The effects of coronavirus (a.k.a. COVID-19) lockdown measures have been keenly felt across the entire Gulf region. Yet in many respects, life has continued as normal. The holy month of Ramadan was observed albeit with restrictions on traditional practices and celebrations. Infrastructure development goes on, most notably in support of Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup 2022. And, Captagon tablets continue to be seized at ports and border crossings. The Arabian Peninsula’s appetite for this amphetamine-type stimulant is now decades-old, and there is little reason to believe this will change as the region adapts to living and working alongside COVID-19.

A Regional Problem?

Although exact figures are hard to come by, analysis of the past decade suggests that Captagon abuse remains rife in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), the cumulative quantity of designated seizures in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen between 2010 and 2014 amounted to 4.87 million tablets and 1.43 tons. During that same period, Saudi Arabia seized in excess of 325 million tablets, a statistic that underscores the Kingdom’s major problems with Captagon and other banned stimulants.

In May 2019, Dubai customs intercepted 5.7 million Captagon tablets hidden in a foodstuff container.

More recent seizures suggest that official reporting is merely the tip of the iceberg. In May 2019, for example, Dubai customs intercepted 5.7 million Captagon tablets hidden in a foodstuff container, bringing the total amount seized to 11 million in the first five months of the year. COVID-19 has by no means dented the traffickers’ determination to supply local markets. Earlier this year, Dubai police released a video of a German shepherd dog sniffing out 5.6 tons of Captagon pills, again hidden in containers. Last month, Saudi customs reported the seizure of 44.7 million tablets concealed in green tea packets.

Elsewhere, on May 7 Kuwaiti authorities announced the arrest of a drug dealer in possession of 30,000 Captagon pills. Oman registered a seizure on June 18 with the arrest of five people in possession of 331 tablets “with a view to trafficking and abuse.” As of writing, there were no recorded seizures in Bahrain, Qatar, or Yemen this year. Prior analysis and reporting nevertheless suggests that Captagon remains available within the smaller and/or less prosperous GCC states.

Captagon is by no means a distinctly Middle Eastern phenomenon. At the beginning of July, Italian police intercepted three containers at the port of Salerno containing 84 million pills with a market value of over $1.12 billion USD destined for distribution in Europe. Investigators were quick to label the seizure the largest of its type in the world and warned that traffickers have turned to captagon to compensate for the recent breakdown in European production of synthetic drugs.

“It is known that ISIS/Daesh finances its terrorist activities in large part with the trafficking of synthetic drugs produced largely in Syria”

According to Commander Domenico Napolitano, head of the financial police for the city of Naples, the pills showed the “Captagon” logo, which “distinguishes the ‘drug of Jihad.'” “It is known that ISIS/Daesh finances its terrorist activities in large part with the trafficking of synthetic drugs produced largely in Syria, which has become the leading world producer of amphetamines in recent years,” police said.”According to the DEA (US Drug Enforcement Administration), ISIS makes wide use of these drugs in all the territories over which it exerts influence and controls its sale.”

Illicit Production and Easy Access

In some respects, Captagon’s popularity among Gulf communities is hardly surprising. Since the United Nations’ 1986  proscribing of fenethyllene (the active ingredient in Captagon®) illicit modes of production have gradually made their way from southeastern Europe to the Middle East. According to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), clandestine laboratories in Lebanon and Syria are now major producers of counterfeit Captagon destined for the Arabian Peninsula. Iran and Jordan have also been identified as possible countries of origin for shipments of amphetamine-like substances.

The gradual emergence of “falsified” Captagon not only reflects the INCB’s declaration that global stocks of fenethylline were virtually depleted by 2009, but also that the Middle East is awash with materials that support the manufacturing of its illicit counterpart. Lab tests indicate that today’s product typically contains paracetamol, caffeine, quinine, and other stimulants. There is also evidence of other “precursor” materials diverted into production. These include benzyl cyanide – an organic compound used in the synthesis of antibiotics, large amounts of which were seized in a 2018 raid on a Jordanian Captagon laboratory.

Captagon remains relatively cheap, with a single tablet reportedly selling for between $10 and $20 USD within GCC states.

