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  • Writer's pictureElsa Scholz

Captagon – Giving the region a diplomatic high?



From opium in Afghanistan, to cannabis in Morocco and heroin in Turkey, drug trafficking and use in the Middle East, North Africa and adjacent regions is nothing new and has made headlines before. However, reports of Captagon seizures have dramatically increased over the last years, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, reaching millions of drug busts. This “Captagon Crisis”[1] is the product of the region’s various uncertainties and crises – most produced in war-torn Syria and most consumed by bored youth in the Arab Gulf countries. Impacting society, relationships with bordering countries and regional agreements, Captagon is powerful enough to influence the political landscape in the Middle East. Yet while agreements on limiting Captagon trade might provide an opening for regional diplomacy, hopes thereof are most likely exaggerated. As long as the Syrian regime’s revenue depends on Captagon, and demand in the Gulf countries remains high.


Originally prescribed as a medical product containing mainly fenethylline, used to treat attention deficit disorders, narcolepsy and used as a central nervous system stimulant in Western Germany in the 1960s, Captagon is not used for medical purposes anymore.[2] In 1981, the drug was declared a controlled substance, due to the drug’s addictive properties.[3] Today, tablets are sold under the same name but unlike its original, the pills do not contain fenethylline but rather a range of substances: described as “generally amphetamine with a captagon logo on it”[4], the pills also contain caffeine, quinine, paracetamol, nickel, zinc and more, in varying amounts. Being highly addictive, Captagon is mostly used as a stimulant, mood and energy booster. However, used long-term, Captagon has been reported to lead to serious physical symptoms such as heart diseases, as well as psychological effects like hallucinations, depression and aggression.[5] The plethora, mix and variety of ingredients depending on each set of pills makes them more dangerous to consumers, as health risks are yet largely under-researched.


Captagon trade in the Middle East is worth more than 10 billion USD$ in total (fall 2022)[6]. Most of this worth is held by the Syrian regime, which is the dominant producer and trafficker of Captagon in the region, making the drug “Syria’s most valuable export product a key source of income for the regime”[7]. The regime facilitates all stages of Captagon trade: production and manufacturing in state-controlled areas; shipping, trafficking and smuggling under the protection of the regime, and most notably through the regime’s Fourth Armed Division, led by Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad[8]. Captagon and other drug trafficking has existed in Syria before the civil war by state and non-state groups, but sanctions and the dire economic situation has led the regime to tighten its grip around the drug production and has evolved into the highest beneficiaries of the drug trade[9]. After a decade of war and devastating sanctions, Captagon has offered the Syria’s regime and non-state actors a lifeline[10], eventually making it so dependent on the drug that Syria has been described as a “narco-state”[11] by media and news outlets.


This has not only impacted Syria’s political economy, it has also had significant effects on neighbouring countries, most specifically Jordan. After borders had been re-opened between both countries in 2021[12], the border has become an important smuggling pass and Jordan a vital transit route for Captagon traffickers on their way to the Gulf countries. Increased smuggling on the border, in turn, led to surging violence between different groups, smugglers and government forces, culminating in the death of a Jordanian army officer. Since then, the Jordanian government has been negotiating with the Syrian regime trying to get the Captagon trade under to control, with only limited success[13]. In May, Jordan even warned that they would consider military actions within Syria to tackle Captagon trafficking, if deemed necessary. Only a day after Syria’s re-admission to the Arab League, Jordan carried out said military actions and killed the major drug dealer Marai al-Ramthan and his family in southern Syria.[14]


From Syria and partly through Jordan, Captagon reaches its main customer market, the Arab Gulf countries. Captagon has become “the drug of choice among [Saudi and Gulf Arab states’] youth”[15] and “the drug fuelling the Gulf party scene”[16]. Even though the Arab Gulf states are regarded as the largest consumer market based on the size of drug seizures, research has been limited regarding the exact number of drug users. Saudi authorities have been seizing millions of Captagon pills, with the record drug bust of 46 million pills in August 2022[17] and a total of 370 million in 2022[18]. Saudi Arabia has notoriously harsh laws on drug possession, use and trafficking. Drug trafficking can result in receiving death penalty – only recently, March 2023, the case of the Jordanian citizen Abu al-Khair has made headlines, as he was executed for attempting to smuggle Captagon into Saudi Arabia[19]. In the meantime, only limited effort has been made to limit drug use within the country. Captagon has been used as a means of coping in states where youth is faced with unemployment, few social outlets, boredom and dissatisfaction. Youth unemployment is notoriously high in Saudi Arabia, with 19.7% in 2021, with an unemployment rate for the entire population of 6.6%[20]. With a lack of opportunities and still limited social environment, only little distraction is available for Saudi youth who resort to drug abuse.[21] Demand for Captagon and other drugs remains very high and even though rehabilitation centres have been emerging, drug use remains a taboo in the Arab Gulf states, and there is a lack of education, public health messaging and support for those who want to come off the drug[22].


