Beyond the Headlines: the Middle East's Captagon crisis

In April 2021, customs officers in the Saudi city of Jeddah searched a shipment of Lebanese pomegranates.

Hidden inside the fruit were more than five million round, beige Captagon pills — illegal amphetamines.

It was the latest in a long line of interceptions in recent years in which law enforcement officers in the kingdom have stopped millions of pills and tonnes of drugs from being smuggled in.

But for Saudi Arabia, it was the final straw.

The kingdom announced a ban on imported fruits and vegetables from Lebanon, dealing a devastating blow to farmers already suffering due to the country’s economic collapse and sending a shock wave through the region.

Over the past decade, Captagon has spread across the Middle East and has become one of the most highly consumed narcotics.

It gained infamy and near-mythical status in the early years of the Syrian war as the drug of choice for militants belonging to groups such as ISIS.

Fighters popped the pills on the battlefield, with the drugs seemingly giving them superhuman strength as they fuelled them to fight for days without sleep or food. ISIS took over large areas of Syria and Iraq in 2013 and 2014 and ruled an area the size of the UK.

Far from the battlefields, Captagon also found favour.

Today, experts and officials say Captagon has become the most popular recreational drug in the Arabian peninsula.

In this week's Beyond the Headlines, we delve into a major investigation by The National into the Middle East’s Captagon crisis.

Our reporters in six countries spent months tracing the drug from Syrian producers to Lebanese smugglers to Saudi and UAE customs official, unravelling a game of cat and mouse that is harming thousands across the region as it enriches warlords and gunmen.

We unearthed some of the more creative ways traffickers smuggle drugs in the region, from hidden compartments to Bedouin herders, even as the Covid pandemic closed borders

We’ll go inside Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on Captagon smuggling and find out how customs officials in Dubai have been able to intercept drug shipments using state-of-the-art technology.

And we’ll speak to experts trying to make sense of the scale of the Captagon trade in the Middle East, where data is hard to come by and even talking about addiction is often taboo.

Hosted by James Haines-Young

Produced by Arthur Scott-Geddes, Arthur Eddyson and Ayesha Khan

Updated: August 30th 2021, 7:26 AM