The Gulf, Lebanon and The War on Drugs
By Romy Haber
On 25 April 2021, Saudi Arabia suspended fruit and vegetable imports from Lebanon after seizing more than 5 million pills of Captagon, hidden in a shipment of pomegranate bound for the country. This was not the first drug seizure originating in products from Lebanon. Over the past six years, there were attempts to smuggle 600 million narcotic pills from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia, according to Waleed Bukhari, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Lebanon.[i] He tweeted that ‘the quantity of drugs and psychotropics smuggled from Lebanon is enough to drown not only Saudi Arabia but also the entire Arab world.’[ii] Other Gulf countries, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have verbally supported the ban but have not yet enacted a similar measure.[iii] This incident highlights the need to reflect more on the Arab Gulf-Lebanese relations and on developing better policies to deal with illicit economies.
Different Policies for a Changed Lebanon
Lebanon was once a jewel of the Middle East: a centre of banking, commerce, education, fashion, nightlife, and tourism. Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, for example, saw Beirut as a successful model for Dubai: ‘I was fascinated by it when I was young…In the early 1960’s, its streets were clean, neighbourhoods beautiful, its markets modern. It was a source of inspiration for me. I had a dream for Dubai to become like Beirut someday.’[iv]
This prosperous period was short-lived. Lebanon’s Sisyphean struggle restarted in the 1970s, when the small Mediterranean country was the target of Palestinian insurgency and militias. The conflict later unfolded into a civil war (1975), a Syrian occupation (1976), and Israeli invasions (1978, 1982). The 2005 Cedar Revolution — following the assassination of Prime Minister, Rafik El Hariri — offered a glimmer of hope which, sadly, was quickly extinguished in the aftermath of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah and the subsequent political crises and coup. Today, the country of cedars is facing its most difficult days with currency devaluation, hyperinflation and political crises-upon-crisis, with no solution in sight.
Lebanon’s Smuggling Issue
Hezbollah has not officially been accused of being behind the latest drug smuggling operations to Saudi Arabia, but most fingers point to that organisation. The sale of drugs represents an important source of revenue for Hezbollah, made more important due to US sanctions on key party members and its main financial sponsor, Iran. The collapse of the Lebanese state has also pushed Hezbollah deeper into the illicit drug trade—there is less to steal from the national economy. Other, recent, drug busts involving Lebanon and Hezbollah include the seizure of 4.3 tonnes of Cannabis (worth about $40 million)[v] hidden in cupcake-making machines bound for Slovakia and found in Greece and 14 tonnes of Captagon (worth $1 billion)[vi] seized in Italy in 2020. Interrupting Hezbollah’s smuggling activities acutely hurts their finances.
Hezbollah’s illicit smuggling is as damaging for Lebanon as for the destination countries. The organisation stands accused of smuggling the country’s scarce subsidised resources, like flour and fuel, to Syria. It continues to cause internal outrage but there is little the Lebanese can do about it — protests are met with tear gas and bullets. The Lebanese people are the first, and direct, victims of the regime and Hezbollah. They are hostages, not accomplices.
The Toll of the Ban
Riyadh’s decision to ban imports of Lebanese agricultural products is in-line with its national security agenda. As Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Saud bin Nayef Al-Saud, said ‘the Kingdom’s security is a red line.’[vii] Amid rumours of talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, recent developments could be also interpreted as a message from Saudi Arabia to the Lebanese authorities and the Iranian proxy: that unlike Europe and the US, they are not afraid to impose collective sanctions and apply punitive pressure in pursuit of Saudi security.[viii]
Taken from an alternative perspective, the ban on fruit and vegetable imports will primarily affect Lebanese farmers—and the national economy. Some 55% of Lebanon’s agricultural exports are destined for the Gulf and a long-term, region-wide, ban would be catastrophic, pushing the country deeper into poverty.[ix] Hezbollah’s propaganda machine has used the ban as another excuse to vilify and portray Saudi Arabia as part of a conspiracy against Lebanon. Collective punishment, then, harms the Lebanese people most acutely and serves Hezbollah’s agenda. A weak Lebanon equates to a strong Hezbollah domestically. It follows that the further Gulf-Lebanese relations deteriorate, the easier it will be for Hezbollah to isolate Lebanon and push it further into the so-called “Axis of Resistance.”
