Over the last fifty years the huge flood of oil and natural gas income arriving in the Middle East has had some unexpected and unpleasant side effects. One of the most troublesome and obscure of these was the way the skyrocketing demand for the leaves of the Khat plant destroyed the economy in Yemen and much else there as well. Khat also fueled growing violence in Yemen along with a devastating water shortage.
Khat is a plant that has grown in Yemen for thousands of years. Khat leaves when chewed 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 and had a taste for it.
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.
Despite the fact that many nations (including most of those in the Middle East) outlawed Khat (because of its unfortunate side effects, especially the addiction) the stuff was very popular with those who grew up with it. This included many people in Yemen. With all that oil wealth came a demand in the Arab oil states for workers. The pay was good and those who were Arab were preferred. This led to millions of Yemenis going off to the Arab Gulf States to work. Some got rich and nearly all sent money home. So much money was being sent back that by the end of the 20th century such remittances comprised over a quarter of the Yemeni GDP. That began to shrink after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and threatened Saudi Arabia. Many Yemenis backed Iraq and Islamic terrorism and the Arab oil states took this as an unfriendly act and fired a lot of their Yemeni employees. It did not go unnoticed that the bin Laden family came from Yemen and made their fortune in Saudi Arabia. These days the remittances are less than four percent of GDP.
But before the collapse in remittances in the last two decades 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 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. About 90 percent of the water use is for agriculture, which is still the mainstay of the economy. 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. Khat, along with recreational drugs and alcohol, is illegal in Saudi Arabia and the border patrol has become more effective. As a result, smuggling activity has decreased over fifty percent. Now the Khat producers fly Khat to places as far away as North America and Europe where expatriate Arabs are willing to pay well for fresh Khat flown in regularly and the border security is not as fanatic.
While hard drugs and booze can be brought in via other routes (Iraq being a favorite), the narcotic leaf Khat, cannot. Khat is grown in Yemen and must be delivered quickly to Saudi customers each day. Because Khat must be relatively fresh other forms of smuggling are not very effective because they take too much time.
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. The Yemeni government is struggling to keep illegal insecticides out of the country, if only to prevent Yemeni Khat users from getting sick. 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. It is all low key and generally off the mass media radar, but it is very real.