Transcending national levels, Captagon has recently entered the multinational stage, as it has played a significant bargaining factor in reintroducing Syria to the Arab League. Desperate to curb Captagon production in the country, Gulf states are now seeking cooperation with Syria in order to tackle the issue directly in the production country[23][24]. While some welcome this opportunity for increased diplomacy and the outlook for stability in the region, others have expressed great concern. The Syrian regime is so closely interlinked with Captagon trade and dependent on the revenues from it, that it is highly unlikely they will give up on it anytime soon. Hence, the very players agreeing to stop Captagon production and trafficking are maintaining it: the Syrian regime is clearly trying to play their cards as well as possible, salvaging their role in the trade and use rhetoric to distract from Captagon production rather than actually stopping it.[25] Furthermore, even though there have been Captagon seizures by the Syrian regime, the total of seized pills is rather negligible, leading to the suspicion that the seizures might be only of symbolic value and a purely performative effort, rather than a concession of seriously trying to remedy the situation.[26] The supposed compensation of $4 billion for losses on Captagon trade that Saudi Arabia has allegedly proposed to Syria[27], is unlikely to even create a dent in Captagon trafficking, instead the money might flow into regime hands additionally to drug income. Regardless of whether the agreements will deliver in decreasing supply and limiting drug trafficking or not, more emphasis needs to be put on targeting the demand side of Captagon trade. Investing more in education, rehabilitation and perspectives for youth might be helpful to create less incentive to turn to the drug in the first place, therefore creating less demand for drug use.


Captagon has serious health implications, fuels autocratic regimes and militias and impacts relationships between states. Not only has the drug become a metaphor for issues across the region, but the “Captagon Crisis” has reached an urgency pushing countries to seek cooperation with partners that have been alienated before. Whether Syria’s readmittance to the Arab League will make a difference to Captagon trafficking remains to be seen. As will be the consequences on peace and stability of Syria does not meet the Arab Gulf States’ expectations of limiting Captagon production and trafficking.



Elsa Scholz works in the Middle East and North Africa Programme of the European Council of Foreign Affairs (ECFR). She has previously worked with ALQST for Human Rights, an independent Saudi human rights organisation based in London, and studied Near and Middle Eastern Studies in Vienna and London. Elsa is blogging from Berlin.





References:

[1] https://www.thenationalnews.com/tags/captagon-crisis/ [2] https://www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/emcdda-papers/captagon-understanding-todays-illicit-market_en [3] https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/captagon-crisis/2021/10/25/what-is-captagon-the-drug-sweeping-the-middle-east/ [4] https://www.emcdda.europa.eu/publications/emcdda-papers/captagon-understanding-todays-illicit-market_en [5] https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/captagon-crisis/2021/10/25/what-is-captagon-the-drug-sweeping-the-middle-east/ [6] https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20230519-war-on-captagon-key-to-syria-s-return-to-arab-league [7] https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/88109 [8] https://www.lemonde.fr/blog/filiu/2022/01/23/assad-a-la-tete-du-trafic-de-captagon-au-moyen-orient/ [9] https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/captagon-war-smuggling-jordanian-syrian-border [10] https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20230519-war-on-captagon-key-to-syria-s-return-to-arab-league [11] https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20221103-captagon-connection-how-syria-became-a-narco-state [12] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/jordan-fully-reopens-main-crossing-with-syria-2021-09-29/#:~:text=JABER%20CROSSING%2C%20Jordan%2C%20Sept%2029,it%20during%20its%20civil%20war. [13] https://newlinesinstitute.org/syria/the-syrian-regimes-captagon-endgame/ [14] https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20230519-war-on-captagon-key-to-syria-s-return-to-arab-league [15] https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/the-captagon-problem-in-saudi-arabia-and-other-gulf-states/ [16] https://www.google.com/search?q=captagon+world&rlz=1C1GCEU_enDE1018DE1018&oq=captagon+world&gs_lcrp=EgZjaHJvbWUyBggAEEUYOTIHCAEQIRigATIHCAIQIRigATIHCAMQIRigAdIBCDM0MDZqMGo0qAIAsAIA&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8 [17] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-62736126 [18] https://newlinesinstitute.org/syria/the-syrian-regimes-captagon-endgame/ [19] https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/03/17/saudi-arabia-jordanian-executed-after-unfair-trial [20] https://ilostat.ilo.org/data/country-profiles/# [21] https://newlinesinstitute.org/terrorism/the-captagon-threat-a-profile-of-illicit-trade-consumption-and-regional-realities/; see also https://edition.cnn.com/2022/09/02/middleeast/saudi-drug-capital-mime-intl/index.html_ [22] https://edition.cnn.com/2022/09/02/middleeast/saudi-drug-capital-mime-intl/index.html [23] https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20230519-war-on-captagon-key-to-syria-s-return-to-arab-league [24] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/9/what-is-captagon-the-addictive-drug-mass-produced-in-syria [25] https://soundcloud.com/arabdigest/captagon-assad-and-the-new-normal [26] https://newlinesinstitute.org/syria/the-syrian-regimes-captagon-endgame/ [27] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/arabs-bring-syrias-assad-back-into-fold-want-action-drugs-trade-2023-05-09/

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