Illegal drug trafficking is a global industry worth US$ 400 billion. The United Arab Emirates, by virtue of its position as a cultural and geographical gateway between the East and West, is not excluded from this extensive black market.
Two major drug busts in Umm Al Quwain and Dubai in the past six months have uncovered warehouse-size factories which were dedicated to the manufacture of illegal narcotics.
The raids served to reflect the two extreme poles in the UAE’s effort to stem the flow of drugs through and into the country. On the one hand, the success of the elaborate undercover police operations served to highlight the capability and determination of investigators to unearth and apprehend highly organised criminals.
Conversely, it illustrated that the UAE was being targeted by equally determined organised crime syndicates with access to the kind of capital and personnel necessary to produce and move large scale quantities of prohibited substances.
The UAE’s accessibility by sea, air and land is a serendipitous blessing for the country’s economy. But the downside of this otherwise fortunate geography is the ease with which drug barons can shift their illegal wares.
Police acknowledge that drugs pass through the Middle East, including the Emirates, from sources in South East Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan on their way to meeting the high demand of users in Europe and North America.
The actual market for hard and soft drugs in the UAE is very low by international standards. The drug consignments which reach the UAE are invariably part of a re-export operation co-ordinated by middle men willing to risk severe penalties under UAE federal law.
Recognised regionally as the leading combatant of organised crime, the UAE works closely with the United Nations, Interpol and other federal agencies to thwart the international drug traffickers as well as individual smugglers.
According to Dubai Police Director of Research and Studies, Dr Mohammed Murad Abdulla, the drug dealers will continually try to counter the government’s state-of-the-art surveillance techniques and ever-increasing manpower directed at drug detection.
“The Dubai International Airport has one of the most excellent systems in the world in place to weed out the drug smugglers and this advanced equipment is always being updated,” said Dr Abdullah.
The most voluminous avenue of drug trafficking in the UAE is believed, however, to be through the ports where large quantities of foreign goods are imported every day.
“The airport is where we catch mainly small time dealers and people carrying drugs for personal use. People know it is not easy to move large quantities of drugs through the airports without eluding detection,” explained Dr Abdullah.
“The ports are policed by inspectors and we have specially-trained sniffer dogs to help uncover goods smuggled through the ports. It is not easy to check all cargo but we are always training our officers and improving our resources to ensure the UAE is one of the toughest places for drug dealers to ply their trade,” he said.
Highlighting the effectiveness of the police crackdown on drug dealing is the fact that heroin and hashish with a street value of over Dhs 10 million was seized in the past eight months.
These hauls combined amounted to a total of 810 kilograms of various drugs and resulted in the arrest of 27 drug dealers.
Recent drug busts throughout the Emirates have been spectacular in their scale and have underlined the importance the President His Highness Sheikh Zayed has placed on thwarting what has been described as a “threat to national security”.
In January, Sharjah Police seized 600 kg of hashish which had been smuggled into the country in mandarin crates for re-export to a neighbouring country.
In this case, the two Pakistani culprits were arrested following a tip-off from anti-narcotics officers with the Sharjah Coast Guard. The two had stored the drugs in a warehouse in the industrial area while searching for a third party to help them with arrangements in the neighbouring country of sale.
Echoing the sentiments of Dr Abdullah in Dubai, Director of Anti-Narcotics Section of the Sharjah Police, Maj. Ali Al Fardan, agreed the UAE was a transit point for many drug trafficking activities. “It is impossible for any anti-narcotic agency to check all goods and consignments coming into a country but the volume of drug trafficking through the UAE is minimal compared to other countries,” he said.
“The local anti-narcotic bodies rely on informants, tip-offs and suspicious behaviour in investigating and following-up drug cases, and the drug enforcement teams are put on full alert at all times,” Al Fardan pointed out.
It was such a tip-off from an astute member of the public in the northern Emirates which alerted Dubai authorities to a warehouse containing 700 kg of hashish. The ill-fated cargo had been transported by ship using the same container in two separate journeys. A covert police operation intercepted the three drug-dealing Pakistanis on the second leg of their illegal jaunt.
No particular nationality has a monopoly on the importation of prohibited substances into the UAE. Pakistanis, Omanis, Canadians and UAE nationals have all been sentenced to death in recent times for their part in drug dealing scams.
However, the spate of large-scale busts involving Pakistanis recently elevated the problem beyond the streets and ports and into the diplomatic arena. Dubai Police Chief, Maj Gen Dhahi Khalfan was prompted to suggest immigration and visa rules could be tightened if Pakistan failed to clamp down on drug smuggling.
“Imported Pakistani goods will be directed to a special port where every speck will be looked into before the goods enter Dubai. A new national work plan will give us more control on all the ports, especially the smaller ones where all the huge drug cases come from,” Dhahi said.
“We do not want to have a political crisis with another country or blame good Pakistan nationals for what some criminals do,” he said. “But their country should co-operate to put an end to using Dubai as a transit point for drugs.”
