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Tracking drugs in the MENA: proposing a new analytical lens

Article by Dr Lucia Ardovini

December 20, 2019

Tracking drugs in the MENA: proposing a new analytical lens

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is at the centre of numerous investigations, which see international actors and policy makers tracking conflicts, resources and shifting alliances. Security and economic concerns generally identify territorial disputes, sectarian tensions, radicalisation and proxies as the key matters that explain general insecurity and authoritarianism in the region. However, there is a largely ignored matter that brings together all of these issues: drugs. Their production, usage, smuggling and criminalisation come with significant geopolitical concerns, and directly relates to state-society relations, porous borders, militias and dark economies. Yet, when it comes to the MENA region, this is still a remarkably unexplored topic. During the last decade, and especially following the worsening of the heroin epidemic in the United States (US), the Western-led ‘war on drugs’ has made a return to public and policy debates. There is a growing body of literature that focuses on a wide variety of drug-related challenges, ranging from their societal implications, the racial connotations of the war on drugs, Latin American cartels and smuggling channels. However, almost none of this research focuses on the MENA, or goes beyond identifying Afghanistan as a major opium producer and Turkey as a main harbour for transportation. This is surprising, especially given the growing European demands for cannabis and opiates. So far, the only region-wide study of drugs in the region is Philip Robins’ Middle East Drug Bazaar,[1] which lays the basis for a more complete geopolitical understanding of their consumption and trade.


Therefore, this brief aims at taking a step towards filling this gap, proposing that drugs – and the multifaceted dynamics surrounding them – can indeed be used as an analytical lens to gain original insights into state-society relations, militias, non-state actors, and transnational dynamics.


Setting the Context

Drug usage, production and transportation has significant geopolitical, societal, security and policy ramifications. While there is extensive scholarship on Latin America and on the effects that drugs have on European Union (EU) countries and Western societies, the issues and dynamics they cause in the MENA is still remarkably under-researched. Yet, it is no secret that the region is a major source, transit point and consumer of illicit substances, which both influences and is negatively affected by drug abuse and production.[2] This is somewhat ironic, as Arab states also flaunt some of the harshest penalties for drug-related crimes globally, and have often openly allied with the US-led ‘war on drugs’. To put things into perspective, Saudi Arabia and Iran alone executed 1,218 people for drug-related crimes between 2014 and 2016, while all of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have capital punishment for drug-related offences and Egypt has recently announced the introduction of the death penalty for drug dealers.[3]


Nevertheless, as a report by the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) notes, these trends are unlikely to shift anytime soon, because of the absence of alternative livelihoods for producers and the continuously escalating demand for illegal substances. Therefore, the insecurity and societal implications linked to the drugs ‘complex’ offer an innovative lens to look at the state of intra-states and state-society relations in the region, as drug trafficking and consumption have a mutually defining relationship with fragile areas and non-state actors.


Yet, despite the absence of focused research on these matters, it would be unfair to say that the importance of drug related issues in the MENA region is totally absent from the international radar.


Heroin trade is indeed understood as one key reason behind the US and UK ‘failure’ in Afghanistan, where opium has been the leading response to the devastation left behind by two decades of destructive warfare.[4] The heritage of geopolitical instability left behind by foreign intervention in the country has in fact allowed militia and non-state groups to thrive, building a parallel dark economy and essentially taking over the role of state institutions. Lebanon, and particularly Hizballah, have long been suspected of trafficking billions worth of drugs from Iran into the region and Europe, as a recently leaked CIA report reveals.[5] Meanwhile, drugs implication in Iran go beyond production and trade and have long constituted a growing societal concern, which is exponentially growing into an HIV crisis.[6] In Egypt drug abuse is double the international standards, with some 10.4 per cent of Egyptians using illicit drugs, a phenomenon that has steadily escalated in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings and the growing authoritarianism it has left behind.[7]


Moreover, the recently released Arab Youth Survey 2019 devoted a whole section on drug use, for the first time, and found that the phenomenon is growing exponentially across the region. In particular, the survey reports that 76 per cent of youth in the Levant (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories) agree that drug use is on the rise, followed by the 59 per cent in North Africa and 36 per cent in the GCC states.[8]



There are several reasons for the recent rise in consumption, and the region’s protracted instability is arguably the leading one. The destabilisation of decades old regimes, coupled with state failure and the escalation of proxy conflicts across the MENA, makes it considerably harder for governmental and armed forces to police drug production and distribution. In the case of Lebanon, while the country has always been at the centre of smuggling routes from the Af-Pak region through to Europe and neighbouring countries, it has also become a major producer of cannabis and opium in the aftermath of the civil war, with militia groups taking advantage of the unpatrolled porous borders with Syria.[9]


Societal Implications

As pointed out above, there are obvious advantages in using drug-related activities as an analytical lens. Doing so would offer a fresh perspective on porous borders, corruption and on the ever-evolving role of militias and non-state actors across the region. However, even more importantly, there is a lot that such an approach can tell us about state-society relations in the region. This is the case as there are clear class and racial connotations inherently linked to drug production and usage, which certain communities and societal groups being more discriminated against than others. In a region plagued by the remnants of sectarianisms and struggling to cope with almost 11 million of internally displaced people,[10] these nuances become incredibly significant.


