Watch: Saudi customs officials seize 2.3 million Captagon pills

Saudi Arabia banned fruit and vegetable imports from Lebanon after millions of pills were found in packages from the country

Customs officials in Saudi Arabia foiled an attempt to smuggle more than two million pills of the illegal drug Captagon through Jeddah’s Islamic port, the General Authority of Zakat and Tax said on Sunday.

About 2,312,000 pills of Captagon – a synthetic amphetamine which is reportedly one of the most widely-consumed illegal drugs in the Middle East – were found in a lorry being driven into the country.

Video footage released by the authority shows customs officials cutting into the floor of the refrigerated lorry using a flame torch and pulling bags of the pills from hiding places.

Four non-Saudis were apprehended in connection with the incident, the authority said.

The kingdom banned the import of fruits and vegetables from Lebanon last month, after more than 600 million pills and hundreds of kilograms of narcotics and hashish were seized in freight from the country in recent years.

It is unclear where the pills from Sunday’s drug seizure came from.

In April, 5.3 million Captagon pills were found in a shipment of pomegranates arriving in Jeddah from Lebanon.

“The quantities that were thwarted are enough to drown the entire Arab world, not just Saudi Arabia, in narcotics and psychotropic substances,” said Walid Al Bukhari, Saudi Ambassador to Beirut.

Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and the UAE have supported the ban.

Lebanese farmers were struggling to sell their produce after the loss of a major market.

"The Saudi decision was a shock to farmers and exporters," said Ibrahim Tarshishy, the head of the Bekaa Valley's farmers' syndicate.

"To be honest, I don't expect the days ahead to be good. I see before us more depression, sadness and poverty."

Mr Tarshishy said Lebanon's total fruit and vegetable exports were usually about 400,000 tonnes a year, with about a quarter heading to Saudi Arabia or going via the kingdom to Gulf states.

That market, worth $24 million a year, has been shut down for now, leaving farmers and exporters racing to find alternative buyers abroad.

"Everything is loss on top of loss," said Hussein Madbouh, a farmer. Gesturing to a field of lettuce, much of which he would normally export to earn foreign exchange, he said: "The fertilisers and chemicals are all priced in dollars. We can't make it work."

The price of lettuce, with its short shelf life, has halved, and some farmers have resorted to selling the produce for animal feed. They fear the prices of other vegetables will also plummet.

The Saudi ban was imposed on April 24 and there is no sign of when it might end. Farmers' attention is now turning to peaches, cherries and other fruit ripening on the trees that would usually find a ready market in the desert kingdom.

"Lebanon at this time of year is a basket of fruit," said Mr Tarshishy. He said the main season ran from mid-May until October.

Lebanon's government, already barely able to keep the economy afloat, has promised to work with Saudi Arabia and increase security. It has asked Riyadh to review its ban.

"There were gaps that smugglers made use of," said Mr Tarshishy. He said the Lebanese authorities had now improved scanning and other security measures.

But every day that passes with the Saudi ban still in place means more financial pain for farmers.

"Who will compensate our loss for all of this?" said Mr Madbouh.

Updated: May 16, 2021 05:11 PM

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