Oman hosts the 30th meeting in Muscat for border and coast guard officials in the Gulf Cooperation Council

by Noora Hassan, United Nations

Oman hosted the 30th meeting in Muscat for border and coast guard officials in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in the beginning of September.

During the meeting, the officials discussed areas of joint cooperation with a focus on strengthening relations and exchanging knowledge and insights between border guards and coast guards in the GCC countries. One topic for concern is the drug trafficking between borders and in particular the highly addictive drug, Captagon, which is sweeping the Middle East and in particular the Gulf countries at an alarming rate. Captagon, a synthetic stimulant drug, has been known to the Gulf countries for several years with reports on its use and trafficking being reported as early as the 1900s and has since became associated with the civil war in Syria, during which smugglers and militant groups exploited opportunities to facilitate the distribution of Captagon to the fighters to boast their alertness, strength and, mental endurance on the frontlines. As the Syrian government and its allies regained control over most of the country, the focus shifted to trafficking Captagon beyond Syria’s borders, becoming a lucrative source of income for various conflicting factions within the country.

Syria shares its borders with Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east and southwest, Jordan to the south, and Lebanon and Israel to the southwest. This geographical positioning has made Jordan the preferred transit route to Saudi Arabia, its primary consumer market, and onward to the Gulf countries. Smugglers who moved from Syria into Jordan were often in the presence of armed groups, which often led to violent clashes taking place along the Syrian-Jordanian border. This was one of the reasons that the Jordanian army altered its rules of engagement and introduced the shoot-to-kill policy which had the full support of the government and Jordanian society. It comes as no surprise that in 2022, Iraq witnessed a significant increase both in the frequency and quantity of Captagon interceptions. This rise can be attributed to drug smugglers who have evolved their tactics and repositioned themselves along the Syrian-Iraqi border in response to the shoot-to-kill policy. Iraq’s first Captagon manufacturing facility, equipped for pill production and containing 27.5 kilograms of raw materials, was apprehended in July in the Al Muthanna province. The province is located approximately 300 kilometres south of Baghdad in southwestern Iraq and shares a border with Saudi Arabia. There were also a number of seizes in the same province during August, prompting the province to be locally called ‘the drug capital of Iraq’, which is inevitable given its proximity to neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Last week, Iraq’s National Security Service raided another factory that was being used not only to store Captagon drugs but to produce them, which shows the transition of Iraq from being a transit route to Saudi Arabia to being a major hub with capacities to reach further than Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. Turkey serves as an additional transit route with the capacity to reach the Gulf countries by utilising maritime ports along the Mediterranean for the dispatch and rerouting of shipments to their final markets within the Gulf. Smugglers of late have also utilised Turkish airports to reroute Captagon shipments via air transport. Multiple seizures of these substances have occurred across the Gulf region, prompting Kuwait to identify Turkey as a transit route for such illicit activities. Turkey serves as a pivotal gateway to Europe and beyond. There has been several seizes in Germany, Austria, Greece, Italy and Romania, which shows the ambition of the smugglers to tap into Europe and use it as a transit route, taking advantage of the extensive transportation networks and ports available for the movement of goods. There is limited evidence to suggest that Captagon is used as a recreational drug by consumers in Europe. The shift to Europe may also have been prompted by the changing politics and priorities in the Middle East, as some countries in the region seek to align with pragmatism to collectively secure their borders from Captagon trafficking.

As technology advances, so do the capabilities and tactics of smugglers. The drugs, frequently intercepted at the Gulf country ports, airports and border crossings, are often skilfully concealed. This increase in interception frequency is accompanied by a rise in quantity. The larger quantities are a result of increased trafficking through or manufacturing in Iraq, the growing flow of Captagon into Turkey, and the establishment of production facilities in countries beyond Syria. There is limited available data regarding the prevalence of Captagon use in the Gulf region. However, it is locally recognised as a recreational ‘party drug’ and as a stimulant often consumed by students facing academic pressure in pursuit of improved performance. However, what is noteworthy of late is the growing popularity of Captagon among low-paid migrant workers, especially those in construction. The majority of these workers in the Gulf region come from South Asian countries and use the drug with the ultimate goal of improving their financial situation. Captagon provides them with increased energy, boosting their productivity, enabling them to work longer hours, and often allowing them to take on multiple jobs, sometimes even two or three concurrently. The drug also acts like an anti-depressant. Not having traveled home for many years, enduring long working hours, facing bullying often rooted in nationality, religion, and caste, and experiencing loneliness can lead the drug consumer to experience temporary feelings of euphoria, optimism and a sense of well-being. This elucidates the reason why smugglers are apprehended with a range of qualities, including the highest quality pills featuring the Lexus logo, associated with the luxury vehicle brand. Captagon lacks a standardised formula or regulation, and security officials in the Gulf recognise three prevalent forms of Captagon available in the market. In the Gulf, market prices commence at $3 per pill, reaching a peak of $25, while in Syria, they start at a mere $1. After each border crossing, the pills increase in value, and once they reach their target market, they attain their maximum value. Additionally, after each border crossing, large Captagon shipments typically undergo subdivision into smaller consignments, which are subsequently distributed within the transportation hierarchy, rendering them more challenging to intercept. With most of the Gulf countries engaging in social and development plans, the influx of the Captagon is a worrisome problem for governments and security outlets across the Gulf.

