, the Kalashnikov has become emblematic of masculinity, the size of one’s weapon cache synonymous with power.

“Shame on a man who leaves his house without his gun,” says Sinan Abo Zeid, a native of Yemen's northern border province Al Jawf, where men are known to pay for their cars’ gasoline in bullets whenever they don’t have enough cash. “In Al Jawf, the Kalashnikov is the government.”

As Yemen has become more volatile – a state headed toward failure, where it's unclear who would fill the power vacuum that could follow – the number of weapons slung across men's shoulders and stashed in tribal outposts is increasingly seen as problematic.

“There are dangerous risks that these weapons will get into the hands of the wrong people," says Sultan al-Atwany, a member of parliament (MP) from the opposition Nasserite party. "This is a big security risk in Yemen."

Grenades, mortars, and an odd tank

Due to a history of internal conflicts and international meddling, Yemen has 60 guns per 100 people – second only to the United States, according to a report conducted in 2007 by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based independent research project.

Traditionally, tribal law regulated weapons use in this country. However, as a result of the gradual erosion of tribal norms due to urbanization, Yemen’s weak central government, and competition over resource depletion, gun-related violence is increasing. Revenge killings, kidnappings, and politically inspired fighting – including the terrorist operations of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – plague Yemeni society.

Moreover, Yemen’s population is armed with weapons more powerful than guns. Tribes are widely said to have supplies of rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and in some rare cases, tanks.

'Using my gun to take my rights'

Revelations from WikiLeaks’ released diplomatic cables highlight US concern about widespread weapons proliferation in a country where a regional branch of Al Qaeda has set up shop.

Starting in 2004, according to a cable, the US worked with the Yemeni government to buy back surface-to-air missiles, or MANPADS, in an attempt to remove them from the Yemeni arms market so that terrorists would not obtain the missiles. Other cables reveal US concern over weapons being smuggled out of Yemen to other terrorist organizations around the globe.

Rashad al-Alimi, the deputy prime minister for security and defense affairs, claimed that arms proliferation is one of four security challenges facing Yemen, says a report published by the Small Arms Survey in May 2010. Others include terrorist threats, border protection, and “weak loyalty to the state.”

Lack of federal rule of law in Yemen’s countryside has created a ethos of “using my gun to take my rights,” says Ayesh Awas, a researcher at the Sheba Center for Strategic Studies in Sanaa who has examined small-arms proliferation in Yemen.

“Weapons are not the main reason for internal conflicts, but they certainly make our conflicts more intense,” Mr. Awas says. “The presence of weapons encourages crimes.”

New laws, weapons seizures

The Yemeni government has made efforts to increase gun control in recent years.

In 1992, the Yemeni government passed a new regulation that prohibited carrying firearms in major cities, although it wasn’t until 2007 until authorities readily enforced the law. The central government had to realize, says Mr. Atwany, the opposition MP, that if absolutely no checks were put on weapon usage, it could end up backfiring against them – quite literally.

“The government used to say, 'Oh, this is the culture of Yemen,' " as an excuse to not have to deal with international concern regarding Yemen’s highly armed population, he says. “But when they saw that these weapons could be used against the state because of the strong resentment growing against [the central government], they started to enforce the law.”

The official Saba News Agency reported in April that the Interior Ministry has seized around 600,000 weapons since August 2008.

But parliament members who support an increase in state-sponsored gun control say it's unclear to what extent President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime, which also has an interest in preserving allegiances with tribal sheikhs, is willing to press for stricter measures.

A new law, which would require that every piece of weaponry be licensed, is trying to make its way through parliament, but is being held up because many supporters of Yemen’s ruling party are powerful sheikhs who don’t want the state tampering with their stashes of weapons that number into the hundreds.

“If the state had the political will it would be able to enforce [gun-control laws] all over the country,” says Ali al-Mamari of Yemen’s ruling General People’s Congress party. The problem, he says, is that “those who are considered the best people in this country are not the better educated, but the people who are trained to shoot.”

Needed: Anti-gun campaign based on honor, courage

During Yemen’s civil wars in 1962 and 1994, leaders from the opposing sides in war would hand out weapons to tribes who provided them with support, Awas explains. This included Saudi Arabia, which started providing Yemeni tribes with weapons after 1962, in order to weaken the strength of northern Yemen’s recently established, Egyptian-supported republican government.

In Yemen’s south, the Soviets who supported South Yemen’s socialist regime heavily armed the population throughout the 1970s and 80s.

Now with weapons possession ingrained in the national psyche, analysts don’t see an easy solution to disarming the country.

“Programs could be initiated that attempt to change tribal values about owning and using weapons," says a 2003 Small Arms Survey report. "The difficulty, however, will be fashioning a campaign that can play on tribal strengths – such as honor, courage, and self-control – without advancing an argument that sounds ‘Western,’ which is a derogatory term throughout the region as it signifies a lack of respect for Islam and Arab tradition.”

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