While the recreational use of hashish seems to cut pretty consistently across all societal groups, party-goers and middle class citizens are known to routinely enjoy coke and ecstasy. This is particularly evident in any of Beirut’s clubs, with the city living up to its reputation as the Middle East’s ‘party city’, but is a widespread phenomenon across the region. On the other side, cheap opioids and methamphetamines are becoming increasingly common within the lower and working classes, as well as in refugee camps. Captagon, a lower-grade methamphetamine, is reported to have been used by fighters in Syria to enhance alertness and is referred to as ‘chemical courage’.


In Iraq, a country not usually associated to drug-related issues, crystal meth has increasingly afflicted thousands of users in the aftermath of the 2003 American invasion. Such a sudden escalation is a clear manifestation of the fragmentation of the social order that has plagued Iraq over the past few decades. Basra and Baghdad are the two most affected cities, with a recent investigation by the New York Times reporting that only in 2019 approximately 1,400 people were convicted on drug-related offences in Basra alone.[11]


This phenomenon is exacerbated by state’s failure to care for their citizens, especially in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings. Rising rates of unemployment, regional instability and the growth of authoritarian measures are all disintegrating the already fragile state-society relation at the core of many regimes. In such a context, alienation and the lack of opportunities are directly linked to escalating rates of drug abuse, which also assume a further sectarian connotation in refugee camps across the MENA.  Even more importantly, the money flow generated by drug production and trafficking has grown into a parallel dark economy that is directly linked to corruption and ruling elites, which makes this phenomenon even harder to eradicate.



Therefore, it is evident that including drugs into the analysis of rising insecurities in the MENA region would offer a fresh analytical perspective into national as well as regional dynamics. This is not an easy task, as to do so would require a significant qualitative shift away from long established ‘lenses’ such as sectarianism, proxy conflicts and radicalisation. Nevertheless, drug-relates issues arguably cut intersectionally across societal, security and geopolitical matters, making their inclusion in the analytical framework incredibly valuable.


From the socio-political perspective, the recorded rates of growing drug consumption across the region during the past decade reveal that alienation, discontent and structural inequalities remain a feature of several Arab states. As corruption, authoritarianism and the gap between the general population and ruling elites continues to grow, several Arab states are being confronted with a drug-related societal crisis that they are unequipped to deal with. To put things into perspective, there are only 22 rehab facilities in Egypt, most of which are private and therefore inaccessible to those who need them the most.[12] Iraq, where the abuse of crystal meth is now a recognised as a crisis by international institutions such as the World Health Organisation, still lacks specialised rehabilitation centres and and suffers from a severe shortage of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.[13] This state of affairs is widespread across the region, with states relying on an unequipped criminal justice system to deal with this phenomenon, furthering social stratification and inequalities.


Economically, drug production and trafficking have come to constitute a parallel dark economy across the MENA, enriching both local and ruling elites, as well as constituting the only source of livelihood for a growing part of the population. As this phenomenon become more entrenched, its transformation into a structural issue will make it significantly harder to eradicate.


To conclude, carefully tracking drug production and smuggling would also offer new insights into the role of militias and non-state actors, enriching our understanding of the developing geopolitical dynamics across the region. Therefore, in the wake of renewed popular uprisings and instability in MENA, drugs and its related issues should be integrated into analytical and policy discussions.


[1] Robins, Philip. 2016. Middle East Drugs Bazaar: Production, Prevention and Consumption. London: Hurst Publishers.

[2] Georgios Barzoukas, Drug trafficking in the MENA: The economics and the politics, EUISS Brief Issue 29, 2017,

[3] Middle East Monitor, Substance abuse in Egypt double international levels, April 2019,

[4] Alfred W McCoy, How the heroin trade explains the US-UK failure in Afghanistan, The Guardian, January 2018,

[5] Josh Meyer, The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook, Politico, 2017,

[6] John Calabrese, Iran’s War on Drugs: Holding the Line?, MEI, December 2017,

[7] Ibid. 3

[8] Sunniva Rose, Arab Youth Survey 2019: Drug use rising in Middle East party capital Lebanon, The National UAE, April 2019,

[9] This happens especially in the Bekaa region, a fertile agricultural valley bordering Syria.

[10] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 11 million people displaced within their countries across Middle East and North Africa [EN/AR], Relief Web, May 2019,

[11] Alissa J. Rubin, Iraq Faces a New Adversary: Crystal Meth, New York Times, September 2019,

[12] Ibid. 3

[13] The New Arab, Basra: The epicentre of Iraq’s drug problem, January 2018,

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