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Saudi Arabia’s Royal Drug Problem

Saudi Arabia’s Royal Drug Problem

A Saudi prince and four others were reportedly arrested in Lebanon Monday after authorities found more than two tons of illegal drugs, including cocaine and the amphetamine Captagon, in crates loaded onto a Saudi-bound jet.

But if history is any indication of his fate, the unidentified member of the royal family may be let off the hook if he can find his way home, where other members of his sprawling family tree have previously avoided international accusations of drug smuggling under protection in Riyadh.

In 1999, Saudi Prince Nayef bin Sultan bin Fawwaz al-Shaalan allegedly smuggled two tons of cocaine from Venezuela to France. Now believed to be living under legal shelter in Saudi Arabia, Prince Nayef was accused by France of using his diplomatic status to sneak the drugs onto a jet belonging to the Saudi royal family. He managed to escape his sentencing and was convicted in absentia in 2007. The United States also indicted him with conspiracy to distribute cocaine.  

In 2010, a leaked WikiLeaks cable described a royal underground party scene in Jeddah that was “thriving and throbbing” because Saudi officials looked the other way. The dispatch described a Halloween party, funded in part by a prince from the Thunayan family, where more than 150 young men and women dressed in costumes and slogged expensive alcohol, which is sold only on the black market in Saudi Arabia. “Though not witnessed directly at this event, cocaine and hashish use is common in these social circles,” the cable read.

The harsh punishments for violations of Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of sharia law tend not to apply to the some 15,000 princes and princesses who belong to the royal House of Saud. But that hasn’t stopped Riyadh from pursuing executions of foreigners and non-royal citizens accused of less egregious violations of the country’s drug laws.

In recent months, Saudi authorities have beheaded a number of people convicted of trafficking drugs, including two Pakistani men — one in June and one in August — despite calls for reconsideration by human rights groups and the Pakistani government.

Captagon pills are at the heart of the conflict in Syria, where their trade reportedly generates millions of dollars in revenue and helps fuel fighters addicted to the drugs. Monday’s drug bust — one of the largest at the airport in Lebanese history — is just the latest incident in what has been an embarrassing month for the Saudi royal family.

In late September, Prince Majed Abdulaziz al-Saud was arrested after a female worker accused him of abusing her at the home he rented in Beverly Hills. Last week, further details about the abuse emerged after an amended complaint filed by three female house workers accused Prince Majed of intense emotional and sexual abuse.

Last week’s civil lawsuit was filed after the Los Angeles county district attorney’s office declined to file earlier felony charges against the 29-year-old prince, citing insufficient evidence.

According to court documents, the prince threatened to kill the three women, shouting, “I am a prince, and I do what I want! You are nobody!”

According to the civil complaint, the young royal also performed gay sex acts, which, like drug charges, are punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

If found liable, Prince Majed may not be able to rely on his royal status for exemption in the United States. In 2010, Prince Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Nasir al-Saud was sentenced to life in prison in the United Kingdom after killing his servant at a hotel in London and is expected to serve at least 20 years for his murder.

The justice who issued the sentence told the prince he wouldn’t be let off the hook just because he is royalty.

“It would be wrong for me to sentence you either more severely or more leniently because of your membership of the Saudi royal family,” Justice David Bean said at the time.

But the prince was transferred home in 2013 to serve the remainder of his sentence there and has thus far escaped the death penalty.

Photo credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/GettyImages

Clarification, Oct. 27, 2015: An earlier version of this article failed to mention that Prince Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Nasir al-Saud was transferred to back to Saudi Arabia to serve the remainder of his sentence there.