RIYADH // Underscoring growing concerns about illegal drug use in the kingdom, and unremitting trafficking through its borders, Saudi Arabia wants to raise domestic awareness of the problem and expand regional anti-smuggling co-operation. Those are the goals of a two-day conference here this week sponsored by the Anti-Narcotics General Directorate of the Saudi interior ministry.
A first of its kind for Riyadh, the conference has drawn officials from neighbouring Gulf states, including Iran, as well as from the United Nations, United Kingdom and United States. Saudi Arabia "has become one of the major countries targeted by traffickers", Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the second deputy prime minister and interior minister, said in a brief statement during the conference's ceremonial opening on Tuesday night.
His government, he added, wants to consolidate international efforts to combat drug smuggling in order "to protect our society from this dangerous phenomenon". Although reliable statistics on illegal drug use are not available, there is mounting concern in both Saudi society and government circles that young people are increasingly turning to substance abuse for recreation, to compensate for boredom, or to alleviate depression, according to numerous press reports.
And increasingly, this issue is being frankly addressed in public by Saudi officials. "They're not denying it anymore," said Fawziah al Bakr, a professor at King Saud University who specialises in the social aspects of education. "They say we have a problem and we have to face it." At the same time, public consciousness of the breadth of the problem is not adequate, many Saudis say. "They must be enlightened - the mothers, the fathers, the families - they don't know," Mona Sharaf, a King Saud University student attending the conference, said.
"There are a lot of things unknown that have to be known, like those white pills, the amphetamine that the students use," she added, referring to Captagon, a synthetic amphetamine distributed in capsules, which many students are turning to during exam times. Captagon, which is also taken to suppress appetite, and hashish are the two most widely used illicit drugs among young Saudis, experts and interior ministry officials said.
These drugs are smuggled into the kingdom mainly through its mountainous southern border with Yemen and its northern desert borders with Jordan and Egypt. Almost daily, Saudi newspapers carry brief stories about seizures of contraband in these areas. Despite the severe penalty for drug trafficking - beheading - would-be smugglers relentlessly seek to beat the authorities, hiding illicit drugs in fresh fruit, furniture, pastry-making equipment, children's schoolbags, as well as bodily cavities.
A story in Arab News on April 10 was typical: "Authorities seized more than 100kg of hashish at Thuwal, located at the Yemen border in Jazan province," it stated. "The drug was seized in two separate incidents The first smuggler had placed 40kg of hash in a reserve gas tank. The other had placed 63kg inside a spare tire." At an April 20 press conference, the interior ministry spokesman Gen Mansour al Turki said 195 people, including 108 Saudis, had been arrested over the past four months attempting to smuggle illegal drugs into the country.
The drugs seized in the operations included eight million amphetamine pills, 2,700kg of hashish and 20kg of heroin. However, when asked if Saudi Arabia is seeing an overall increase in seized drugs since a year ago, Gen al Turki said that "the amount is probably the same". Gen al Turki also said that most distribution of illegal drugs inside the kingdom is done by individuals, not large, organised networks.
"If it was a mafia, it probably would be easier to deal with," he said, adding that "in many situations you are dealing with individuals directly co-ordinating together". And most traffickers, he said, are "individuals who take advantage of [the car or] goods that they are transporting into the kingdom to hide some amount of drugs inside". A new study by the ministry's anti-narcotic division states that in 2009, authorities counted 90,300 drug peddlers in the kingdom of whom almost two-thirds (59,600) were Saudi, according to yesterday's edition of the Saudi Gazette. The report also states that 37,828 people were accused of drug-related crimes in 2009 and that officials had seized 62.1 million Captagon pills, 17 tonnes of hashish, 60,000kg of heroin and 775,000 tonnes of qat.
Princess Aljoharah Fahad M Al Saud, the rector of Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University, presided at yesterday's session on the women's side of the conference. At one point she stated that Saudi parents must start talking about illegal drug use with their children. In her presentation, Prof al Bakr said that in surveys she had done students were reluctant to talk about drug use and she urged that anti-drug campaigns start using the same social networking tools that students use, such as Facebook.