Saudi Arabia bans Lebanese fruit and vegetable imports over drug smuggling concerns

Saudi authorities found nearly 8 million pills hidden inside shipments of pomegranates

Saudi Arabia on Friday announced a ban on the import of fruit and vegetables from Lebanon because of drug smuggling concerns, shortly after authorities announced the seizure of 5.3 million captagon pills and 2.4 pills of amphetamine.

The ban will go into effect on Sunday and will apply to produce that originates from Lebanon or has transited through the country, the Saudi interior ministry said.

The Saudi decision cuts off a major market for farmers in Lebanon, where a drawn-out economic crisis has raised fears of increasing lawlessness as poverty levels rise.

The Saudi ministry said the ban was prompted by an increase in attempts to smuggle drugs into the kingdom from Lebanon.

The ban will be lifted when the Lebanese authorities provide "adequate and reliable guarantees" that measures have been taken to prevent drug smuggling, it said, and urged Lebanon to "take the necessary action" to address the issue.

Lebanon's caretaker Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe said in a statement that "the smuggling of drugs and their export is detrimental to the Lebanese economy, farmers and the country's reputation" and urged authorities to act.

The Saudi interior ministry said it would monitor other imports from Lebanon to decide if the ban should be widened.

The kingdom's General Directorate of Narcotics Control said on Friday that it had thwarted an attempt to smuggle 5,383,400 captagon pills and 2,466,563 pills of amphetamine hidden in a shipment of pomegranates coming from Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia's import ban will drive down the price of fruit and vegetables in Lebanon and affect growers, said Antoine Howayek, head of the Lebanese farmers association.

"Saudi Arabia is one of the main importers of Lebanese fruit and vegetables. They import potatoes, citrus fruits, grapes," he said.

If the kingdom halts imports of fruit and vegetables from Lebanon the decision will probably bring prices down in Lebanon because supply will exceed demand.

"Prices of certain produce, such as citrus fruit, may be halved, this will no doubt have a negative effect on farmers."

Lebanon has been suffering an economic crisis for the past year and a half, with inflation driving prices up amid growing food insecurity in a country that relies on imports for most basic foodstuffs.

While Saudi Arabia did not disclose the type of amphetamines it seized, captagon pills are the main illicit drug exported to the Gulf from Lebanon and Syria, according to Hassan Makhlouf, a professor at Lebanon University who studies drug trafficking.

“Captagon is easily made. In a basement lab they can make millions of pills,” he said.

The drug is primarily manufactured in the Bekaa Valley, a region bordering Syria where Hezbollah wields great influence.

Last July, Italian police seized the largest drug shipment of captagon on record, worth €1 billion, coming from the port city of Latakia, held by the Hezbollah-allied Syrian regime.

As the security situation deteriorates, Mr Makhlouf said, the trafficking of drugs and other illicit products will increase, especially as inflation has slashed the value of salaries for government employees, encouraging corruption.

“The situation is really dire. If the international community does not step in Lebanon will soon become a hub of illicit traffic and smuggling,” he said.

The country was previously known as centre of trafficking during its civil war from 1975 to 1990, a period of lawlessness when control of the country was divided between rival militias.

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