News / Middle East

    Captagon: 'Breaking Bad' in Saudi Arabia

    FILE - Secondary school students sit for an exam in Riyadh, Feb. 7, 2009. Media reports suggest students use Captagon to stay alert during exams.
    FILE - Secondary school students sit for an exam in Riyadh, Feb. 7, 2009. Media reports suggest students use Captagon to stay alert during exams.
    Cecily Hilleary

    When authorities at Beirut’s international airport confiscated two tons of the amphetamine Captagon on board a private jet belonging to a Saudi prince last week, it focused attention on an issue rarely discussed: drug abuse in Saudi Arabia.

    Captagon, the brand name for the synthetic stimulant fenethylline, was developed in the 1960s to treat hyperactivity and narcolepsy. It was banned in the 1980s because of its potential for abuse, but a knock-off version continues to be illegally manufactured in small-scale labs in Lebanon, Turkey and especially Syria.

    “Syria is a tremendous problem in that it’s a collapsed security sector, because of its porous borders, because of the presence of so many criminal elements and organized networks,” said the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) regional representative, Masood Karimipour. “There’s a great deal of trafficking being done of all sorts of illicit goods — guns, drugs, money, people. But what is being manufactured there and who is doing the manufacturing, that’s not something we have visibility into from a distance.”

    A masked, black-clad militant, who has been identified by the Washington Post newspaper as a Briton named Mohammed Emwazi, brandishes a knife in this still image from a 2014 video obtained from SITE Intel Group, Feb. 26, 2015. Some analysts believe that Captagon abuse may account for Emwazi's violent behavior.
    A masked, black-clad militant, who has been identified by the Washington Post newspaper as a Briton named Mohammed Emwazi, brandishes a knife in this still image from a 2014 video obtained from SITE Intel Group, Feb. 26, 2015. Some analysts believe that Captagon abuse may account for Emwazi's violent behavior.

    ​Western media have made numerous attempts to link the drug to Syria's militants, in particular the Islamic State group, whose fighters reportedly use it to increase their strength and prowess in battle.

    But the real market for the drug is Saudi Arabia, which consumes more Captagon than any other country and, according to the UNODC, accounts for a third of all global amphetamine seizures.

    In 2011, the last year for which figures were available, the Saudi kingdom seized a whopping 11 tons of amphetamines, predominantly Captagon, up from nine tons in 2010. Captagon has been found hidden inside machine parts, stuffed into fruits and vegetables and even delivered via parcel post from outside the kingdom.

    The penalty for drug trafficking — at least for foreigners and nonroyals — is death by hanging or by decapitation. The Saudi government encourages informants by rewarding them half the cash value of whatever drug is seized; the remaining cash value is divided among the officers arresting the drug dealer.

    Havocscope, a website that tracks data on international black marketeering, estimates drug trafficking to be a $6.1 billion business in the kingdom.

    ‘Veneer of respectability’

    U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) special agent Joseph Moses had never heard of Captagon until he was sent on assignment to Istanbul in the late 1990s.

    “When I asked what Captagon was used for, I was told it was for the euphoric effects, similar to amphetamine, and, second, that it was also used for its Viagra-like effect on the libido,” Moses said.

    Many users are young men, according to Justin Thomas, an assistant professor of psychology and psychotherapy at the UAE’s Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States. Research shows that some users are as young as 12. Media reports suggest students use Captagon to stay alert during exams or to wake up early after late-night socializing.

    “There are known cases of women using it for weight loss, too, but how widespread that is, is anyone’s guess,” Thomas said.

    Calorie-rich diets, a sedentary lifestyle and a prohibition against outdoor sports contribute to the fact that more than 44 percent of Saudi women are clinically obese.

    But the fundamental problem may be boredom. “There are no cinemas, a paucity of athletic fields and courts, and virtually no student-led campus life with activities such as clubs, sports or newspapers,” writes Wilson Center scholar and author Caryle Murphy.

    Strict gender segregation and high youth unemployment — about 30 percent — make youth more susceptible to frustration and depression, says Murphy.

    A Bulgarian customs officer displays Captagon pills confiscated in Sofia, Dec. 12, 2007.
    A Bulgarian customs officer displays Captagon pills confiscated in Sofia, Dec. 12, 2007.

     

    Part of Captagon’s appeal in Saudi Arabia, where the religious taboo against drug use is strong, may lie in its innocuous appearance: It is a small, scored white tablet that resembles any over-the-counter drug.

    “My theory is that Captagon still retains the veneer of medical respectability,” said Thomas. “It may not be viewed as a drug or narcotic because it is not associated with smoking or injecting.”

    Increased awareness

    “Drug and substance abuse in Saudi Arabia used to be taboo subjects for many years, but that is no longer the case,” said Saudi political analyst Fahad Nazer. “The media tackles it on a regular basis, and the government has launched public awareness campaigns on several occasions. There is a realization that Saudi youths are not less susceptible to the lure of drugs than their peers elsewhere.”

    The government, he explained, may take a harsh approach to smugglers and dealers, but is far more lenient with drug users.

    “The latter are mostly seen as victims who are in need of treatment and counseling, rather than criminals who deserve punishment,” Nazer said.

    The government sponsors drug rehabilitation centers in four cities: Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam and Qassim. Because of the stigma surrounding addiction, there are no accurate figures for the number of addicts being treated, other than what can be gleaned from occasional newspaper reports.

    The center at Jeddah recently reported it takes in four to nine new patients a day, mostly men, and reports suggest as many as 40,000 to 50,000 Saudis go through drug treatment annually. But that doesn’t include those who, fearing exposure, go to addiction treatment centers in Europe or Asia, where along with detox, they can enjoy massages, saunas and five-star accommodations.

    You May Like

    Video For Many US Veterans, the Vietnam War Continues

    More than 40 years after it ended, war in Vietnam and America’s role in it continue to provoke bitter debate, especially among those who fought in it

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    100 immigrants graduated Friday as US citizens in New York, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in cities across country

    Family's Fight Pays Off With Arlington Cemetery Burial Rights for WASPs

    Policy that allowed the Women Airforce Service Pilots veterans to receive burial rites at Arlington had been revoked in 2015

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora