Saudi Arabia's produce ban sends Lebanon a political message

Saudi Arabia's produce ban sends Lebanon a political message
5 min read
05 May, 2021
In-depth: Saudi Arabia's decision to ban Lebanese produce comes as the country is experiencing the worst economic crisis in its modern history.
The ban has been viewed as collective punishment at a time of economic crisis. [Getty]
In another hit to Lebanon's agricultural sector amid the country's economic crisis, Saudi Arabia announced in late April that it would ban the import of fruit and vegetables after authorities seized more than 5.3 million Captagon pills that were hidden in a pomegranate consignment.

In the past six years, Saudi authorities say they have seized 600 million pills and hundreds of kilograms of Captagon coming from Lebanon. 

"The quantities that were thwarted are enough to drown the entire Arab world, not just Saudi Arabia, in narcotics and psychotropic substances," Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid Bukhari tweeted

The ban was communicated to the Lebanese foreign ministry through the Saudi embassy, and the foreign minister relayed it to top officials.

Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have all backed the ban, which went into effect on Sunday, 25 April.

During a tour along the Lebanon-Syria border, the outgoing interior minister Mohamed Fehmi said that Lebanese authorities had arrested two brothers suspected of smuggling the drugs.

Fehmi told local MTV television station that Interpol is also looking for a third suspect. He did not provide any additional information and only stated that the case is still being investigated. 

  In another hit to Lebanon's agricultural sector amid the country's economic crisis, Saudi Arabia announced in late April that it would ban the import of fruit and vegetables  

A politically motivated message 

The political fate of Lebanon has been up for grabs since the end of the civil war, with Saudi Arabia, Iran, France, the US, and Syria, trying to shape affairs.

"The main protagonist has long been KSA which has wielded influence through financial patronage," Bachar El Halabi, geopolitical analyst at Clipper Data, told The New Arab.

"Enforcing this ban signals a new Saudi policy towards Lebanon, which Riyadh sees to have fully come under Iran's influence, and it strongly echoes that Saudi wants to end the transactional relationship it has with Lebanon."

 
Read more: In Lebanon, even vaccine distribution can't
escape political bribery
 

Halabi explained that the ban is collective punishment hitting Lebanon where it hurts most, sending a strong politically motivated message that adds pressure on the Iran-backed Hezbollah group and its ally, the Lebanese president.

It also further complicates Hariri's attempts at forming his fourth government, given his relations with Riyadh haven't seen any significant improvement since November 2017, when he was held in Saudi Arabia and forced to resign

In its latest move, Riyadh has brought the issue of Hezbollah's smuggling of drugs and goods across Lebanese borders to the forefront. In addition to last month's historic Captagon seizure, customs officials in several countries, often US allies, confiscated multiple shipments of Captagon in 2019, with Hezbollah operatives identified among the suspects.

"Today, the kingdom is putting more pressure on Lebanese political and security leaders to seriously act upon and counter this endemic issue. It is no secret that they will fail to achieve anything beyond the high level and the symbolic, but the message is loud and clear: for the Gulf, Hezbollah remains the number one priority," wrote Christophe Abi-Nassif, program director at the Middle East Institute.

  Enforcing this ban signals a new Saudi policy towards Lebanon, which Riyadh sees to have fully come under Iran's influence  

Critical timing 

Saudi Arabia's ban comes as Lebanon is experiencing the worst economic crisis in its modern history. 

Economic turmoil, the result of years of corruption and mismanagement, has squeezed the Lebanese, pushing 55% of the country's five million people into poverty and forcing businesses to close their doors. Inflation triggered a 400 percent price hike on food items in just one year, and the consumer price index jumped 158 percent between March 2020 and March 2021.

According to Ibrahim Tarchichi, head of the Bekaa Farmers Association, farmers and the agricultural sector face a "major catastrophe." The eastern Bekaa Valley is home to much of Lebanon's agricultural production.

 
Read more: How Lebanon's supermarkets became a
frontline in the fight to survive the economic crisis
 

Antoine Howayek, head of the Lebanese Farmers Association, reported that the Gulf countries imposing the ban make up to 55 percent of Lebanon's fruit and vegetable export market.

Fruit and vegetable exports to Saudi Arabia are worth up to $24 million per year, according to caretaker Agriculture Minister Abbas Mortada. Thus, the Farmers Union of Lebanon has also urged the kingdom to reverse its decision. It stated that one person's or a criminal gang's mistake should not be used to punish the Lebanese people.

Captagon use and trade in the Middle East 

According to the French Observatory for Drugs and Drug Addiction (OFDT,) Captagon is an amphetamine manufactured in Lebanon and probably in Syria and Iraq, mainly for Saudi Arabia. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) states that the three countries reporting the highest Captagon seizures are Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria. 

In October 2016, Lebanese authorities arrested a Saudi prince in possession of nearly two tons of Captagon pills, which he planned to transport from Beirut to Riyadh on his private plane. This occurred one month before Turkish authorities announced the discovery and seizure of 11 million Captagon pills near the Syrian border in the eastern Hatay region.

Tala Ramadan is a journalist and activist who focuses on scientific, social, humanitarian, and educational issues.

Follow her on Twitter: @TalaRamadan