While the Gulf countries cooperate closely, collaborating to identify strategies to combat the Captagon trade and share best practices for strengthening border security, Europe should remain vigilant. A crackdown by the Gulf countries could potentially compel smugglers to seek alternative routes and markets. The United States, the region’s primary security partner, expresses concerns about the regional implications of the situation and is committed to addressing the root of the problem. The primary focus of these efforts centres on Syria and President Bashar Al-Assad. The National Defense Authorisation Act (NDAA) signed into law by President Joe Biden in December 2022 includes a provision mandating that U.S. agencies take targeted actions against the Captagon drug trade in the Middle East. The Captagon Act is the first step in developing a coordinated approach to tackle Captagon trafficking and aims to develop a coordinated strategy between U.S. Federal agencies to “deny, degrade and dismantle…narcotics production and trafficking networks” that are connected to the Syrian government or otherwise linked to the Syrian President.

However, the challenges posed by Captagon extend far beyond Syria. The Captagon problem has primarily been viewed as a Middle Eastern issue by the Middle East and to an extent by Europe and the U.S. All countries, rather than regions, need to thoroughly assess their understanding of the actual threat of Captagon rather than relying on perceived threats. The production of Captagon has already expanded to other countries, including the Netherlands and Greece. The inspection of goods from European countries is going to be significantly less than goods moving from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia. Isolating Syria, imposing sanctions or inviting Syria back into the Arab League with a premise of normalising ties with Damascus in exchange for the regulation of Syrian borders to limit or at least reduce the flow of Captagon to neighbouring countries will not stop the flow of Captagon into the Gulf countries. In fact this is likely to result in the “balloon effect”, wherein heightened security measures in one area, such as along the Syrian borders, prompt a shift in Captagon trafficking to alternative routes or, more likely, regions. Traffickers may relocate their operations to less fortified border areas or resort to alternative transportation methods, including maritime routes and tunnels, to facilitate drug transport.

The Gulf countries, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Syria should diplomatic relations be restored, need to put a high priority on the creation and development of a common action agenda and implementation strategy that addresses the Gulf countries objectives of preventing or at least significantly reducing the smuggling of Captagon across their borders. International organisations like INTERPOL should be integrated into the implementation strategy and provide ongoing training to security officials. This is essential because a single training session cannot comprehensively address the continuously evolving technology and strategies and tactics of the smugglers. There is a need to take a comprehensive approach by not only enhancing border security mechanisms but also addressing the root causes of trafficking to the Gulf, improving international cooperation beyond local efforts, and collectively implementing strategies that target and disrupt the entire network, rather than just focusing on intercepting and seizing Captagon destined for the Gulf.

Security officials of the countries party to the creation and development of a common action agenda and implementation strategy may further benefit from training in applied behavioural science, which plays a crucial role in understanding human behavior and would provide security officials with the necessary skills to apply behavioural insights while adhering to international human rights standards. Behavioural Insights can be valuable to enhance border security measures to help combat the trafficking of Captagon through; understanding smuggling patterns, profiling and detection, risk assessment, intervention strategies, adaptive strategies, behavioural analysis training and awareness and data driven decisions which can inform resource allocation and policy decisions to make border security efforts more effective. The cooperation of the countries would create a coordinated approach and the sharing of the thorough and deep understanding of the behaviours and tactics involved, would allow a targeted and informed intervention, which would play a valuable role in reducing demand, whilst informing policy and enforcement, collectively enhancing border control, disrupting trafficker networks, preventing recruitment, and reducing the flow of Captagon into Gulf countries.