x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The guardians at the gates

Dubai Customs is upgrading its technology and training officers in the latest analytical techniques to counter smuggling.

DUBAI // The gold-coloured object picked out by the X-ray scanner looks harmless enough as it glides past on the screen, but Younnes Shafie is taking no chances. A colleague flicks a switch and the conveyor belt carrying a dizzying array of packages that have reached the UAE on ships from around the world comes to a halt.

Scanner technology has allowed Mr Shafie, 26, a customs inspector at Jebel Ali Port, to peer into the cardboard box that has been shipped to Dubai from India. Now he and his fellow officers don protective gloves to take a closer look. "We're going to take this apart piece by piece," he says. There is, he suspects, a possibility that this is gold being smuggled through the port. Not this time, though - what they find is a gilded sporting trophy, wrapped in newspaper. It is carefully repacked and sent on its way, complete with a sticker announcing the fact that it has been inspected.

Mr Shafie and more than 200 fellow inspectors look for needles in the haystacks that are the nine million containers arriving in Dubai each year. One of their priorities is the drugs trade. "We are always on the lookout for drugs and we have trained inspectors and teams of dogs to find them," said Mr Shafie, who has been with the force for five years. "We are the first line of defence for our country. We feel we have so much responsibility in protecting and representing our people."

Over the past year, as part of an intensified effort that has taken on international significance, the authorities have publicised their successes; in the past three months alone there have been more than half a dozen high-profile drug-related seizures and arrests. On June 7, Dubai police arrested three men for attempting to sell 1.2kg of heroin to undercover officers. A man was arrested at Dubai International Airport on the same day for allegedly carrying 90 capsules of heroin in his gut. On May 28, three others were arrested in Dubai and Sharjah for trying to sell 42kg of heroin, an unusually large amount, estimated to be worth Dh20 million (US$5.5m), and thought to have come from Afghanistan.

Two days earlier, Dubai Customs officers thwarted an attempt to ship 11.5kg of raw opium through Dubai's Cargo Village by air freight; officials suspected it was in transit to Asia or Europe. The UN's recent International Narcotics Control Board report, which singled out the Emirates as a "major exporting and transshipping area" for highly addictive substances, would not have gone unnoticed among the UAE's trading partners.

In 2007 the UK, for example, which has a significant drugs problem, traded some £2.3 billion (Dh14bn) worth of goods with the UAE, its largest trading partner in the Middle East, according to figures from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. If the UAE is now facing the spectre of its own potential drug abuse crisis, it was predicted in a report by the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre in 2006. "The UAE, in particular, has become a trans-shipment point for heroin coming from Afghanistan via Iran and Pakistan," said the report, Narcotics Trafficking to the Gulf States. Gulf countries in general, it added, were major transit points for opiates and cannabis from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, bound primarily for Africa and Europe.

But, said the report, as regional instability fuelled the production of precursors for heroin and other drugs in South Asia, "Gulf states are currently facing an immense danger of escalating drug abuse". To meet the threat, many countermeasures have been taken, but as Mohammed al Marri, executive director of cargo operations at Dubai Customs, admits, it is unrealistic to expect it to be completely stamped out.

He declined to disclose some operational details, including the number of drug plots uncovered by customs inspectors. A key element in the UAE's anti-drugs campaign, he said, was the overhaul that had been carried out of Dubai's points of entry. Beginning in 2003, Dubai Customs introduced staff training programmes in analytical thinking and inspection techniques, upgraded technology and improved internal communications.

In addition, the country is going on the offensive. Mr al Marri said Dubai Customs was laying the groundwork for a sophisticated global intelligence network designed to identify and monitor suspicious shipments from "high-risk" countries known for their involvement in the drugs trade. For more than a year, about 40 officials had been receiving training from their counterparts in the UK. They were learning the art of intelligence analysis and employing computer modeling to anticipate suspect shipments from abroad.

Some of the officers have also been sent to ports elsewhere in the region to identify suspect cargo ships before they even reach Dubai. This programme dovetails with other countrywide efforts to seal gaps in the ports of entry, including the Dh3.4m worth of US government-funded training designed to help Dubai Customs detect materials used to make improvised explosive devices of the type used against coalition forces in Iraq.

As part of the Container Security Initiative, spearheaded by the US in 2002 to help customs agents at the world's busiest ports to identify cargoes suspected of aiding terrorist activities, US customs officials are already stationed at UAE ports. They are believed to be assisting with the introduction of sophisticated scanners that can detect radioactive substances and other materials. This is, in short, an international team effort.

Mr al Marri said it was no longer a viable option to be "working in silos, isolated islands, either inside or outside the UAE". Drugs and weapons are not the only targets. Customs is also working to stem the flow of counterfeit goods: "I can see a drastic drop in IPR [Intellectual Property Rights] issues, especially in the second part of the year. I attribute it to the increased attention to this over the past few years by Dubai Customs, as well as the penalties that the smugglers have been hit with."

Back on the front line, Mr Shafie must sift through an ocean of information. He and his colleagues have the very latest equipment - but machines can do only so much. To make the point, he holds up a cargo X-ray, to the uninitiated eye an unrevealing jumble of black-and-white objects in a rectangular box. But Mr Shafie sees much more: "You see, this is a washing machine, those are dishes," he says, pointing to items of various shades of grey. "You look for things in the main cargo, but you keep an eye on the cracks, the spaces in between the crates.

"Not everyone can do this. You have to have the right training to see what's really in there." His training is an ongoing process; recently he completed a three-month course, sponsored by Dubai Police, that taught him how to spot concealed drugs and weapons. Yet other inspectors are busy studying the languages of Dubai's major trading partners, allowing them to slip fluently in and out of Arabic, English, Russian and Chinese.

Only a fraction of the cargo that passes through Jebel Ali can be inspected, which is why technology and intelligence play such an important part, allowing officers to target high-risk shipments. In many cases, it comes down to reading the body language of importers. "We look first at his hands, his eyes," says Mr Shafie. "If he's moving his eyes from side to side, not looking at you directly, this makes you think that he's doing something strange."

Soon, the efforts of Mr Shafie and his colleagues will be bolstered by additional manpower and technology at Jebel Ali. Dubai Customs hopes to increase its numbers by roughly 25 per cent, said Mr al Marri, and was in the process of purchasing an additional 11 scanners to monitor the port's incoming cargo. "I can assure you and the public," he said, "that we'll always be ahead of the smugglers' intention to harm the country by importing unwanted goods, or transiting unwanted goods through" the UAE.

hnaylor@thenational.ae