Lebanese authorities have vowed to punish the smugglers. But it would not be the first time they failed to keep their promises. The excuse provided this time was that the detection of drugs was complicated because the scanners have been damaged since the Beirut port blast. Saudi Arabia could use this opportunity to offer Lebanon new scanners as a form of foreign aid and a symbol of support from the Gulf to the Lebanese. It is unlikely that the move would stop smuggling but it would expose the government to more accountability and boost Saudi Arabia’s image inside the country. The Gulf countries could also suggest using other ports, like the port of Jounieh or Tripoli — which are not believed to be under the full control of Hezbollah — in exchange for lifting the import ban.
The War on Drugs
Saudi Arabia’s embargo on Lebanese agricultural products is a strong preventive measure but it is insufficient to stop the inflow of drugs to the country. Smugglers are innovative and will easily find other products to conceal drugs in. And, Lebanon is not the only drug source—many new smuggling and trafficking routes have emerged throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Criminal and terrorist groups have been exploiting the region’s instability to profit from illicit trades. The war on drugs is also inherently linked to the fight against terrorism.
The Gulf countries need to continue to cooperate on the local, regional and global levels to establish a more developed framework to deal with illicit trades in a highly volatile regional political environment filled with inefficient or failed states. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) remains an important partner for the technical training it has provided and for its support to the Gulf Criminal Information Center to Combat Drugs (GCC-CICCD). Continued cooperation with the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) and the World Customs Organization (WCO) are also strong mechanism to help address smuggling in the region. Most importantly, the Gulf countries should keep on demonstrating regional leadership in dealing with corruption that facilitates illicit trades at the law enforcement and judiciary level. This is not a war that can be won without a multilateral approach and the Gulf states are able to adequately mobilise regional and international bodies to deal with the scourge of drugs and the crimes of drug dealers.
[i] Tawfiq Nasrallah, ‘Saudi official: Drugs smuggled from Lebanon enough to drown Arab world,’ Gulf News, 26 April 2021, https://gulfnews.com/world/gulf/saudi/saudi-official-drugs-smuggled-from-lebanon-enough-to-drown-arab-world-1.78777062.
[iii] Gareth Browne, ‘Saudi Arabia bans Lebanese produce after 600 million pills seized in six years,’ The National, 25 April 2021, https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/lebanon/saudi-arabia-bans-lebanese-produce-after-600-million-pills-seized-in-six-years-1.1210296.
[iv] Asharq Al Awsat, ‘Exclusive – In New Book, Dubai Ruler Says Offered Saddam Asylum in UAE,’ Asharq Al Awsat, 13 January 2019, https://english.aawsat.com//home/article/1543876/exclusive-–-new-book-dubai-ruler-says-offered-saddam-asylum-uae.
[v] Euronews and AP, ‘Four tonnes of cannabis found in cupcake-making machines,’ Euronews, 23 April 2021, https://www.euronews.com/2021/04/23/four-tonnes-of-cannabis-found-in-cupcake-making-machines.
[vi] The Jerusalem Post, ‘$1 billion in amphetamine seized in Italy belonged to Syria, Hezbollah,’ The Jerusalem Post, 24 December 2020, https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/syria-hezbollah-were-owners-of-1-billion-in-amphetamine-seized-in-italy-653088.
[vii] Tala Michel Issa and Krishna Kumar, ’Saudi Arabia announces ban on fruits, vegetables from Lebanon due to drug smuggling,’ Al Arabiya English, 23 April 2021, https://english.alarabiya.net/News/gulf/2021/04/23/Saudi-Arabia-to-prohibit-Lebanese-fruits-vegetables-shipments-due-to-drug-smuggling.
[viii] Ben Hubbard, Farnaz Fassihi and Jane Arraf, ‘Fierce Foes, Iran and Saudi Arabia Secretly Explore Defusing Tensions,’ The New York Times, 1 May 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/01/world/middleeast/Saudi-Iran-talks.html.
[ix] Elias Sakr, ‘Lebanon orders crackdown on smuggling after Saudi Arabia bans produce,’ The National, 26 April 2021, https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/lebanon/lebanon-orders-crackdown-on-smuggling-after-saudi-arabia-bans-produce-1.1211433.