Over the past decade, the amphetamine fenethylline, widely known by the brand name Captagon, has increasingly become the drug of choice among the youth in Gulf Arab states, and particularly in Saudi Arabia. Growing demand has fueled a burgeoning illicit drug trade that generally runs from Lebanon and Syria into Jordan, and then on to the Gulf states. While reports of large-scale drug seizures are common, crackdowns have done little to weaken this multibillion dollar illegal industry. Although efforts are apparently being made to clamp down on the supply side of this problem, not enough has been done to understand and ultimately diminish the demand side. It appears that disaffected young people facing high unemployment and few social outlets have been turning to this drug as a means of coping. But regardless of the circumstances surrounding the smuggling and consumption of Captagon, the situation has created an unwelcome problem for governments and security services across the Gulf.
What Is Captagon?
Captagon is a lab-made drug that was first synthesized in the 1960s. When it is taken, the body’s metabolism breaks the drug down into an amphetamine and another molecule called theophylline. Users say that taking the drug brings about a feeling of well-being. One young person described it as feeling like “I own the world,” while another user said, “There was no fear anymore after I took Captagon.”
By the 1980s, most countries had banned the drug after determining that long-term usage can cause extreme depression, sleep deprivation, heart and blood diseases, and malnutrition. However, according to one expert, the drug can be easily manufactured with “only basic knowledge of chemistry and a few scales.” It is also easy to produce pills that are sold as Captagon, but that are usually made with amphetamine and caffeine.
Who Are the Users, and Why?
Demand for Captagon grew in the Middle East during the time that the so-called Islamic State (IS) was expanding its territory in Syria, some eight to ten years ago. IS leaders would
distribute Captagon pills to the group’s fighters before battles to give them heightened energy and focus. The drug soon spread to other militant groups, including to militias supporting the Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War. From Syria, the drug was smuggled to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, where it is often used by students preparing for exams. And it is possible that in addition to being used for academic and recreational means, it is being taken by recent graduates who have turned to the drug as a means of coping with the stress of unemployment, which in 2021 was at nearly 29 percent for Saudi youth. Even though data on Captagon use and users is still scant, Saudi Arabia is apparently the country with the highest number of Captagon users; but the drug’s popularity is growing in other Gulf states as well.
Even though data on Captagon use and users is still scant, Saudi Arabia is apparently the country with the highest number of Captagon users; but the drug’s popularity is growing in other Gulf states as well.
Although many young people in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states smoke hashish, presumably because it is readily available and is considered less addictive than other drugs, Captagon use has increasingly caught on, in part because it is also relatively inexpensive, selling for $10 to $20 per pill. Despite Saudi Arabia’s loosening of some social restrictions in the past few years, the lives of Saudi youth are often marked by boredom, which leads some to use drugs as a way to vent, relax, and to entertain themselves.
Illicit Trade and Its Consequences
Although the Syrian government has occasionally announced crackdowns on drug trafficking, Syria appears to be one of the chief manufacturers of Captagon, even though it denies this charge. Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is a close ally of the Assad regime, is also reportedly a large manufacturer of the drug, though it also denies this accusation. One study noted that a great deal of Captagon production takes place along the Syrian-Lebanese border, where a number of factories are located. According to the study, the Fourth Division of the Syrian Army and Hezbollah have cooperated in this illicit endeavor, employing residents of small villages in the area who have few employment opportunities available to them. And other militant groups, such as Syria-based extremist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, are also reportedly involved in Captagon production.
From Syria and Lebanon, Captagon pills are then usually smuggled overland to Jordan, and from there on to the Gulf states—although some shipments are also transported by air and sea, often hidden in or among other products. Jordan has increasingly become a battleground in the fight to stem this illicit trade. From January to April 2022 alone, the Jordanian Army seized 17 million Captagon pills, up from 15.5 million in the whole of 2021. And in late January 2022, the Jordanian Army engaged in a fierce firefight along the Jordanian-Syrian border that resulted in the death of 27 alleged smugglers. The Jordanian Army had reportedly made changes to its rules of engagement after an officer was killed by smugglers shortly before this incident, instituting a “shoot-to-kill” policy along the border.
The drug trade has now become a large criminal enterprise. One Jordanian Army official estimated that there are 160 groups operating in southern Syria and using drones and customized vehicles in their smuggling operations.
The drug trade has now become a large criminal enterprise. One Jordanian Army official estimated that there are 160 groups operating in southern Syria and using drones and customized vehicles in their smuggling operations. But the drugs are not just destined for the Gulf; some Jordanian youth have also become addicted to Captagon. And al-Rashid Hospital in Amman has increasingly become the main center to treat Captagon addicts from Jordan and Gulf countries. As one Jordanian Army official put it, “Drugs are destroying our families, morals and values.”
Another consequence of the illicit drug trade is economic. Captagon smuggling led Saudi Arabia to temporarily ban fruit and vegetable imports from Lebanon, for example, because Saudi authorities had previously found large quantities of Captagon pills in such products. In April 2021, Saudi customs officials in the port city of Jeddah seized more than 5 million pills hidden in pomegranates. Although some sources said that the pomegranates came from Syria (suggesting that the Syrian government had a hand in the operation), the Saudi authorities placed the blame squarely on Lebanon, undoubtedly because of the Saudi government’s antipathy toward Hezbollah, which plays a large role in Lebanese politics. The Saudi ban on Lebanese agricultural products also roughly coincided with the country’s expulsion of Lebanon’s diplomats, indicating that politics played a role in this policy against the drug trade.
