Victory in Yemen (Over Drug Smugglers)
Glen Carey and Deema Almashabi | 17-08-2015, 05:41 AM | Yemen |
Drug traffic into Saudi Arabia from Yemen has fallen significantly
Saudi Arabia’s four-month-old bombing campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen has been widely supported in the kingdom, but it’s had an unintended consequence: It has almost choked off the supply of amphetamines and hashish smuggled from across the border.
Saudi guards peering from concrete towers along the Yemeni border say the war has shut down trafficking, while 850 kilometres away in Riyadh residents have seen their supplies dry up. “Smuggling has stopped,” Adel al-Aroosi, a major in the border guard in the southern province of Najran, says as he watched for rebel movements across a wide expanse of desert ringed by arid mountains.
Heavy drug consumption is surprisingly common in the austere kingdom with ample cash, high unemployment and harsh punishment for offenders. A United Nations report said amphetamines seized by Saudi authorities in 2011 accounted for more than a third of all global seizures. Since the war began in March, seizures along the southern border have plummeted, down 75 per cent for hashish and 95 per cent for amphetamines, according to the interior ministry.
A Riyadh psychotherapist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her patients’ privacy, says drug abuse is spurred by a lack of physical activity as well as increased self medication and boredom. Hashish is consumed like cigarettes, she says, with little awareness about addiction.
Last year, Saudi authorities nabbed a record 100 million tablets of an amphetamine called Captagon, according to Nizar Alsalih, a consultant for Saudi Arabia’s National Narcotics Control Commission. Most Captagon is smuggled from Jordan and Iraq, he says. Captagon, known on the streets of Riyadh as “roush,” is widely used in the Gulf but negligible in the rest of the world. It is popular because it doesn’t “require the paraphernalia of real narcotics—no need for smoking or syringes or rolled up 50 riyal notes,” says Justin Thomas, a UAE-based psychologist.
The 1,770-kilometre border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia—similar to that between Mexico and the US—is described by Western security officials as the hash highway. The region’s poorest country, Yemen has a weak central government and poorly trained police, so traffickers move with near impunity. Saudi Arabia has long struggled with its drug trade and the thousands of East Africans and Yemenis who work as smugglers.
A Saudi-led coalition started bombing the Iranian-backed Houthis in March to stop them from seizing the southern port city of Aden. Recently, the coalition was able to push the group out of most of the city, the first significant gain for the government forces. As part of the Yemen war, Saudi Arabia has not only bolstered its troops on the border but also imposed a maritime blockade around Yemen’s ports, cutting illegal drug routes.
But smugglers are inventive. Authorities recently broke up a gang using a drone to supply hashish and Captagon to prison inmates in Jeddah, Arab News reported last month.
Saudi Arabia’s Wahabbi interpretation of Islam prohibits single men and women from mixing in public and bans cinemas and other forms of entertainment common throughout the Middle East. It is also unforgiving of violators. This year, 47 people were executed for non-violent drug offences, according to Human Rights Watch. The restrictions help fuel drug addiction, according to James Dorsey, a senior fellow in international studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “It is a reflection of a society that fails to meet expectations and aspirations of important segments of the population,” he says.
Years of ignoring the issue and a conservative culture reluctant to discuss addiction have made facts about drug abuse hard to pin down. Now, the kingdom’s National Commission for Drug Control is trying to raise awareness through a public campaign. The government is using social media and reaching out to universities to do so, says Alsalih, the consultant who is also a psychology professor at King Saud University. Young adults, he says, don’t think of using Captagon as “abuse.” They take tablets for “energy to stay awake” and aren’t aware that they are altering their brain chemistry.