The Roman Empire fell as a result of the rise of Christianity, the greatest religious force humanity had ever known. The modern day powerhouse that is the United States faces giant challenges from within and without its borders, including the re-emergence of China. And the once great empire of Yemen is continuing its slow fall into decay, because of a plant.
Catha edulis or qat, as it is known in this poverty-stricken corner of the gas- and oil-rich Arabian Peninsula, is a wicked weed that has the country in its addictive grip. Qat is categorised as a mildly narcotic leaf that when chewed for long periods of time induces euphoria, hallucination and constipation.
Yemen's GDP, the value of goods and services produced annually, has recently crossed the $20 billion milestone, which makes it roughly three times smaller than the economy of Dubai. Its economy and society are beset with a long list of troubles that could prove a recipe for disaster.
A growing population, currently standing at 23 million people, is projected to cross 60 million by 2050, adding ever more pressure on the country's dwindling natural resources. Unemployment currently hovers at around 30 per cent of the population, equivalent to the illiteracy rate.
Its annual renewable water resources stand at four cubic kilometres, a quarter of that of Somalia, and yet the country consumes six cubic kilometres of water per year, double the rate in 1990. Only eight per cent of Yemen's water resources go to domestic and industrial use, with the 92 per cent remaining serving what should be a vibrant agricultural economy. However, the agricultural sector only makes up 12 per cent of the economy and yet employs 64 per cent of the population – a vast majority of the population works in a sector that constitutes a vast minority of the GDP.
Have you ever wondered where the word for mocha coffee comes from? It's basically the name of the 400-year-old Red Sea port of al-Mukha, a once-vibrant trading hub that exported coffee to as far away as England and Holland. Today, this sleepy town boasts one lonely coffee exporting business and has fallen into disrepair along with its infrastructure. But can a single plant be truly responsible for the continuous decline of an entire nation? The short answer is, Yes.
In a country where between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of the population chew qat, in an exercise that takes up to eight hours a day, it is no wonder that productivity is so very low. Users claim that the effects of chewing qat can last up to 24 hours with chewing sessions starting at 2pm, the end of the working day, and lasting until the late hours of the night. Today, 40 per cent of Yemen's depleting water resources are used for the irrigation of qat, with production increasing at 10 per cent annually.
As a result of the mismanagement of the water resources and the collapsing water basins, a government minister told Reuters earlier this year that the situation has become "so severe it cannot be reversed, only delayed at best". The spread of this un-exportable weed has additionally caused the decline in coffee, fruit and vegetable plantations – a once healthy dollar-earning trade.
The status quo of the failed state of Yemen is yet anther clear example of the Gulf states doing too little, too late. For three decades these wealthy monarchies have seen their neighbour go down a spiral that can no longer be ignored. Yemen ranks in the third quartile of the most corrupt nations according to the Index of Economic Freedom; inflation is at a high of 18 per cent; the enforcement of property rights is inadequate; the government influences the judiciary, and there is a growing risk of terrorism.
The Gulf has recently taken notice of the dire situation and decided to include Yemen in its football league as well as its ineffective health council. Sadly, that is about all. For Yemen, the GCC has taken the same policy route of "High Fences Make Good Neighbours" that it has taken with Iraq.
The Gulf should instead treat Yemen like a drug-addicted brother and take it to a rehabilitation centre – by force if necessary. After all, a drug addict rarely admits to his addiction. In the meantime, the UN Development Programme estimates that water will finally run out in Yemen in 15 to 20 years time, coinciding with the country's population reaching 36 million.
The Gulf, whose $1 trillion worth of projects should be completed by then, will face the prospect of an unprecedented influx of refugees who will arrive by land and sea, leaving behind them an inhospitable, dry and arid land in search for the Eldorado that lies on the other side of the Empty Quarter.
I doubt that we are prepared for these millions of refugees, many of them thirsty, hungry, hallucinating and constipated.
*Sultan Al Qassemi is a Sharjah-based businessman and graduate of the American University of Paris. He is the founder of Barjeel Securities in Dubai and Chairman of the Young Arab Leaders in the UAE
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