The Right to Bear Arms: Peter Willems Reports from Sana'a on the Traditional Yemeni Obsession with Weaponry, Its Inherent Dangers, and Recent Attempts to Foster Control by a Policy of Providing Information and Education

By Willems, Peter | The Middle East, March 2005 | Go to article overview

The Right to Bear Arms: Peter Willems Reports from Sana'a on the Traditional Yemeni Obsession with Weaponry, Its Inherent Dangers, and Recent Attempts to Foster Control by a Policy of Providing Information and Education


Willems, Peter, The Middle East


SOMETHING NEW AND UNIQUE can be seen along roads in major cities in Yemen. Dar Al Salaam (The House of Peace), which was established in 1997 to fight for gun control--has put up billboards calling on the people to stop carrying guns and using weapons for revenge attacks. Up to 959 signs were put into place in 2004, with another 450 expected to go up in the early months of this year. The anti-weapons group has organised over 20 demonstrations since it was launched, including one last spring in Dhammar, 75km south of Sana'a, which attracted more than 50,000 people.

"We are working on peace and tolerance and how to spread it," said Abdul Rahman Al Marwani, the head and founder of Dar Al Salaam. "Our most important activities are to spread peace and tolerance, and it started with social awareness."

But while Dar Al Salaam is pushing for gun control laws, the availability of weapons in Yemen is as widespread as ever. According to government officials, between 60m and 80m weapons are owned by 20m Yemenis, representing an average of at least three weapons for each local.

Hussein, a gun vendor at the flourishing gun market in Sawadia, a town in the south of the country, said sales of AK-47s and hand guns have continued to rise over the last few years. Along with well-armed tribesmen, some of the most powerful tribal leaders are equipped with RPGs, artillery and tanks. Early last December, a clash between two tribes in the Al Jawf province northeast of Sana'a erupted, leaving 28 dead and 33 wounded. According to Dar Al Salaam, over 1,500 Yemenis are killed annually as a result of tribal feuds.

Although the Yemeni government has been clamping down on extremists since it joined the United States in the war on terror in 2001, there is still concern that a Yemen awash with weapons will attract militant groups. The latest travel warning from the US State Department noted that the Al Qaeda international terrorist network is attempting to "re-constitute an effective operating base" in Yemen.

"It is distinctly possible that the weapons available in Yemen can attract militant groups," said a foreign diplomat based in Yemen. "You can count it as a risk to the nation and the region that weapons are easily available. All you have to do is look at the recent terrorist activities in Saudi Arabia. It seems likely at least some of the weapons came from the nearest source: Yemen."

Last summer, government forces clashed with followers of a radical Muslim cleric, Hussein Al Houthi, in north Yemen, which lasted for three months and left at least 600 soldiers and rebels dead. Analysts point to the absence of any regulation of the sale of weapons as one of the reasons the rebel group was able to arm itself and create a fortress that was not easy to defeat.

"The reason Al Houthi was able to create an armed militia was because all they had to do was go to the markets and buy weapons, which are easily available to anyone and everyone," says a Yemeni analyst.

The Yemeni Parliament has yet to pass and enforce a law to reduce carrying guns and monitoring the sales of arms. Some hold that businessmen, government and military officials with vested interests in arms sales are reluctant to relinquish their profitable trade.

"It will be difficult to pass a law with certain players making big money from arms sales business," says Majid Al Fahed, executive director of the Civic Democratic Initiatives Support Foundation. …

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