Drug cartels using GCC as gateway for illegal trade

The UAE’s major air and sea ports are seen as a channel from Afghanistan and Syria to drug users here and in Europe and as far away as the US.

Afghanistan produces 90 per cent of the world's opium, as well as a large amount of marijuana. AFP
Powered by automated translation

ABU DHABI // Drug cartels, terrorists and narco-terrorist groups from Latin America, ­Africa, the Middle East and Asia are using GCC countries as a gateway to distribute drugs across the region and beyond, security officials said.

The UAE’s major air and sea ports are seen as a channel from Afghanistan and Syria to drug users here, in Europe and as far away as the United States.

Weakened, porous borders as a result of conflict and political turmoil in other areas of the ­region are also exacerbating the problem.

“We understand the political conflicts and unrest in the Arab region have very much affected illegal drug trafficking because so many border [controls] have either weakened or collapsed,” said Dr Hatem Ali, regional ­director at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in Abu Dhabi.

“There has also been a pressing financial situation for the past few years and this is driving more cartels, organised crime and groups to increase their illicit trade in drugs.

“All of this together shows to what extent the Arab world is being targeted and affected by illegal drug trafficking. And if they aren’t targeting Arab countries as a destination, it is at least as a transit point to destinations in Europe, Africa and the American continent.

“There’s been a major change and an increase in these routes that takes full advantage of this collapse and we’ve recently seen drug factories seized in certain parts of the Arab world.”

The regional drug supply stems from Afghanistan, where 90 per cent of the world’s opium is produced as well as large quantities of marijuana.

The drugs also come from ­Syria, where captagon, an ­amphetamine, has been produced to finance the activities of extremist groups.

In November 2014, Dubai declared one of its biggest drug busts when three Syrian men were caught trying to smuggle more than 17 million captagon pills through Jebel Ali Port.

“As the intensity of the [Syria] conflict decreases, this production might transfer itself to another country in the region,” said Marc Martinez, senior ­analyst at The Delma Institute, an Abu Dhabi think tank.

“Iranian security forces have recently indicated an increased number of seizures of those pills and chemical products used in the production of the drug.”

He related the increase in drug smuggling to the production of opium in Afghanistan, which increased by 43 per cent to 4,800 tonnes last year compared with the previous year.

Another 500 tonnes of Afghan heroin ended up in the United States last year.

“Because drugs are a global phenomenon, the solution will come from increased international cooperation,” Mr Martinez said.

“Of course, this is extremely complex in our region as tensions are running high between the two sides of the Gulf. But drugs are a much bigger problem in Iran than in the GCC. In Iran, 60 to 70 per cent of inmates are charged with drug-related offences, and 80 per cent of executions are related to drug trafficking.”

The UAE is seen as an important transit point for narco-terrorist groups, not only to expand the demand of drugs, but also for money laundering through investments.

“The UAE is a global hub for air travel to get drugs elsewhere and the consumption is very low in the country,” said Dr Brendon Cannon, assistant professor in international and civil security at Khalifa University.

“The rationale behind the increase in the GCC is that more addicts is good for business – that’s the simple logic of drug dealing.”

Drugs are currently multidirectional, in many cases coming from Africa, specifically Ethiopia, transiting through the GCC and heading north to Russia and Europe and east to Asia and Australia.

“Airports and seaports are both weak points but what’s really being used is human trafficking through airports because it’s quick, relatively cheap and the risks aren’t borne by the cartels or the producers themselves,” Dr Cannon said.

“This is also the problem as far as trying to shut down this network, because you catch only the smallest fish and so there is no connection.

“Captagon can be used by any­one who has to work 15 hours a day to someone who’s on the battlefield – it’s a low-cost drug that would have selling power and interest even among even the migrant population here.

“Liquid cocaine is probably more recreational. But the penalties here are pretty staggering and prohibitive – life sentences in some cases – and that keeps people away.”