One researcher has suggested that the Saudis did not want to blame Syria for the pomegranate incident due to regional political considerations. With other Gulf countries—notably the UAE and Bahrain—in the process of thawing relations with Damascus, Lebanon emerged as the main scapegoat for the drug trade, despite the fact that Syria is almost certainly heavily involved in production and smuggling. And the ban on Lebanese imports came at a time when the Lebanese economy was in a downward spiral, which arguably made matters even worse, not only in the farming sector, but in the banking sector as well, given that it is desperately short of foreign exchange.
Saudi Crackdowns Have Limited Effect
Saudi authorities continue to report seizures of Captagon at land border crossings, airports, and seaports. In late August, for example, Saudi authorities said that they seized 46 million amphetamine pills—most likely Captagon—hidden in shipments of flour passing through Riyadh Dry Port. A spokesperson for Saudi Arabia’s General Directorate of Narcotics Control boasted that this was the “biggest operation of its kind to smuggle this amount of narcotics into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in one operation.” In the UAE, meanwhile, authorities intercepted 5.7 million Captagon pills in May 2019 that were hidden inside a food container. But these seizures are still doing little to stem the flow of the drug into the kingdom. The situation resembles large cocaine seizures made by US authorities in the 1980s and 1990s, in that both make for good headlines and highlight officials’ vigilance, but have little overall impact on the problem. For every big seizure, many other large shipments are undoubtedly getting through.
Drug smugglers continue to be creative in how they hide Captagon. In addition to agricultural products, the drug has reportedly also been hidden in pottery and machinery.
Drug smugglers continue to be creative in how they hide Captagon. In addition to agricultural products, the drug has reportedly also been hidden in pottery and machinery. As long as demand remains high in Saudi Arabia and in other Gulf countries, smugglers will find ways to try to fool customs officials, since large potential profits from the drug trade entice criminals to take risks.
Reducing Demand Is Key
Although Saudi authorities appear to be increasing their seizures of Captagon, they do not seem to be making a similar effort to reduce demand, outside of what appears to be a limited awareness program. Despite Saudi Arabia’s reputation for implementing draconian laws, it curiously does not seem to be deploying such laws against users of Captagon. Saudi youth caught for drug use reportedly only get a slap on the wrist. This may be because Captagon use is so prevalent among Saudi youth that a major crackdown on users may cause social and political unrest that the regime surely wants to avoid. In addition, anecdotal reports suggest that the wealthy and elite are also users of the drug, further complicating the issue of addressing demand.
This lack of a crackdown on users may actually be the only silver lining in this problem. Other countries—including the United States—have come to realize, albeit belatedly, that incarcerating drug users does little to stem what is essentially a social problem, and that incarceration tends to fall more heavily on marginalized groups.
To reduce demand, there needs to be a stepped-up educational effort by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, including highlighting the negative effects of amphetamine use.
To reduce demand, there needs to be a stepped-up educational effort by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, including highlighting the negative effects of amphetamine use. Former addicts, including those who have been treated in facilities like al-Rashid Hospital in Amman, should be the ones spreading this message, since they would have much more credibility with the youth than community elders would. In addition, more effort needs to be made to reduce youth unemployment, which contributes to social malaise and makes jobless young people seek temporary relief in drugs to help them cope with their day-to-day struggles. This is especially important given the high level of youth unemployment in the region. According to some estimates, Jordan’s youth unemployment rate, for example, is around 50 percent.
Reducing Production in Lebanon and Syria
Dealing with the supply side is equally important. While seizures of Captagon will undoubtedly continue and should be encouraged, Gulf countries seeking to thaw relations with Syria should emphasize to officials in Damascus that Syria-Gulf relations are dependent on Syria working to stop the production and supply of the drug. In other words, if Syria truly wants to be brought back into the Arab fold, it should stop being a narco-state. Gulf states should also resist the Syrian government’s pretensions of being opposed to the drug trade, and should not be taken in by what are likely falsified reports of Syrian crackdowns on illicit drugs.
Similarly, the Gulf countries’ message to Lebanon should be that it also needs to crack down on the production and supply of Captagon if it wants to obtain additional Gulf funding to aid its extremely troubled economy. Although it may be morally untenable to hold a whole government hostage due to the activities of a group like Hezbollah that is engaged in the drug trade, dangling the offer of increased economic largesse could be a significant enough inducement for even Hezbollah to cease its involvement in the illicit drug trade. At the end of the day, Lebanon’s economic crisis has harmed the reputation of all of Lebanon’s political factions, regardless of sectarian identity.
Recommendations for the US and the EU
Although some natural drugs like hashish have been used in the Middle East for centuries, Captagon is a relatively new phenomenon in the region. Countries like the United States and European Union member states have been dealing with similar drug problems for decades. In addition to offering intelligence cooperation to help stop drug trafficking in the region, western countries should share with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states their experiences regarding what has and has not worked in their efforts to address drug use in their own societies. At the same time, Gulf states should put aside their own reluctance to accept such advice and stop claiming that their young citizens are somehow different from those in the West. Globalization has led to a striking similarity in youth issues across the world, including the drug problem. It therefore behooves all parties concerned to try to learn from one another and to work together to bring an end to a problem that has adversely affected millions of young people around the world.