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Tuesday, 22 January, 2002, 22:32 GMT
Yemen's weapon culture
A bazaar in Sanaa
Yemen bazaars are awash with weapons
By the BBC's Richard Engel in Sanaa

On any given Friday, dozens of Yemeni men gather around the edges of a deep, rocky canyon outside of the nation's capital Sanaa to celebrate the weddings of fellow tribesmen.

Just as you have your tie, the Yemeni will carry his gun

Ahmed al-Kibsi, professor
They dance in circles to the beat of drums, all brandishing the curved daggers Yemeni men wear around their waists.

Many are also carrying AK-47 assault rifles, hunting rifles and pistols.

They proudly display the firearms, holding them above their heads and firing bursts in the air.

Yemenis like guns because they consider them to be symbols of their tradition, a part of their mentality and culture

arms owner

Yemen's interior ministry estimates there are about 60 million firearms in Yemen, or about three for every citizen.

"Just as you have your tie, the Yemeni will carry his gun," says political science professor Ahmed al-Kibsi.

He added that the government is trying to regulate the possession of weapons in Yemen, but that so far there has been significant resistance from many Yemenis.

"It needs time, especially in the rural areas with the tribes and traditional people. For some of them collecting guns is a hobby, and these collections are a real problem and making a problem for the government," he says.

Armed nation

While guns often play a part in wedding celebrations across the Arab world, seen as something akin to fireworks, it is not just the omnipresent AK-47 that is available in Yemen.

Koran and a dagger
Koran and a dagger are often a must for Yemeni religious students

At an arms bazaar outside Sanaa, an ambitious shopper could easily arm a militia group, or even a small army.

Machine guns, landmines, hand grenades, rocket launchers and a plethora of light firearms are spread out on blankets or sold in stalls.

Diplomats here say they worry that if these types of arms are traded openly, then more powerful materials could be available to inquiring, high-paying customers.

In May 2001, more than a dozen people were killed in the weapons market when a stockpile of dynamite in a warehouse exploded accidentally.


Mohammed, who asked not to be named in full, owns three guns - two assault rifles and a pistol.

A Yemeni with gun
There have been a number of tourist kidnappings by gunmen

But he does not like the fact that anyone here who can afford to pay about $100 dollars can buy an AK-47 and strut around with it.

"Weapons in general are negative.

"But at the same time Yemenis like guns because they consider them to be symbols of their tradition, a part of their mentality and culture," he says.

Most of the weapons in Yemen were brought in by various factions fighting in several conflicts between the north and south of the country since the 1960s.

New arms are also smuggled in along the nation's long coastline. Supply does not appear to be a problem.

While Mohammed says most people do not use their guns on each other - except for self-defence - they are still dangerous.


But it is a message that finds little sympathy among the people who gather on the cliffs outside of Sanaa.

In fact, their joy seems to revolve around the guns, knives and swords they dance around with.

Government efforts to take weapons out of peoples' hands have been unsuccessful.

Tribal leaders, who have little trust in the central government, are keen to hold on to their stockpiles of weapons so they can pressure authorities, which have often neglected the rural areas where they live.

And it is a problem for Yemen. Gunmen have kidnapped tourists, although rarely harming them, but nonetheless keeping them away.

And well-armed tribes repelled army forces in December that were searching in a tribal-controlled area for suspected militants linked to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda group.

And in this weapon-happy country, militants do not need al-Qaeda basic training camps as everyone here already knows how to use the weapons of guerrilla warfare.

See also:

18 Jan 02 | Middle East
American Taleban's Yemen connection
20 Sep 01 | Middle East
Yemen rounds up Muslim extremists
22 Aug 01 | Middle East
US and Yemen differ over inquiry
13 Oct 00 | Middle East
Attractive base for anti-West Islamists
14 Jan 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
Yemen: Arabia's 'Wild West'
19 Jul 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Yemen
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