Saudi Arabia Is the Middle East’s Drug Capital

Despite draconian laws, the region’s biggest economy is hooked on amphetamines.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
Customs officials inspect a huge quantity of narcotics seized in Peshawar, Pakistan bound for Saudi Arabia on June 19, 2003.
Customs officials inspect a huge quantity of narcotics seized in Peshawar, Pakistan bound for Saudi Arabia on June 19, 2003.
Customs officials inspect a huge quantity of narcotics seized in Peshawar, Pakistan bound for Saudi Arabia on June 19, 2003. TARIQ MAHMOOD/AFP via Getty Images

Three drug busts in quick succession over the last month have revealed the extent of Saudi Arabia’s drug problem. First, in a rare gesture of cooperation, the Syrian government confiscated over 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of addictive amphetamines known as Captagon that had been stashed in a pasta shipment intended for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital. A few days later the Saudi authorities seized over 30 million tablets of the intoxicant hidden in imported cardamom. Then, in mid-December, Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces foiled an attempt to smuggle four million Captagon pills to Riyadh via Jordan, this time hidden in coffee bags. 

Captagon busts have become a regular affair inside Saudi Arabia. Research suggests that the pills, tiny in size and easy to make, are being mass produced in Syria and Lebanon fueled by Saudi demand. Saudi Arabia has become a lucrative market for drug traffickers and emerged as the capital of drug consumption in the region. 

Captagon is the new rage in the wealthiest Arab nation. It is a mood enhancer that keeps you awake and euphoric but causes lasting health hazards. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC], between 2015 and 2019 more than half of all Captagon seized in the Middle East was in Saudi Arabia. It first became popular in the region during the Syrian crisis, when fighters popped the pills to endure long battles. But as time went by and the United States imposed sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his coterie, the drug trade created its own shadow economy. The Syrian government is accused of being actively involved in drug trafficking or at least of profiting from and turning a blind eye to it. Syria, and areas under the control of Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, have become major production hubs of the drug. Just last year, the value of seized pills that originated in Syria was estimated to be $3.46 billion; in contrast, in 2019, the combined exports of Syria and Lebanon were worth less than $5 billion.

Three drug busts in quick succession over the last month have revealed the extent of Saudi Arabia’s drug problem. First, in a rare gesture of cooperation, the Syrian government confiscated over 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of addictive amphetamines known as Captagon that had been stashed in a pasta shipment intended for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital. A few days later the Saudi authorities seized over 30 million tablets of the intoxicant hidden in imported cardamom. Then, in mid-December, Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces foiled an attempt to smuggle four million Captagon pills to Riyadh via Jordan, this time hidden in coffee bags. 

Captagon busts have become a regular affair inside Saudi Arabia. Research suggests that the pills, tiny in size and easy to make, are being mass produced in Syria and Lebanon fueled by Saudi demand. Saudi Arabia has become a lucrative market for drug traffickers and emerged as the capital of drug consumption in the region. 

Captagon is the new rage in the wealthiest Arab nation. It is a mood enhancer that keeps you awake and euphoric but causes lasting health hazards. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC], between 2015 and 2019 more than half of all Captagon seized in the Middle East was in Saudi Arabia. It first became popular in the region during the Syrian crisis, when fighters popped the pills to endure long battles. But as time went by and the United States imposed sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his coterie, the drug trade created its own shadow economy. The Syrian government is accused of being actively involved in drug trafficking or at least of profiting from and turning a blind eye to it. Syria, and areas under the control of Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, have become major production hubs of the drug. Just last year, the value of seized pills that originated in Syria was estimated to be $3.46 billion; in contrast, in 2019, the combined exports of Syria and Lebanon were worth less than $5 billion.