Irrespective of what makes it into the end product, Captagon remains relatively cheap, with a single tablet reportedly selling for between $10 and $20 USD within GCC states. This compares favorably with cocaine, the wealthier expats’ drug of choice. According to World Drug Report 2019, one gram typically sells for in excess of $500 USD in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Lower prices and wider availability therefore make it difficult to define a “typical” Captagon user. Students and domestic and manual workers are just as likely to consume the stimulant as bored teenagers and party-goers on a budget. Most are attracted to Captagon’s quick onset, appetite suppressing qualities and, in some instances, a high that’s thought to be more intense than “regular” amphetamines. Long-term use is also associated with episodes of extreme depression, cardiovascular problems, and other side effects.

Local Highs, Regional Lows

It’s also likely that the Gulf’s Captagon users do not fully comprehend the security challenges their habits inadvertently fuel. Like other parts of the world, illicit substances are features of conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). These include Captagon, which is reportedly used by Yemen’s Houthi rebels to boost morale in battle and by all sides in Syria’s civil war. Given that the Levant is a major manufacturing hub, that amphetamines made their way into one of the 21st century’s bloodiest conflicts is unsurprising. Developments in Libya nevertheless suggest a new chapter is opening in the Gulf’s history with Captagon; one that does not necessarily bode well for already-strained relations between states.

While Bulgarian and Turkish criminal networks initially dominated production, from 2011 onward various factions in the Syrian conflict have turned to manufacturing and trafficking Captagon for much-needed revenue. These include Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which have reportedly worked together to ship locally made amphetamines out of the country. Assad’s need for hard cash is particularly acute. Almost a decade of conflict and sanctions have left 80 percent of Syrians living in poverty, non-existent GDPR, and the country’s economy in ruins.

Assad is thought to be cooperating with Khalifa Haftar to traffic Captagon and other illicit substances into Mediterranean ports under the Libyan warlord’s control.

In an effort to diversify revenue streams, Assad is thought to be cooperating with Khalifa Haftar to traffic Captagon and other illicit substances into Mediterranean ports under the Libyan warlord’s control. This not only adds another dynamic to already close relations between the two, but also places Syrian-made Captagon within relatively easy reach of major trafficking routes across North and West Africa. Looking east, the Libyan port of Tobruk provides opportunities to tap into trafficking routes across Sudan, an emerging hub for Captagon production, and Ethiopia’s perilous Gulf migration route.

It would be naïve to assume that Haftar, his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), and Libya’s House of Representatives (HoR) aren’t financially benefiting from Assad’s shipments of Captagon. In doing so, the Syrian president has effectively placed his country alongside a group of states offering support for Haftar’s side in Libya’s messy civil war. These include the UAE—the subject of a Human Rights Watch investigation regarding air and drone strikes inside the country. By contrast, Qatar recently reaffirmed its support for the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).

Signs of the Times

Irrespective of the foreign policy outlooks underpinning their actions, the fact that Doha and Abu Dhabi back opposing sides in the Libyan conflict says a lot about the current state of relations among GCC states. Despite the full participation in the 2019 Arabian Gulf Cup, restoration of postal services, and high-level dialogue regarding COVID-19, diplomatic ties between Qatar and the blockading states essentially remain on ice. Moreover, the blockade’s third anniversary was accompanied by a flurry of social media activity reporting a coup attempt against Qatar’s Amir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The alleged perpetrators of the Twitterstorm included Saudi-based social media influencers and an army of “sock puppets” set up to amplify spurious content.

Put simply, the “tap on, tap off” nature of recent exchanges suggests that Qatar will remain blockaded by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE for the foreseeable future. Consequently, coordinated efforts to tackle mutual concerns will be virtually impossible. These include confronting the criminal and health challenges posed by Captagon. Regional seizures of this incredibly popular substance will happen on an individual basis at a time when trafficking routes on the Arabian Peninsula are diversifying. It is a safe bet that income generated by the millions of tablets that slip through the net will continue to fuel seemingly-intractable conflicts around the war-torn MENA region.



Regional Security Implications of Libya’s Conflict