Impact of GCC-Pakistan Free Trade Agreement on Border Control and Drug Smuggling

by Noora Hassan, United Nations

The Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has recently expressed appreciation for the collective endeavors of various stakeholders within the GCC countries and the international community at large in addressing the serious issue of drug trafficking. This illicit activity poses a significant threat to regional security and stability, extending beyond national borders, affecting multiple nations and even continents, and causing detrimental consequences for the progress and development of our societies. The GCC-Pakistan Free Trade Agreement (FTA) adds a new dimension to current practices. On September 28th, the preliminary agreement was formally ratified by the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Jasem Al Budaiwi, and Pakistan’s Minister of Trade, Gohar Ejaz, at the General Secretariat’s headquarters in Riyadh. During the signing ceremony the Secretary General characterised the agreement as a momentous economic pact, marking a significant milestone in cooperation. In a separate statement, the GCC emphasised their commitment to advancing free trade negotiations with other nations, with the aim of fostering trade and economic collaboration for the member states of the Council, both regionally and globally.

Pakistan shares its borders with four countries: China to the northeast, Afghanistan to the west and northwest, Iran to the west, and India to the east. This strategic geographical location positions Pakistan as a natural transit and trade hub on the global stage. This geographical significance is also exploited by those involved in cross-border drug trafficking. While efforts are underway to secure the extensive western borders with Afghanistan and Iran through fencing, many remote and rugged areas remain unguarded. Additionally, Pakistan’s 990-kilometer coastline, spanning from the borders of India in the east to the Middle East and Iran in the west, is still largely unprotected despite regular patrols. This vulnerability is exploited by international drug cartels, who misuse Pakistani territory as a transit route for their illicit drug trade. The drug routes between GCC countries and Pakistan are diverse and adaptable, as drug traffickers continually seek new ways to evade law enforcement authorities. The porous nature of the border regions between Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan provides a conducive environment for drug traffickers to operate. The illegal drug trade is a lucrative enterprise, with significant profits at stake, which incentivises traffickers to continually adapt and exploit weaknesses in border security and law enforcement.

The introduction of a FTA between Pakistan and the GCC countries could potentially increase the flow of drugs into the GCC region. Under the FTA, there would likely be an increase in legal trade and commerce between the parties, which could inadvertently create opportunities for illicit drug smuggling. Increased legal trade activities might serve as a cover for drug traffickers, as they attempt to blend their activities with legitimate cross-border commerce. Furthermore, improved economic ties between Pakistan and the GCC may lead to increased movement of people and goods, potentially providing cover for drug smuggling operations. While the FTA may have numerous economic benefits, it is imperative for all parties involved to implement robust security measures and cooperation to mitigate the risk of an increase in drug trafficking activities.

GCC countries, with their affluent populations, have a significant demand for drugs. The demand creates a lucrative market for drug traffickers. Smugglers are motivated by the high value of drugs in GCC markets, where prices can be significantly higher than in Pakistan. GCC countries are a relatively short distance away from Pakistan, making smuggling operations more feasible. Drug traffickers use a combination of land and sea routes to smuggle drugs from Pakistan to the GCC. These routes may pass through Iran, the Arabian Sea, or other neighboring countries. Organised criminal networks with connections in both Pakistan and GCC countries facilitate the movement of drugs. These networks are adept at navigating the logistics of cross-border smuggling. Corruption among law enforcement agencies and border officials can facilitate drug smuggling operations. Traffickers often pay bribes to facilitate the movement of drugs across borders. Regions near Pakistan’s borders, particularly in Baluchistan, can present security challenges as these areas have limited government control, making them attractive to drug traffickers as routes of least resistance. Some GCC countries collaborate with Pakistani authorities in counter-narcotics efforts. These cooperative efforts aim to intercept drug shipments and dismantle trafficking networks. GCC countries host large expatriate communities from Pakistan and these communities may inadvertently facilitate drug trafficking through personal networks and contacts. GCC countries impose severe penalties for drug-related offenses, including lengthy prison sentences and even the death penalty. Despite these penalties, the allure of high profits drives some individuals to engage in drug trafficking. The geographical proximity, economic incentives, and demand-supply dynamics continue to influence this illicit trade.

There are currently a number of drug routes commonly used. One of the primary overland routes involves transporting drugs from Pakistan through Iran and then into GCC countries. Traffickers often use remote and less-patrolled border areas to cross into Iran. In some cases, traffickers may attempt to move drugs through the land borders of GCC countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman. These attempts are riskier due to stricter border controls. The Arabian Sea provides a maritime route for drug trafficking from Pakistan to GCC nations. Smugglers use boats, dhows, and other vessels to transport narcotics and other drugs. These routes may involve direct shipments to GCC ports or transshipment through other countries in the region. Traffickers sometimes use commercial airlines to transport drugs in concealed compartments or through couriers. GCC countries have stringent airport security, but traffickers attempt to exploit vulnerabilities. Corruption among border officials and law enforcement personnel can enable drug trafficking with traffickers paying bribes to facilitate the passage of drugs across borders. Drug traffickers are adaptable and frequently change their routes and methods to evade authorities and may employ a combination of land, sea, and air routes. It is important to note that efforts to combat drug trafficking are ongoing in both Pakistan and the GCC countries with law enforcement agencies working to intercept drug shipments, dismantle trafficking networks, and prosecute individuals involved in the drug trade. Despite these efforts, the illicit drug trade remains a persistent challenge.

