Illicit drugs add to the Middle East’s challenges
Oxford, England - Though numbers are notoriously tricky to estimate, it is probable that 3-5% of the adult male population of the Middle East is permanently dependent on illicit drugs or drugs obtained through extra-legal methods, defined as regular users at least twice a fortnight.
That would put total drug dependency in the region at 12 million-20 million people with attendant consequences for levels of domestic criminality, the provision of health and youth services and, more widely, cross-border trafficking.
A generation ago, drugs were part of the Middle East producer economy but overwhelmingly in servicing a foreign market rather than a domestic one. For instance, Moroccan cannabis largely met the demand from continental Europe; the Gulf market was largely seen as exclusive to Asian expatriates.
Drugs, even hard drugs such as heroin, traversed the region from the main opiate cultivator, Afghanistan, through Iran and Turkey, on their way to the lucrative markets of Europe. For regional producers, levels of value-added were modest compared to those achieved by Afghan war lords and Balkans distributors.
This situation began to change in the 1970s and 1980s. The expansion of a more laissez-faire approach to the hashish market in Egypt, the quick development of an indigenous drugs market for heroin and pills among the people of the Arab Gulf, the effect of the Lebanese civil war on prices and availability and a take-off in local drug consumption in Iran all in their different ways overwhelmed the respective authorities at that time.
As the Middle East became more lucrative as far as cross-border drugs criminality was concerned, so the smuggling of complementary “commodities”, such as women and children destined for the sex industry, also raced ahead to the detriment of rival goods, such as gold. Big logistics projects, including the deep-water port of Jabal Ali in Dubai, became associated with announcements of illicit smuggling intercepts, including drugs, notably cocaine.
The onset of the “Arab spring” gave a further regional boost to the collapse of any meaningful international borders, notably between Libya and its neighbours. The collapse of the Qaddafi regime brought an end to cross-state cooperation in the field of criminality. In Egypt, the opening of prisons and the evaporation of the police from public view encouraged domestic criminality.
But hashish, together with cocaine and heroin, soon proved not to be the greatest threat as far as Egypt was concerned. That dubious reputation quickly became associated with the synthetic opiate, Tramadol, the circulation of which attained epidemic proportions.
There were perhaps three areas in which Tramadol was most of a threat. First, its low price compared with illegal hard drugs made it accessible to a range of new markets, notably slum-dwelling, male adolescents. Second, the uncertain provenance of the drug, which was being widely sold in Egypt under the commercial name of Tramadol: the manufacture of the drug variously in China, India and Syria in contrast to its safer, original production in Germany. Third, though much cheaper than its rivals, Tramadol acquired a reputation for generating harmful side-effects, with epilepsy a particular danger.
Meanwhile in the Gulf, Saudi citizens faced their own threat in the form of the amphetamine Captagon. In 2013, Saudi authorities seized some 55 million individual tablets, though that figure was reported as 10% of the total entering the country, a standard ratio for calculating interdiction levels. Captagon trafficking is most closely associated with production in Lebanon, Turkey and parts of Europe.
Most recently, Captagon has been associated with the civil conflict in Syria and guerrilla operations in Lebanon, with combatants on both sides using drugs to generate a sense of fearlessness, while being able to maintain their concentration over prolonged periods of time. Captagon was previously manufactured in the Bekaa valley, though such production has fallen off since 2011.
The abuse of “prescription drugs” has been closely associated with other conflicts in the past, notably the Lebanese civil war and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Iraqi civilians turned to pills for even a temporary respite from shock and awe.
Nowhere is the region untouched by the presence of illicit drugs. Some regimes fear that such substances are being misused by their enemies for strategic reasons to erode society, especially the youth. Whether Israel at the hands of Hezbollah; the massive explosion in Saudi drugs consumption of late; or Afghanistan and the increased production of heroin across the region, the challenges are often viewed as equally perilous.