x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Drug inspections up, seizures are down

Drug smugglers have shifted their operations out of the UAE, officials say.

DUBAI // Tougher inspections have led to a dramatic cut in the number of drug seizures in UAE ports, according to a senior customs official.

Increased attention to narcotics smuggling through UAE ports has led to a a 53 per cent drop in seizures in the first three months of this year compared to the same period in 2010, said Mohammed Mattar Al Merri, the Executive Director of Cargo Operations at Dubai Customs.

"In 2010, 404 drug seizures took place at Dubai's borders, with 100 of them happening in the first quarter. This year we registered only 47 seizures in the first three months," said Mr Al Merri, adding that he believed this indicated a reduction in smuggling.

Increased investment in security and training had made a big difference at all border checkpoints, he said. More intelligence-sharing with other countries had also encouraged smugglers to go around the UAE rather than through it.

"We conduct more consistent inspections, which include targeted checks on products imported from questionable destinations. And the increase in training and development of customs inspectors has aided in tightening the leash around smugglers."

Mr Al Merri said Dubai Customs had increased inspections by 17 per cent last year, which impacted particularly on large smuggling operations.

Traffickers have long used Dubai ports and facilities to ship items globally. In 2009, a report by the European Commission's Taxation and Customs Union showed that of 179 million illegal items seized at European borders, more came from the UAE than from any country other than China.

More than 12 per cent of the illegal items carried documentation showing they were produced in the Emirates, officials said. And drug shipments were often the illicit cargo.

"Some people take advantage of the size and development of the transport infrastructure in the country and re-export their narcotics to their targeted countries, building on the good reputation of the UAE's security," Mr Al Merri said.

Hatem Ali, the regional director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said the drop in narcotics seizures in the UAE as a whole and Dubai specifically were steps in the right direction.

However, he warned authorities against becoming complacent.

"Such efforts come from a sincere want by the UAE authorities to combat narcotics, but this does not stop traffickers, as they continuously try to find other ways to keep their business running," he said. "Traffickers are targeting countries like the GCC countries, which are socio-economically stable, and this endangers the region directly.

"The improvement of counter-trafficking is not an indicator of less trafficking," he said. "But it should be used to raise the benchmark continuously."

Mr Ali said traffickers factored losses caused by police seizures into their business model, but added that every seized shipment still represented a success.

Other GCC nations have stepped up their efforts as well. At the Gulf Criminal Information Centre in Doha, permanent representatives from the anti-narcotics departments of the six GCC countries constantly gather, compile and share intelligence information, he said.

Faisal Hijazi, a programme director at the United Nations office in Cairo, warned that Arab countries were being targeted by drug traffickers.

"Scientific developments and the availability of recipes online has given accessibility to consumers. Also, the cheapness of the products has contributed to the increase in the consumption of narcotics in the region," he said.

amustafa@thenational.ae