News / Middle East

Yemen has Guns Galore, Protesters Refuse to Use

Four years ago, the deputy prime minister for security and defense affairs demanded enforcement of the nation’s gun laws. Nine months ago, the Change Square demonstrators demanded the removal of Yemen’s president and decided they would succeed without guns.

Anti-government protesters carry a wounded protester from the site of clashes with security forces, in Sana'a, Yemen, October 15, 2011.
Anti-government protesters carry a wounded protester from the site of clashes with security forces, in Sana'a, Yemen, October 15, 2011.

As the student protestors in Change Square rose from Juma prayers on March 18, armored vehicles of Yemeni security forces began spraying the demonstrators with sewage water.  Billows of smoke rose from tires set on fire.  Finally, shots rang out and students began to fall down.

That is what Dr. Hamza Alshargabi saw in his third week as a doctor among the protestors. The resident neurosurgeon from a neighboring hospital stood beneath the metal shelter at Change Square with other doctors, deciding which bleeding victims carried to the triage unit could be saved. They pronounced more than 33 dead of head and chest wounds in the first hour of what he and his colleagues consider a massacre, rushed shooting victims through the corridors of the University of Sana’a mosque and on to hospitals.

The surgeon brought some previous experience with treating victims of violence. Alsharghabi, a resident at the Science and Technology University Hospital, had also volunteered for two years as a surgeon in similar circumstances - first with the Yemeni army, then with Doctors Without Borders, during the Houthi insurrection in the north of Yemen. He noted similarities between civil war and protest wounded: “Both were military-grade operations,” he said.

But the wounded up north were more frequently victims of mortar fire.  In front of the University of Sana’a, the demonstrators were victims of small arms fire.

Typically violent political culture

However tragic, death from small arms fire in Yemen is not unusual in a poor nation best known in international circles as one of the world’s most heavily armed cultures. In a 2009 house-to-house field study in all but one of the nation’s 21 governates, a sociologist claimed Yemen’s 25 million citizens own and often carry with them more than 8 million small arms, such as pistols and Kalashnikovs.

An earlier study reported that the government has only 1,500,000 small arms, or about 20 percent of that number. The people have five times more small arms than their own government. Small arms markets proliferate and the sheikhs who control tribal affairs in the sparsely populated rural areas of this nation have stockpiled 184,000 small arms, according to a previous issue brief conducted by Derrick Miller for Geneva, Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey [no longer accessible on Internet].

Overestimating the gun culture

Weapons researchers have been attracted to Yemen, measuring  personal small arms ownership and violence and inspiring some “rough estimates” that have reached as high as 60 million small arms for 25 million people.

“The history of that 60 million [figure] dates from the 1990s and a tit for tat debate about the degree of control the government has over the country,” said Gavin Hales, an independent researcher in armed criminology. “They are not based on empirical fact,” he said, pointing out that the World Bank has estimated that no more than 100 million AK-47s have ever been manufactured. “Seen in that context the higher figure is nonsensical.”

Family economics also would argue lower numbers for weapons possession. Hales recalls talking to a government official who thought ten million was too many. “If 40 percent of Yemenis can’t even afford to feed themselves properly, it seems very unlikely he can afford an AK-47,” the official told Hales. A high-quality used AK-47 sells in some Yemeni markets for about $1,200, which is half the average Yemeni’s annual earning power.

Before he began a two-year study in Yemen, Hales studied armed gangs in the United Kingdom. The result of his work in Yemen is two studies published by the Small Arms Survey: an issue brief on the intense competition for Yemen’s small amount of arable land and diminishing water table in Yemen, and another on how much Yemeni depend on maintaining personal arsenals of small arms.  There is one similarity between UK gangs and Yemeni tribes, he said: “They are both about collective security.” Otherwise, Yemen is in a class by itself.

Armed tribesmen, loyal to Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, the head of the powerful Hashid tribe, stand guard in a street around al-Ahmar's house, during clashes with Yemeni security forces in Sana'a, June 6, 2011.
Armed tribesmen, loyal to Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, the head of the powerful Hashid tribe, stand guard in a street around al-Ahmar's house, during clashes with Yemeni security forces in Sana'a, June 6, 2011.

Why so many guns?

Factors that shape the armed character of Yemen include, Hales writes, erosion of customary norms in tribal culture, a weak government, increasing rivalries among differing schools of Islam, chronic poverty and underdevelopment. Hales and others have distinguished between political violence, domestic violence, criminal violence and social violence.  

For example, Hales study of competition for land and water results in an estimated 4,000 deaths per year, according to Yemeni official estimates. Some are hard to categorize: one sheikh kidnapped the son of another sheikh to gain control of inherited land. The son died in an escape attempt. In another family dispute, a man who refused to give up his inheritance was shot at, then tried and sentenced to death for killing an attacker in self-defense.

Hales recalled a couple of Yemeni friends in Sana’a who had to leave their city “to help their tribe fight a neighboring tribe over a land dispute.”

A small arms study for the Sheba Center for Strategic Studies was conducted by Dr. Abdulsalam Ahmed Al Dar Al Hakeemi, an assistant professor of sociology at Ta’iz University. Al Hakeemi identified the types of weapons found in Yemeni homes and arms markets.  Small arms were defined as pistols, small automatic pistols, short and long-barreled rifles, and automatic rifles.

Light weapons are those designed to be used while riding in a 4-by-4 pickup: machine guns, hand-carried grenade launchers, anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft guns, and hand-carried missile launchers. A large number of arms markets carry such weapons and a few have in the past carried in excess of 1,000 Stella and Grail models of the man-portable air defense system capable of shooting down military aircraft.

Time for gun control


Al Hakeemi’s questioning of more than 100 individuals in each governate determined that the strongest motivation for owning and carrying any of the small arms was self-defense. Another driving force was the tribal requirement for the collective security of the tribe.

Hales said the desire for small arms is not universal, nor is it consistent. “As a general rule, the picture of the armed tribesman is a northern highland phenomenon and not one that is general to the whole country.”

Even that picture is changing, Hales argues. He points to statements made by Rashad al-Alimi, the deputy prime minister for security and defense affairs, who called public access to weaponry a serious threat to the nation’s security and a threat to the economic development of the country. In 2006, the government began exercising enforcement of its gun control laws in the cities.

The anti-Abdullah demonstrators in Sana’a accepted that standard in their effort to change the government. When the breakaway First Armored Division joined the students in the streets, the students said they were welcome, but told them they couldn’t bring in their weapons.

Alshargabi said, “The youth who actually started this movement decided this would be a non-violent, peaceful movement. This has inspired the society to put guns aside because everyone knows that once guns were used there, no end would be in sight.”

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