04/30/2021, 16.50
LEBANON – SAUDI ARABIA
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Saudi ban over Captagon tables brings Lebanon’s agriculture to its knees

by Fady Noun

The lack of border controls with Syria weighs heavily. Hezbollah uses the gaps in the border for its own cross-border trade. Many fear the country might become a drug trade hub for Gulf countries. At least 120 illegal crossings exist along the Syrian border. Selling drugs in Saudi Arabia is also a political aim.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Is the plain of the Beqaa Valley in central Lebanon turning into a hub for drug trafficking to the Gulf countries? The Maronite Patriarch, Card Bechara al-Rahi, expressed this fear a few days ago after Saudi Arabia stopped all imports of fruits and vegetables from Lebanon, following the discovery of millions of tablets of Captagon (an amphetamine-based psychotropic drug) cleverly concealed inside a cargo of pomegranates shipped by sea from Lebanon.

The Saudi decision has dealt a major blow to Lebanon’s farmers in a country already reeling from its worst economic crisis in its history. The ban, which came into force last Sunday, is hurting an economy already in deep distress.

According to figures released by the farmers' union, Lebanon exports on average 55.4 per cent of its agricultural production to the Gulf States every year. The website of Lebanon’s customs reports that the country exported US$ 29.3 million worth of fruit and vegetables to Saudi Arabia in 2020.

In Lebanon, the case has reignited the debate about cross-border smuggling and the need to increase controls.

After a meeting on Monday at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanese President Michel Aoun urged Saudi Arabia to grant Lebanon a moratorium and reverse its decision. In exchange, he pledged to boost the fight against the illicit trade.

however, scepticism prevails in political circles about the capacity of Lebanon's security forces to control the country's borders.

According to the preliminary results of the investigation by customs, cited by Lebanese daily L'Orient-Le Jour, the shipment of pomegranates stuffed with Captagon was brought into Lebanon from Syria before it could get a Lebanese produce label and be re-exported to Saudi Arabia.

Ibrahim Tarchichi, president of the Beqaa Farmers’ Union, notes Lebanon does not grow pomegranates. “First of all, it's not pomegranate season here, not to mention it's not a fruit we normally export,” he added. “These fruits were imported into Lebanon by a fictitious company. They arrived from Syria on 26 January 2020 on lorries that went through the Masnaa border crossing.”

A quick investigation determined that the fruit that entered Lebanon was then stored at a storage facility in the Beqaa Valley before ending up at the Port of Beirut.

Taken over by the Intelligence Bureau of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, the investigation has already led to the arrest of four people linked to the fictitious company that smuggled the pomegranates into Lebanon.

For the investigators, it is now a question of what help the traffickers received in getting the certificate of origin necessary to export pomegranates, a procedure that involves the Ministries of Agriculture and of the Economy, as well as the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Beqaa Valley.

Logistically, the discovery of Captagon tablets highlights the lack of monitoring equipment at Lebanon's borders.

During the meeting at the presidential palace, the president strongly complained that Lebanon's borders are being abandoned, and that a decree signed in July 2020 for the purchase of remote sensing scanners for the Port has not yet been executed.

Always from a logistical perspective, since the economy plunged into a crisis in October 2019, the country has been fighting illegal crossing points along its 375-kilometre border with Syria.

Officially, there are five border posts between the two countries; unofficially, the Lebanese army has listed 120 illegal crossing points, ranging from mule tracks to dirt roads wide enough to let lorries and fuel tankers through. In fact, petrol smuggling between the two countries is in full swing at the moment.

Despite the installation of watchtowers along the border thanks to British aid, the army is still failing to control the border, especially since Hezbollah considers that some smuggling with Syria is “an act of resistance” to prevent US sanctions from economically asphyxiating that country.

In Lebanon, some political groups also believe that the fates of Syria and Lebanon are one and the same, in line with the doctrine of Syria’s ruling Baath Party.

It is clear that, in such a political atmosphere, Saudi authorities are more than sceptical about Lebanon's capacity of stemming a trade that Riyadh has warned against since 2011, when a Saudi delegation came to Lebanon to discuss it with Lebanese authorities.

Parliamentary Health Committee Chairman Assem Araji said the case is desperate. “I'm from the Beqaa, and I know what I'm talking about,” he said. “It's a lost battle. We live in a house with no doors and no windows. The networks in place are stronger than the state; why in fact does a man arrested for drug trafficking not spend more than a week in prison?”

For Marwan Hamadeh, a former minister and MP, there is no doubt about the involvement of Syria’s allies in the country. A staunch foe of the Syrian regime, he notes that Hezbollah has been repeatedly blamed for Captagon trafficking in the region and that the Saudi ban could be a warning to Lebanon.

“Narcotic and drug trafficking has become one of the main sources of income for the Shia party since Iran can no longer afford to finance it,” Hamadeh explained. “ In the case of traffic to Saudi Arabia, this is [also] political targeting. Traffic and export to selected destinations is part of Hezbollah's overall offensive.”

What is more, Hamadeh added that “The Saudis are complaining not only about Captagon, but also about Hezbollah radio and television broadcasting from the southern suburbs of Beirut and via Russian satellites to Yemen and Bahrain.”

He warns that Lebanon might become more isolated within the international community if it “continues to ignore the seriousness of the situation.”

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