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Saudi ban on Lebanese produce a strong warning about lawlessness

A ban that went into effect April 25 will leave Saudi markets without Lebanese fruits and vegetables. Photo by Haitham Alfalah/Wikimedia Commons
A ban that went into effect April 25 will leave Saudi markets without Lebanese fruits and vegetables. Photo by Haitham Alfalah/Wikimedia Commons

BEIRUIT, Lebanon, April 30 (UPI) -- A Saudi decision to ban Lebanese produce over an increase in drug smuggling was a strong warning against the country's rising lawlessness, but also a message linked to Iran's recent direct talks with the oil-rich kingdom and the role of its militias in the region, according to diplomats and experts.

The ban, which went into effect April 25, came two days after Saudi customs authorities said it has seized 5.3 million amphetamine pills, known as Captagon, hidden in a shipment of pomegranates coming from Lebanon.

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The move, which further strained already deteriorating relations between the two countries, prompted Lebanon to quickly investigate the matter and disclose that the shipment originated from Syria and was shipped to Saudi Arabia with falsified documents.

It also arrested two people, Syrian brothers, in connection with storing the shipment in eastern Lebanon, and promised tough measures to prevent drug trafficking.

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It wasn't the first such drug smuggling targeting the oil-rich kingdom. According to the Saudi ambassador in Beirut, Waleed Bukhari, more than 57.1 million drug pills were seized hidden in fruit and vegetable shipments from Lebanon to Jeddah port since 2020.

Bukhari's warning that the kingdom's security "is a red line" further demonstrates how much Riyadh is fed up with Lebanon's rising lawlessness and Hezbollah's growing control of the country and expanding role in the region, observers said.

"Drug smuggling has been going on for years, so why is it different this time?" Riad Tabbarah, Lebanon's former ambassador in Washington, told UPI.

"I think it [the ban] was a message to Hezbollah that the game is over and the Saudis will not be lenient anymore. ... It is also linked to the [direct Saudi-Iran] negotiations, by putting the issue of Iran's allied militias on the table and say looks what is happening."

Although no group was accused of being behind the Captagon shipment, suspicion arose over a role by the powerful Hezbollah, which controls areas on the Lebanon's eastern border with Syria, and was linked to recent drug cases in the Middle East and Europe.

Hezbollah repeatedly has denied any involvement with illicit drugs.

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Tabbarah explained that the Iranian-Saudi direct talks, which first were disclosed by the Financial Times earlier this month, were part of Iran's nuclear deal negotiations that began in Vienna on April 6 and were to include Iran's ballistic missiles, its role in the Middle East region and its proxy militias.

"For the Saudis, the main clause is the one related to the militias, meaning the Houthis [in Yemen] and Hezbollah [in Lebanon]," he said.

Tabbarah ruled out that the Saudi ban, which deprives Lebanon of an important source of hard currency while facing a deep financial crisis, was meant to "tighten the noose or further strangle" Lebanon's ailing economy.

"They have other means to do that, such as deporting [a few] Lebanese as they did before," he said. "It is about the Iran-U.S. negotiations that were followed two to three weeks later with talks with the Saudis."

Saudi Arabia and Lebanon have historically enjoyed good economic and political relationship, with Riyadh coming to the rescue of the tiny country in its most difficult times.

It pumped billions of U.S. dollars to support Lebanon's economy and post-war reconstruction, while hundreds of thousands of Lebanese work in the kingdom.

In recent years, relations started to deteriorate sharply because of Iran's expansionist policies in the region and the rising influence of its heavily armed Hezbollah ally in Lebanon.

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Riyadh reached a point at which it does not want to hear about Lebanon anymore, refraining from extending any help unless Hezbollah influence is contained.

"What the Saudis are also concerned of is Hezbollah's ties with the Houthis, and so helping them hitting Saudi airports," Tabbarah said. He explained that since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran took the decision "to deal with its neighbors via those militias and not through diplomatic representation."

However, the Saudi ban came at a time when Lebanon is on the verge of collapse due to an unprecedented economic and financial crisis -- the worst since its 1975-90 civil war.

It specifically dealt a blow to the Lebanese farmers, who were preparing for the peak season to start shipping large quantities of fruits and vegetables to the Saudi kingdom.

"We were ready to start shipping 300 tons a day to Saudi Arabia as of May 1 and increase it to reach 500 tons a day," Ibrahim Tarshishi, head of the farmers' association in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa region, told UPI. "All this has been delayed now. ... We can resist four to five days without big losses."

However, if the Saudis keep refusing Lebanon's produce imports, farmers undoubtedly will bear the brunt of the current crisis.

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"We will be forced to sell our produce in the local market, meaning more supply than demand and prices will go down. ... We will then be barely able to cover our expenses," Tarshishi said, putting Lebanon's exported agriculture products to Saudi Arabia at about $100 million a year from an annual volume trade of $600 million.

He rejected calls to find "alternative markets" to sell their fruits and vegetables, saying "we have been in the Saudi market for over 50 years. We will not look for new markets now. Neither us nor our Saudi partners will accept that."

Tarshishi hoped the new "very serious" measures adopted by the Lebanese authorities to reinforce control of air, land, and sea borders will help resolve the crisis soon.

But he called for fixing" defective scanners" that check trucks and refrigerators passing through from Syria to Lebanon at land crossings and the Beirut port and prevent "mafias, gangs and the criminals from breaking them again."

Kamal Hamdan, managing director of the Beirut-based Consultation & Research Institute, expressed concern over the Saudi ban's "indirect impact on Lebanon's reputation," with other countries following suit and limiting trade activity with the country.

"That's what I am afraid of," Hamdan told UPI, arguing that drug smuggling is the responsibility of both countries. "We are the suppliers, but there is also the one who is receiving them in Saudi Arabia. It is not one way ... especially that Lebanon has thwarted many attempts to smuggle the Captagon."

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He called for considering a "new strategy that creates relations with Lebanon's natural and closest partners," citing Syria, Iraq and Jordan, to balance the economic ties with the Gulf.

One of the feared scenario behind the drug crisis with Saudi Arabia is the attempt to further push Lebanon away from its traditional supporters and control it completely by the Iran camp.

Sending such large amounts of drugs could be "part of the war" on Saudi Arabia, according to Sam Menassa, executive director of the La Maison du Futur research institute.

"It could be the finale for Lebanon, too, by taking it away from its natural [Arab] environment and push it into the Iran camp," Menassa told UPI. "Lebanon will not then be different than Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Syria or Iraq."

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