Morale: The Curse Of Khat


September 8, 2014: Britain banned the import and use of the tropical plant khat in July, joining most other European nations and many in the Middle East. Even the UN has identified khat as a dangerous substance. This has brought joy to Somalia, where khat producers, having lost a major export customer for khat exports have been selling a lot more of it in Somalia and at bargain (at least 50 percent less) prices. While this is great for all the soldiers, militiamen and gangsters who spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for some action, these guys become more unpredictable when under the influence of khat. Moreover, men with guns are the wrong people to turn into khat addicts. Khat is very addictive and an armed man with a desperate need for more khat will do crazy things to obtain the cash to buy more of the stuff. Wives complain that husbands will spend all their money on khat and ignore their starving children.

Khat is a plant that has grown in Yemen, Kenya and Ethiopia for thousands of years. When chewed the khat leaves give you more of a buzz than caffeine or nicotine, but less than stronger drugs. It is addictive and until the 1950s was grown by farmers for their own personal use as a stimulant. Khat was used like that long before anyone figured out how to use coffee beans to produce a stimulating liquid. One thing that kept khat local was the fact that the leaves quickly lost their potency a few days after being picked. In other words, Khat did not travel well while coffee beans and tea leaves did. That all changed after World War II when roads, trucks and air transport became widely available. Suddenly khat had an international market for those who could afford to pay for it and were not put off by the need to sit around for hours chewing the stuff.

Khat became a worldwide problem after World War II. Despite the fact that many nations outlawed khat because of its unfortunate side effects the stuff was very popular with those who grew up with it. As Arabian oil exports and the price of oil grew after World War II more Arabs could afford imported (via air) khat. Other Arabs learned of khat from the millions of Yemenis who went off to the nearby Arab oil States to work. Some got rich and nearly all sent money home. Because of these remittances many Yemenis had developed a taste for khat, and so had many Saudis, even though Khat was illegal in Saudi Arabia. Thus the demand for Yemeni khat increased, but mainly for export. Meanwhile the Yemeni population kept growing and more land was being used to grow khat, which now accounts for about 40 percent of water used and is destroying the economy. About 90 percent of the water use is for agriculture, which is still the mainstay of the Yemeni economy but the demand for khat means ancient underground water resources are being used to the point of exhaustion. There is big money in khat, mainly because most of it is smuggled into Saudi Arabia and is not as labor intensive as food crops. Now the khat producers fly the fresh leaves to places as far away as North America and Europe where expatriate Arabs are willing to pay well for fresh khat flown in regularly.

Yemen was the one khat growing area that was close to khat consumers with lots of money; namely people in the Arab oil states of the Persian Gulf. The other area where khat grew easily was Ethiopia, which was deep in Africa surrounded by poverty and far from anyone able to pay for khat. Yemen was the only Arabian state without a lot of oil and had the largest population. Khat was suddenly a way to make a lot of money.

Khat has created another problem; the importation of powerful and often forbidden insecticides, to facilitate the growing of more khat. Since the khat leaves are chewed, using too much, or too poisonous (to humans) insecticide makes the users sick. Many khat growers are more concerned with producing more khat than they are in keeping their customers healthy. Just as Colombia and Afghanistan were thrown into chaos by major drug gangs (producing cocaine and heroin, respectively) Yemen is being brought low by khat.





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