Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest market for Captagon, is grappling with a rising number of consumers, many of whom have become addicted. This social phenomenon starkly contrasts with the kingdom’s still conservative image.

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An estimated 40% of Saudis suffering from drug addiction use Captagon, according to Abdul Ilah al-Sharif, the Secretary General of the National Committee of Narcotics Control (NCNC). This trend is corroborated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC): “[In 2016] people undergoing treatment for amphetamine-type stimulant use constitute […] the highest share of patients treated for drug abuse in the country.” This contrasts with the conservative nature of Saudi society, which upholds norms and values deeply rooted in the Islamic religion. Yet, between 2015 and 2019, more than half of all Captagon seized in the Middle East was in Saudi Arabia, according to the UNODC.

“Captagon is small. My classmates and I like it more than hashish. […] We can easily buy tablets. […] Older people have social status and families. They can lose everything if they take amphetamines. But young people don’t have that fear,” revealed a Saudi student interviewed for a comprehensive study on drug use in Saudi Arabia.

According to the NCNC, the majority of drug users are aged between 12 and 22 years old, and government data shows that a significant 15% of the Saudi population falls between the ages of 15 and 24. Such statistics underscore the alarming prevalence of users and the consequential high rates of addiction within the population.

This presents a lucrative opportunity for traffickers, who exploit the situation. It is worth noting that a significant number of individuals turn to the illicit trade driven by financial motives, as the country grapples with profound economic inequalities. Alarming statistics recently released by Saudi’s General Authority for Statistics underscore the severity of the situation. In the first quarter of 2021 alone, the unemployment rate among the working population skyrocketed to an astonishing 11.7%.

Faced with such circumstances, many people opt to engage in the illicit trade despite the constant specter of the death penalty, as a means of making a livelihood. However, as one young Saudi explains, “The wasta (personal connections) plays an important role in Saudi society, with Saudi traffickers and dealers regularly using it to avoid sanctions. If you look at the media, you will see that most executed dealers and traffickers are foreigners [who do not have such connections, editor’s note].”

The West and conservatism are both blamed

In an article, Saudi researchers point to the growing influence of the West when it comes to drug use in the kingdom. They point the finger at a “youth connected, through the Internet, to Western cultures, which promote drug use and magnify its pleasurable effects.” This cultural divide creates a rift between young individuals and their more traditional parents, providing fertile ground for societal issues such as substance abuse. Furthermore, the authors condemn the easing of certain social restrictions, such as the opening of cinemas and the organization of concerts, which, they argue, is responsible for eroding the adherence of Saudi youth to religious values.

However, for other researchers, the prevalence of Captagon use is rooted in the lack of entertainment options within the country’s deeply conservative landscape. “Saudi life seems boring to the youth who are restricted by Sharia Law to its many specific behavioral codes, as the Sharia prohibits alcohol, smoking, music and dancing, among other things. Consequently, some deviant behaviors such as drug use are developed to kill boredom and seek fun or sensation.” Remarkably, these researchers view the easing of societal restrictions not as a catalyst for drug use, but rather as a potential solution to curb drug dependency. They assert that addressing the lack of entertainment opportunities could play a vital role in mitigating the allure of substances like Captagon among Saudi youth. More importantly, they underscore that this issue predates the implementation of recent social reforms.

The impact of stress arising from studies, work, discrimination or marriage is also recognized as a pivotal factor driving drug consumption. A study published in the Saudi Medical Journal in 2015 and conducted on nearly 1,000 inhabitants of Riyadh, revealed that 68.2% of participants frequently feel stressed and nervous. Not only do these findings underline the profound societal pressures but also emphasize the intricate relationship between these factors and the prevalence of drug use. Compounding the issue, the lack of clarity within Islam regarding the use of drugs, adds another layer of complexity to the situation.

In response to the crisis, Riyadh has been actively employing diplomatic measures to mitigate its symptoms. A significant development occurred in April 2021 when the Kingdom announced a comprehensive embargo on Lebanese agricultural products. This decision followed the startling discovery of more than 5.3 million Captagon tablets concealed within fruits originating from Lebanon.