A group of gunmen in Hamdan district. Yemen is widely cited as among the most heavily-armed societies on earth with claims of 50-60mn small arms and light weapons in circulation among 23mn people.
By Iscander al-Mamari
At the centre of the country, it’s difficult to find a bottle of water to buy while you can effortlessly purchase a firearm.
UN aid worker Khalid Abdu told The Media Line that during a recent visit to Sawadia District of the central province of Baydha, he found most of the shops were closed except for those selling firearms. He later learned there were tribal feuds taking place in the area.
“Owners here usually close their shops before sunset, because they are afraid of being an easy target of tribal violence,” he said.
Yemen is widely cited as among the most heavily-armed societies on earth with claims of 50-60mn small arms and light weapons in circulation among 23mn people.
A national survey of small arms ownership in Yemen, found that 61% of respondents reported weapons in their household – roughly one weapon for every two civilians, according to a report by Yemen Armed Violence Assessment (YAVA), an independent research project designed with the support of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and the UK Conflict Prevention Pool in May, 2010.
Armed violence in Yemen is shaped by a number of factors, including weapons availability, proliferation and trade among tribesmen on top of weak governance and a tenuous security situation.
Speaking to The Media Line, a top Yemeni official in the interior ministry in the capital Sanaa expressed concerns over the proliferation of weapons in the country.
“As long as weapons are available in several areas, armed conflicts will continue,” Colonel Ali Mohamed said, indicating that “the state’s grip is very weak particularly in the tribal areas where firearms are being openly carried and traded.”
The law in Yemen establishes the right to own firearms (‘rifles, machine guns, revolvers, and hunting rifles’) for the purpose of ‘legitimate defence’. Weapons licence holders, who must be at least 18 years old, are only permitted to carry one licensed weapon at any one time. Carrying - i.e. possessing - arms in cities is regulated by another law, which introduces a licensing system for all urban dwellers other than a list of stated exceptions.
Known as “the peace maker”, Abdul-Rahman al-Maroani, chief of Dar al-Salam Organisation (House of Peace) told The Media Line that arms use would never be settled unless there was a serious political leadership that could impose an iron grip on weapons availability and proliferation.
According to Maroani, there are many influential figures with licences that allow them to possess arms as “they are being granted licenses due to political loyalties”.
“Unfortunately there is no co-operation among security authorities to conduct the crackdowns effectively at the present time,” he told The Media Line.
In the capital Sanaa, security campaigns to prevent weapons carrying have been repeatedly launched, although they have failed to stop the practice.
Back in 2008, Yemeni security seized 204,897 weapons across the country. The following year 230 shops selling weapons were shut down, while 270 dealers were arrested according to a security report released by the interior ministry.
Earlier this month, a security report shows that 76,652 weapons were seized (69,255 pistols, 7378 rifles and 19 machine guns) in addition to 533 explosives in 2013. These weapon seizures indicate that smuggling of weapons still occurs frequently, the undersecretary of interior ministry for security affairs Brigadier Gen Abdul-Rahman Hanash said in a recent press statement.
Yasser Hassan Mohamed Owdh, a firearms client, told The Media Line that security agencies in the capital Sanaa currently appeared to be implementing a new approach to track down arms procurers.
“Intelligence officers have been deployed in weaponry markets and they report the license plates of the procurers’ cars to nearby army posts, who can then stop them and confiscate the weapons.”
While weaponry marketplaces are still active in highly tribal areas across Yemen including the Jehana Arms Market, some 130km south of the capital, arms trading also seems to find its way to the “virtual market”. A Facebook page, called Arms Price Index in Yemen, has already more than 36,000 followers.
Military expert Samir al-Haj attributed arms carrying and ownership to resistance of some centres of power which used to use force and escorted by armed convoys.
“At present the political leadership is determined to end arms manifestations. Insecurity existed long ago but it cropped up again recently due to presence of new leaders in authority,” al-Haj told The Media Line.