The singling out of Pakistan as a major source of the UAE’s problems in the fight against drugs prompted an immediate rebuttal from the Pakistan Government.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Press secretary Siddique Ul Farooque said drug trafficking was an “international phenomena, irrespective of colour, creed, language or nationality” and added that his country supported the death penalty for smugglers.
He said Pakistan was being singled out as a conduit by the drug mafia but pointed out that the country had acted to significantly reduce the poppy production used to make heroin and opium.
The International Narcotics Control Board reported that the 1980s level of 800 tonnes of poppy production in Pakistan had been cut to 45 tonnes in recent years.
While the market for drugs within the UAE is relatively low, it is inexplicably linked with the poppy fields which dot the Asian Subcontinent and Far East.
“Among locals, heroin is the most dangerous because of its addictive nature and the fact it is easier to smuggle than other drugs. It is also lucrative for criminals because it can fetch a street price of 500 dirhams per gram. But other drugs are also the subject of public awareness campaigns and are treated equally harshly in the courts,” said Dr Abdulla.
A combination of social, economic and legal factors contribute to the moderate penetration of hard and soft drugs into the local population. No-one knows the precise extent of the local drug problem because of the “dark number of unknown users” although the number of arrests, street prices and anecdotal evidence suggests it is lower than most countries. “The economic circumstances in Dubai mean there is not the underclass of people who are usually susceptible to the sales pitch of the drug pusher,” said Dr Abdullah.
Although there is a vast salary gulf between skilled and unskilled workers in the UAE, the overwhelming majority of expatriates are here because of their increased earning potential.
As incongruous as it may seem, the increased disposable income does not translate into extra expenditure on drugs. Without a disenchanted underclass looking for an escape from the cycle of poverty, the sales pitch of the drug pusher lacks much of its allure.
For those who do fall into the clutches of drug addiction, the system does offer a merciful service to those willing to try and kick the habit.
A unique immunity from prosecution is extended to any drug user willing to turn themselves in to police and seek rehabilitation. There are several clinics throughout Dubai were the addicts can be offered the latest in medical treatment as they strive towards recovery.
The UAE courts do not discriminate between heroin or hashish. Both carry minimum sentences of four years for possession and usage. Drug dealing is punishable by death.
In justification of the guaranteed death sentence Chief Justice of the Dubai Criminal Court, Counsellor Anwar Al Jaberi, was reported as saying, “The philosophy of the legislator is to fight the crime of committing suicide by drugs and the drug dealers are the source of this danger.”
Among the Western expatriate community, those who might be tempted to indulge in drug consumption in their home country are deterred by the prospect of long jail terms handed down to anyone in possession of, or proven to have used, drugs. Ignorance has proven to be the biggest threat to many expatriates who come from countries with a liberal, often tolerant, attitude towards soft drugs such as hashish and cannabis.
Unbeknownst to most, the use of drugs while overseas can result in a jail term in the Emirates.
Few realise that Federal Law No. 14 allows for the four year sentences to be applied to anyone whose urine sample tests positive to drug use. Dubai and Sharjah prisons are presently home to several Australian, American, British and Canadian recreational drug users who used drugs on overseas holidays. They subsequently tested positive to drugs after motor vehicle accidents or other police investigations.
One Western Consul-General said the law was strict but it was the responsibility of all residents to be alert to the rules as ignorance did not provide a legal defence.
Dr Abdullah supported the principle which treated all drugs and drug abusers under the same sentencing umbrella.
“There is no difference because once you use drugs you need three years rehabilitation to be cured. Soft drugs lead to the inevitable use of hard drugs so it is best to treat them with the same severity,” he said. It is this “inevitable progression” which is at the centre of much of the Dubai Police’s effective educational programme.
Posters adorning the walls of the Department of Preventive Medicine made by young children bear testimony to the fact the message is getting through.
In the past, officials could attribute the local drug problem to a lack of awareness among youngsters who were easy prey to peer group pressure and predatory drug pushers. Today specially trained officers regularly visit boys’ and girls’ schools preaching the importance of “Just Saying No”.
The logo was borrowed from a proven campaign used in Los Angeles in the United States after Dubai Police research revealed 80 per cent of first time users used again.
The media is also enlisted by the police in the fight against drug addiction. More often pilloried for glorifying violence and decadence, the media has instead become an agent abetting the spread of the government’s anti-drug message.
A spokesperson from the Ministry of Information’s Mass Media Censorship Office said drug use was treated in the same way as sex by censors.
“We edit out scenes which depict illegal drug use and if it is the underlying theme of a film it will not be released in the country,” the spokesperson said.
“It is against Islamic principles to glorify these things. It is often a fine line between actually making people aware of the dangers or just alerting them to a practice they would not have previously considered.” The constant screening of images generated by the multi-million dollar film and publishing industries is just one part of the UAE’s concerted effort to protect the country and its citizens. With the added endeavour put into detecting and apprehending, educating and rehabilitating, the UAE government is leading the fight in ensuring the Emirates contribute little to the US$ 400 billion global black market.