London and Abu Dhabi (CNN) – A grisly drug-induced homicide captivated the media in Saudi Arabia this April, when a man in the country’s Eastern Province set his family house on fire before iftar, the meal that ends the Ramadan fast. Four members of his family were killed.
Police said he was under the influence of shabu, a methamphetamine, according to local papers.
Saudi media has been sounding the alarm lately over the rise in drug use, with one columnist describing shipments of narcotics to the kingdom as an “open war against us, more dangerous than any other war.”
On Wednesday, Saudi authorities announced the largest seizure of illicit drugs in the country’s history after nearly 47 million amphetamine pills were hidden in a flour shipment and seized at a warehouse in the capital Riyadh.
The record seizure demonstrates what experts say is Saudi Arabia’s growing role as the drug capital of the Middle East, driving demand and becoming the primary destination for smugglers from Syria and Lebanon.
The kingdom, they say, is one of the largest and most lucrative regional destinations for drugs, and that status is only intensifying.
Wednesday’s operation was the biggest single smuggling attempt in terms of narcotics seized, according to the General Directorate of Narcotics Control. While authorities didn’t name the drug seized or where it came from, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has previously said that “reports of amphetamine seizures from countries in the Middle East continue to refer predominantly to tablets bearing the Captagon logo.”
Captagon was originally the brand name for a medicinal product containing the synthetic stimulant fenethylline. Though it is no longer produced legally, counterfeit drugs carrying the captagon name are regularly seized in the Middle East, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
Drug busts of captagon in Saudi Arabia and around the region have grown over time. Earlier this week, A US Coast Guard boat seized 320 kilograms of amphetamine tablets and almost 3,000 kilograms of hashish worth millions of dollars from a fishing boat in the Gulf of Oman.
The drug was popularized in the kingdom some 15 years ago but has taken off more intensely in the past five years, “perhaps becoming on par with cannabis,” according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, who has written on the topic.
One of the reasons captagon is spreading in use is “because there is a supply flood now coming mostly from Syria” where it is produced “on an industrial scale in the chemical factories inherited from the [Assad] regime” and supplied by warlords and affiliates of the regime.
Saudi Arabia’s Center for International Communication didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Captagon can be sold for between $10 and $25 a pill, meaning the latest Saudi haul, if it was the same drug, has a street value of up to $1.1 billion, based on figures from the International Addiction Review journal.
“Captagon’s amphetamine-type properties are sought out as a coping mechanism that can aid users facing food insecurity in staving hunger, and inducing a euphoric ‘rush’ that users have said to help with traumatic stress,” said Caroline Rose, a senior analyst at the New Lines Institute in Washington, D.C. who has studied the captagon trade. “It’s also been said that these same traits for captagon have been sought out by foreign workers in wealthy Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, seen to aid work performance.”
While hashish and khat are also common drugs in the kingdom, amphetamines are popular among Saudi youth. A 2021 study in the journal of Crime, Law and Social Change cited a user as saying, “captagon is small. My school mates and I like it more than hashish. Not like hashish, we can buy in tablet……Once we get 25 riyals from [our] parents, we can buy one tablet and enjoy it.”
“In wealthier consumer markets, the drug has a different appeal, serving as a recreational activity amongst its growing youth population that, despite social reforms… have reportedly struggled with boredom amidst widespread youth unemployment and a lack of opportunities for leisurely activities,” said Rose. “Some consumers have justified captagon as less of a taboo substance, compared to ‘harder’ drugs like opiates and cocaine.”
Since many young people in Saudi Arabia have been taking drugs as a result of boredom and lack of social opportunities, the increased freedoms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could help reduce some of that use, said Felbab-Brown.
“The important thing is neither to curtail the freedoms, nor to turn concerts into places of dragnets and raids, but rather to educate young people,” she told CNN.
Over the past few years, a number of drug rehabilitation centers have popped up across the kingdom after the government began licensing private establishments.
Khalid Al Mashari, the CEO of Qaweem, one of the first such centers to open, says around four or five have opened in the past two years. That’s a testament to the government’s recognition of the importance of rehabilitation, he says, but it also shows that the problem is on the rise.
“We’re in high demand, unfortunately,” he told CNN. “But at least people have an option now, instead of having to go to neighboring countries to seek treatment.”
Despite the presence of rehabilitation centers, Rose says there is little public health messaging or campaigning to raise awareness about captagon.
“While this taboo regarding drug consumption in the kingdom is not going anywhere, the government’s tendency to exclusively securitize this issue and downplay its role as a destination market will be harder to ignore,” she said.
Felbab-Brown says drug policies in the Middle East have focused on the harshest of responses.
“Unlike large parts of the world [that] have walked away from such rigid and mostly ineffective or outright counterproductive policies, the Middle East has often doubled down on them,” she said. “Imprisoning users is ineffective and counterproductive.”