By Abigail Fielding-Smith in Sanaa
March 30 2011
The price of a Kalashnikov bullet has more than quadrupled in recent years in Yemen, a country whose people are both among the poorest in the region and the second most heavily armed in the world after the Americans.
The country’s notorious weapons culture is a factor in the calculations of tribal and military factions poised between civil war and some form of political change, with protesters calling for an end to the 32-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The price of a bullet these days is about 185 rials (about $1) – at a time when 40 per cent of Yemenis survive on only $2 a day.
It explains why scores of people swarmed to a munitions factory on Monday after security forces withdrew from an area in the south and – in what appears to have been a tragic, if predictable, accident – more than 100 people were killed by a massive explosion.
“Weapons are not the cause of what’s going on now – but they are playing and will play an important role,” says Ayesh Awas, an expert in security at the Sheba Centre for Strategic Studies, a think-tank based in Sana’a.
An estimated 61 per cent of households possess a firearm. Even in the capital, where proliferation is more controlled, barrels of AK-47s can frequently be seen swinging next to the loose civilian robes of their owners.
The reasons for this are a mixture of the geopolitical and the cultural. In the 1960s, Yemen became the arena for a proxy struggle between Nasserist Egypt and conservative Saudi Arabia, with each side arming the republicans and the royalists, respectively, in North Yemen’s civil war.
South Yemen was flooded by weapons from the Soviet Union. In 1994, North and South Yemen fought a brief civil war, and tribes fighting on the side of the North raided the supplies of the South Yemen army. That was how heavy weapons – such as shoulder-mounted missiles – were put into civilian hands for the first time.
Perhaps because of this recurrent instability, tribal culture venerates weapons. They are sometimes the currency of compensation in disputes and the strength of a tribe’s numbers is measured according to how many people it has who are able to bear arms and to pay fines.
There are various ways in which weapons are thought to be brought into the domestic market.
Last week, Dubai police intercepted 16,000 small arms, which they claimed were illegally bound for Yemen. According to Gavin Hales, a former researcher with the Small Arms Survey, Yemen’s coastline is “fairly porous”. There is also “leakage from legitimate military sources”.
Yemen technically has gun control laws dating back to 1992 but, until 2007, they were rarely enforced, and would-be consumers could browse for Kalashnikovs in one of about 300 open markets.
“It used to be like clothes stores,” Mr Awas recalls.
The government has since tightened controls considerably, at least in the cities, where soldiers at checkpoints search cars for unlicensed guns. As a result, the price of a Kalashnikov has risen from 25,000 rials to 200,000 rials, Mr Awas says.
Many feel that the presence of heavily armed tribes linked to the protesters has acted as a curb upon the government’s ability to crack down on the protest movement during recent weeks.
“If society was unarmed, then the military factions would not be so significant,” says Abdulghani al-Iryani, a political analyst, citing a reported instance in which tribesmen sympathetic to the protest movement stopped the Republican Guard from deploying outside the capital.
Some analysts even believe the proliferation of weapons to be a stabilising factor in Yemen.
“Part of the power of the weapon is that it inspires fear, and this is part of the political balance,” says Mr Awas.
He likens it to the mutually assured destruction of the cold war. “Its kind of like a guarantee that things won’t reach their logical extreme.”