An FTA can have indirect connections to border security measures. The FTA can play a role in helping combat cross-border drug trafficking by enhanced Intelligence Sharing and Law Enforcement Cooperation. An FTA can provide a platform for both Pakistan and GCC countries to strengthen intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation by sharing information on drug trafficking routes, key players involved, and emerging trends. The FTA can facilitate joint law enforcement operations aimed at intercepting drug shipments and apprehending individuals involved in drug trafficking. These operations can benefit from the improved relations and cooperation fostered by the FTA. Furthermore, economic cooperation can lead to investments in border infrastructure, including surveillance systems, checkpoints, and customs facilities. These improvements can enhance the ability to monitor and control the movement of goods and individuals across borders, making it more challenging for drug traffickers to operate. Economic growth and diversification supported by the FTA can help reduce economic vulnerabilities that might drive individuals towards drug trafficking as an illicit source of income. By creating legitimate employment opportunities, the FTA can mitigate the incentives for involvement in the drug trade. Economic benefits derived from increased trade can be invested in strengthening the capacity of border security institutions, including border patrol units, customs, and law enforcement agencies. This includes providing training and resources for personnel involved in counter-narcotics efforts. Economic growth facilitated by the FTA can lead to increased government revenues. Some of these revenues can be directed towards investment in drug rehabilitation and support services for individuals affected by drug addiction. This approach addresses the demand side of the drug trade. The FTA can promote norms of lawfulness and responsible business practices. Businesses operating within the framework of the FTA may be less likely to engage in or tolerate illegal activities, including drug trafficking, which could harm their reputations. While an FTA primarily focuses on economic cooperation, its broader implications can indirectly aid in addressing cross-border drug trafficking by improving cooperation, infrastructure, and security measures. However, it is essential for both parties to actively cooperate and implement specific strategies targeting drug trafficking within the framework of the FTA to maximise its impact on combating this illicit trade. Reduced drug trafficking can contribute to regional stability, which can have broader implications for Pakistan and its neighboring countries. It is important to note that these implications are based on the assumption that the FTA would lead to increased law enforcement cooperation and improved border security measures. The effectiveness of these measures in deterring and disrupting drug smuggling networks would depend on the actual implementation and enforcement of the FTA provisions, as well as the commitment of both Pakistan and GCC countries to combating drug trafficking.

The GCC-CICCD (Criminal Information Centre to Combat Drugs) collaborates with numerous regional and international blocs and organisations, including neighbouring countries, international law enforcement agencies, and organisations like the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Interpol, Europol, Asianpol, Iran and Pakistan for Drug Control (JCP), the Joint Cell of Afghanistan, , the Center for Integration and Law Enforcement for the Safety and Security of the Sea (REFLEXES), the Southeast European Law Enforcement Center (SELEC), the Arab Office for Drug Affairs, the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany (BKA), the Turkish International Academy Against Drugs and Organised Crime (TADOC) the Regional Intelligence Liaison Office (RILO) – Middle East, based in Riyadh, and the International and Ibero-American Foundation for Administration and Public Policies (FIIAPP). These relationships are crucial for sharing intelligence, coordinating efforts, and implementing strategies to curb the flow of illicit drugs, which often cross multiple borders and regions. By working in conjunction with these regional and international entities, the GCC aims to enhance its capabilities in preventing drug trafficking and its associated negative impacts on security and stability. It is of paramount significance that the GCC sustains its collaborative efforts with regional and international alliances and organisations. The establishment of new avenues for cooperation between the GCC and Pakistan in sharing expertise to combat the illegal trafficking of narcotic drugs will signify a significant milestone in their joint efforts, which includes the exchange of intelligence and successful practices in countering the illicit trafficking of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances, and their precursors. Moreover, it plays a pivotal role in bolstering international cooperation and coordination among entities and organisations engaged in this domain, further reinforcing the unified international network.

The link between a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and border security is intricate and multifaceted. FTAs facilitate the movement of goods across borders by reducing trade barriers. This increase in cross-border trade necessitates measures to ensure the security of the supply chain, including screening cargo for illicit items. Border security agencies must cope with higher volumes of goods and people crossing borders, requiring enhanced vigilance. As trade volumes increase under an FTA, there may be unintended consequences, such as an increase in attempts at smuggling and illicit trade. Border security agencies must respond to these challenges by implementing stricter controls and surveillance to combat illegal activities. Enhanced trade facilitated by an FTA may lead to investments in border infrastructure. Improved infrastructure can aid border security efforts by enabling more efficient inspections and surveillance, making it harder for illegal goods to pass through undetected. Enhanced trade and economic cooperation can influence migration patterns, potentially leading to challenges related to human trafficking and illegal immigration. Border security agencies may need to address these issues in addition to their core duties. FTAs often include provisions related to trade-related regulations and enforcement mechanisms. These may affect border security agencies’ ability to enforce trade-related laws and regulations effectively. The need for efficient border security can drive investments in advanced technologies, such as scanning devices and biometric systems which enhance the ability to detect illegal activities and contraband at border crossings.

Balancing the facilitation of legitimate trade under an FTA with the need for robust security measures is a continual challenge. Border security agencies must strike this balance to ensure that trade flows smoothly while maintaining national security. In summary, while FTAs primarily focus on promoting trade and economic cooperation, they can have significant implications for border security. The connection between FTAs and border security underscores the need for comprehensive planning and coordination among government agencies to manage the trade-security nexus effectively. It also highlights the importance of adaptive border security strategies that can respond to changing trade patterns and security threats.