Captagon demand has multiplied in Saudi Arabia, a country with few venues for recreation, but its growing appeal has not dented demand for cannabis and khat. Cannabis comes through multiple routes: from Afghanistan to Iran to Iraq and then into Saudi Arabia, through Lebanon and Syria often via Jordan. More recently, cannabis is being brought in through Yemen. Khat comes almost entirely from Yemen and was in fact first brought in by Sufi saints in the 14th century, which has created a social acceptance for the drug. 

Captagon, however, was first produced in Germany to treat narcolepsy and depression, among other things. It was banned in the 1980s when doctors decided its addictiveness outweighed its benefits. At first, criminal gangs in Bulgaria and Turkey continued to manufacture the drug; eventually it found its way to Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley and Syria. It is now routed to Riyadh through Jordan and Egypt, and also Europe to mislead the Saudi authorities. 

The Saudi government fear that the drugs are aiding militias and groups against them and funding those it deems terrorist networks. It has insinuated that Hezbollah is behind the production and transportation of cannabis and Captagon into the country. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s April ban on Lebanese imports, experts believed, was to inflict a cost on Hezbollah. (The group has steadily denied involvement in any sort of drug trade.) But most of all, the Saudis are worried about the impact of these addictive drugs on their younger generations. 

A majority of Saudi drug users fall into the age 12 to 22 group, and 40 percent of Saudi drug addicts use Captagon.

Riyadh is using diplomatic pressure to fight the drug’s import, with its ban on agricultural products from Lebanon and threats of Assad’s continued isolation if he, among other things, does not contain the flow of cannabis and Captagon out of Syria. But the bigger struggle is domestic. How can Riyadh cut down demand for drugs in a society that offers little for entertainment and imposes a strict social code on youngsters? 

Some researchers believe that boredom and social restrictions are the leading cause of drug use in Saudi Arabia and welcome changes being brought in by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. They say that as more movie halls open, and both genders are allowed to mingle, dependence on drugs will lessen. Others take a diametrically opposite view and suggest that social changes, such as women being allowed to drive and music concerts, are causing a cultural clash that has led to the unintended consequence of a spike in drug use. They contend that as Saudi youth move away from an Islamic way of life and lean towards Western culture, which one literature review states promotes drug use and “magnif[ies] its pleasurable effects,” substance abuse will increase. 

But data suggests that drug use was rampant before social reforms were introduced. Easy availability of drugs, lack of clarity on what Islam definitively says about such intoxicants, and absence of activities for entertainment are indisputably adding to the problem. 

“Raed,” 28, is an Arab who studied in Saudi Arabia and is waiting to renew his residency. He spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity to avoid “getting into trouble” with Saudi authorities upon his return. “Of course we did drugs; that was the only thing we could do,” he said of his time in Riyadh. “We were bored out of our minds. 

“We couldn’t talk to girls, or go for a movie, or go to a pub for a beer. We were only allowed to have coffee at Starbucks, drive around, and go to restaurants in a mall—but that too not as a single man. We were all on Afghan hash and many of my friends still are.” 

Drug trafficking is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, but in most cases the authorities opt for a slap on the wrist approach with young people, letting them off the hook with a warning. And the cultural acceptance for khat and cannabis is such that many young Saudis think narcotics are acceptable in Islam. 

Informing the people of the harmful effects drugs cause is already a tough challenge for Saudi authorities; even harder is fighting the well-connected tribes who get bags full of money for facilitating the passage and distribution of drugs. 

The smugglers have gotten smarter too. For instance, since the Saudis banned agricultural imports from Lebanon, Captagon producers have come up with ingenious hiding places. They have hidden the pills inside furniture and even water pumps. 

Raed said that drugs could perhaps never be eliminated entirely, regardless of social and legal pressure to be pious. Indeed, he figured consumption would go down if Saudi society were to open up. “Now when I go back, I feel it’s a different Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Just a little better, but that means a lot in the Saudi context. I am based in Lebanon for now, where most of the hash that Saudis consume probably comes from, and maybe Captagon too, but I don’t have to do drugs here because life is fun.” 

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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