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Mecca Becomes a Mecca for Drugs

University study finds province of Islam’s holiest site to have Saudi Arabia’s highest drug abuse rate, 8 out of 10 likely to be Saudi citizens.

Mecca province, home to the holiest site in Islam, has the highest rate of drug-related crime in Saudi Arabia, a university study has found.

The national study, carried out by Dr. Ashraf Shilbi of the National Center for Youth Research at King Saud University in the capital Riyadh, calculated that the number of drug-related legal cases in Mecca province has steadily risen by around 1,000 each year. In 2009 it peaked at 9,000 cases.

"Drugs is certainly a problem in Saudi Arabia and every day you hear about the government killing someone for smuggling drugs," Wajiha Al-Huwaidar, a former teacher, told The Media Line. "I would think that the problem is more pronounced in Mecca because it’s very crowded and very easy to get a visa to come to Saudi Arabia for Hajj or Umrah, so many people can come as drug dealers under the guise of a pilgrim."

The study, first reported by the Al-Madinah daily, found the Saudi capital Riyadh to be second in the number of drug-related cases, followed by the provinces of Jazan, the Eastern Province, Asir, Madinah, Tabuk, Al-Qassim and Al-Jouf.

While drug abuse made up the majority of cases, drug trafficking was also found to be on the rise. Despite a Saudi stigma that drug smuggling is led by foreigners, the study found the vast majority of drug smuggling cases to be Saudi citizens, with foreigners making up only 22 percent of drug trafficking cases.

The study also found that over the last decade Saudi hospitals in the country’s capital and commercial center have recorded a tripling of the number of drug addicts receiving treatment. The number of drug addicts seeking treatment in the Saudi capital Riyadh, for example, were found to have tripled, from 13,520 in 200 to 40,515 in 2009. The number of addicts treated in Jeddah more than tripled, from 10,876 in 2000 to 35,857 in 2009.

Ahmed Al-Omran, an influential Saudi critic and blogger, said it was unclear why Riyadh and Jeddah had witnessed such a notable rise in drug use.

"There are likely many factors – unemployment, more people travelling inside and outside of the country, etc," he said. "But it’s hard for me to speculate and the study should have looked more into the reasons for the rise in drug use."

Al-Omran downplayed the importance of the study.

"Drugs are everywhere in the world, the Mecca region is big and is not just the holy city of Mecca," he told The Media Line. "So it doesn’t seem very weird that there would be a high rate of drugs in Mecca province."

"Whenever the government publishes the news that they have seized a large amount of drugs coming into the country it indicates that there is a problem of drugs in the country," Al-Omran said. "But the government only manages to seize a small percentage of what’s in the market, so they also need to work on awareness and make sure families know the dangers of drug use."

Shilbi’s research found the most popular illegal drug in Saudi Arabia to be the antidepressant Catptagon, followed by hashish, Qat, heroin, amphetamine, opium and cocaine.

Hashish, dried cannabis also known as ‘hash’, made up the largest proportion of the drugs confiscated by Saudi authorities. The volume of Hashish seized has steadily increased by 18 percent each year. Qat, a plant with an amphetamine-like stimulant, made up the majority of drug seizures in the southern province of Jazan, with more than 10,000 recorded seizures of the plant last year alone. Seizures of cocaine and opium were very rare and recorded only in the capital Riyadh and Saudi Arabia’s commercial center Jeddah.

The study found that drug dealers in Saudi tend to be students or workers, and those most vulnerable to drug abuse tend to be young men aged 20 to 30. Bachelors and the unemployed were also found to be demographic groups more at risk for drug abuse.

The Saudi Interior Ministry announced last week that drug enforcement officials had completed one of the largest drug busts in its history, arresting 195 individuals over four months on charges of drugs smuggling. Authorities also seized eight million tablets of Captagon, two tons of hashish, and more than 20 kilograms of pure heroin.

Drug trafficking is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, regardless of the quantity being trafficked. The knock-on effect is that if drug traffickers take the risk of doing business in the Saudi kingdom, to make it worthwhile they will usually traffic huge volumes of drugs with large profit margins.