Captagon is an amphetamine-type stimulant widely consumed across parts of West Asia its production, trafficking and usage have grown exponentially over the past decade with the illicit industry said to be worth $5 billion per year.
Dubbed “the poor man’s cocaine,” these narcotics are particularly prevalent among combatants fighting in the region’s conflict zones, purportedly to keep fighters alert and enhance their aggressiveness.
The Levant-Gulf drug trade
The highly addictive drug, however, is mostly consumed in Arab states of the Persian Gulf, with Saudi Arabia reportedly the number one destination where it is sought after by young party-goers.
Syria has emerged as a leading source for cheaply-manufactured Captagon while neighbouring Lebanon has also become a key transit hub for the pills, leading some to describe the two countries as “narco-states,” driven by both conflict and corruption.
Indeed, some Lebanese and Syrian villages have become the headquarters of clandestine factories, forming a corridor through which tens of millions of pills are smuggled to the lucrative Gulf market.
It is worth pointing out that the two Levant neighbors are not new to the illicit drug trade – in 1997 the US removed both countries from its list of Narcotics List, owing to their perceived successful eradication of poppy and cannabis cultivation in the then-Syrian controlled Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon.
To this day, Lebanon is the fourth-biggest producer of hashish after Morocco, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Amid the burgeoning economic crisis in 2020, it became the first Arab country to legalize cannabis farming for medical and industrial purposes.
Captagon and the conflict in Syria
The Captagon phenomenon in the Levant, however, can arguably be traced to the Syrian battlefield, as foreign fighters began pouring into the country in 2012.
In one notable incident that year, machines used to manufacture Captagon pills were seized in a religious seminary in the Bekaa, belonging to the brother of Hussein Al-Moussawi, an MP and member of the Hezbollah-led Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc. Moussawi’s relationship to the culprit prompted Hezbollah’s opponents to link the movement to the Captagon trade.
As the political and humanitarian situation in Syria deteriorated, Captagon smuggling networks soon developed in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Its trade flourished, and Lebanon eventually became a primary source of the product, with the Gulf market proving to be its main consumer market.
The Saudi ‘Prince of Captagon’
The voluminous Captagon trade linking Saudi Arabia to Lebanon gained wider attention in October 2015 when a Saudi prince was caught red-handed with two tons of Captagon pills and some cocaine in a private jet at Beirut International Airport.
Prince Abdel Mohsen bin Walid bin Abdulaziz, dubbed by the media as the ‘Prince of Captagon,’ was arrested, along with four companions, standing accused of drug trafficking, promotion, and smuggling.
It was by no means an isolated case: according to a source cited by Saudi Leaks last year, princes from the royal family are involved in communicating with drug networks in Lebanon.
In conjunction with the millions of Captagon pills that were being smuggled into the high-demand Saudi market, a media campaign raged on multiple fronts. Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV channel broke the story of the Saudi prince’s arrest on drug smuggling charges, so Riyadh employed its region-wide media networks to finger Lebanon, and particularly Hezbollah, for drugs flooding the Gulf.
In the information warfare that followed, Saudi-owned TV channel Al-Arabiya broadcast several news reports focusing on Hezbollah’s role in manufacturing Captagon pills.
In line with US and Israeli accusations that Hezbollah is involved in drug trafficking and organized crime to finance its “terrorist activities,” Saudi Arabia insists on highlighting a Hezbollah role every time a drug smuggling operation is discovered in its territory, and uses this to tighten the economic siege on Lebanon.
While the Saudis may be embarrassed over the Captagon scandals linked to their country, royals and nationals, their intensive media efforts to divert blame to Lebanon has become part of Riyadh’s economic war against Beirut, which has extended to an all-imports ban of Lebanese goods.
Supply and demand
As with any other trade, the Captagon market is based on supply and demand, which is a reciprocal relationship: an increase in supply in the country of origin is based on an increase in demand in the importing country.
However, it is a one-sided dynamic, because while the operations in, for example, Lebanon are thwarted and those involved are arrested, this is rarely the case on the other side due to the royal connection.
On 29 May, Lebanese security arrested a Saudi citizen at Beirut airport with 18 kilograms of Captagon pills, the man was attempting to smuggle them to Kuwait.
Identified as Adel Al-Shammari, he was carrying a Kuwaiti security card when he was arrested, but initial news broadcasts mistakenly identified him as a Saudi security employee.
In a statement, Lebanon’s Minister of Interior Bassam al-Mawlawi hastened to deny the news that the Saudi detainee had a Saudi police card.
Further investigations led to the arrest of two Iraqis and a Jordanian woman. A security source revealed to The Cradle that an officer in the Kuwaiti army and a Sudanese and Lebanese national were linked to the smuggling operation.
It was also revealed that, based on the fact that his Saudi nationality grants him immunity and quick passage through the security services, Al-Shammari’s bags were not professionally packed, and the Captagon pills were casually placed in bags between the clothes.
Worth the risk?
The estimated cost of producing one Captagon pill, along with the cost of smuggling it, is about 85 cents, and it is sold in the Saudi market for between 10 and 20 dollars. Thus, a wide margin of profit explains the insistence of smugglers on delivering these pills to where the demand for them is the highest.
Even if five smuggled shipments are thwarted by authorities, it is enough for a merchant to succeed in delivering one Captagon shipment to reap millions of dollars in profit.
The consideration here is purely financial, unlike the politically-motivated narrative the Saudis and their allies promote to settle political scores against Lebanon and Hezbollah.
These charges are in line with Israeli and western accusations that the party is involved in drug smuggling and other forms of organized crime, used to fund “terrorist activities.”
The region’s drug capital
A report published last year by Foreign Policy magazine noted that Saudi Arabia is West Asia’s “drug capital,” highlighting that the seizures of Captagon have become a regular occurrence in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
The increasing number of drug smuggling busts in Saudi Arabia in recent years suggests that there are Saudi and Gulf suppliers on the other side who receive the goods and handle their distribution.
It is interesting to note, however, that the Saudi government – which likes to blame Lebanon for every smuggling operation – has never revealed the identities of any of the major local traders, with the exception of those from the Indian, Filipino and other expat communities.
Instead, Riyadh prefers to exploit the matter and shift the blame entirely to Lebanon’s Hezbollah as part of its global propaganda campaign against the resistance movement. With these kinds of blinkers on, Captagon use in Saudi Arabia will just keep expanding.