Narco-Smuggling into Holy City by Pakistani Drug Traffickers- A Challenge for Saudi Authorities

Last week, two Pakistani individuals were apprehended during a crackdown on drug trafficking in the holy city of Medina, for selling crystal methamphetamine, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported. The Pakistani nationals were taken into custody during a raid against drug dealers. The suspects are accused of dealing in methamphetamine, more popularly known by its street name, ice, as well as heroin.

In the hundreds of drug busts made by Saudi authorities in recent months, the majority of drug traffickers were found to be Pakistanis, who were operating trafficking dens mostly in Mecca, Riyadh, and the Eastern regions of the Kingdom.

Just two weeks before this bust on April 15, the Saudi Criminal Investigation and Search Department of the Riyadh Region Police arrested two Pakistani residents found using a residential unit as a base to distribute 13,000 narcotic tablets.

In a separate incident, yet another Pakistani national was apprehended in Hafr Al-Batin city for involvement in methamphetamine distribution. Earlier, the General Directorate of Narcotics Control arrested two drug dealers, a Pakistani and a Filipino, in Jeddah for trying to sell 2.6 kilogrammes of meth. In separate incidents, almost four Pakistani nationals were arrested for trying to smuggle or sell the drugs in the kingdom.

The arrests of several Pakistanis comes at a time when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has launched a nationwide crackdown against drug peddlers and smugglers. Aside from narco-trafficking, Pakistani individuals have also been found associated with other crimes in KSA like prostitution, female and child trafficking, theft, money laundering, aside from the traditional hawala networks.

For instance in January 2022, following a video clip that went viral on the social media, a Pakistani national found running a large prostitution ring exploiting runaway housemaids, was arrested in Riyadh. The clip showed the ring run by the Pakistani was for sexual exploitation of a number of housemaids who had run away from their sponsors’ homes in Riyadh.

Drug consignments from Pakistan have always been the norm for the world, including Africa and the Middle East. There is widespread usage of meth in Pakistan as well. Meth has quickly overtaken heroin and cannabis as the drug of choice in Pakistan. Addiction to crystal meth is soaring in the nation of some 240 million. The spike has been most visible in the restive northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The lax enforcement of its anti-narcotics laws have allowed the drug trade to thrive in Pakistan, also allowing the drug to freely move into other countries in the region. “The investigation procedures are weak and the courts release drug smugglers,” said Azlan Aslam, an officer at the Excise, Taxation, and Narcotics Control Department in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.” Due to judicial leniency, a drug smuggler can easily get bail,” Aslam told Radio Mashaal. “They get released without being properly punished.”

Last August, Saudi authorities General Directorate of Narcotics Control apprehended four Pakistanis who were found in possession of 1.9 kilograms of methamphetamine (ice).

During the Covid-19 pandemic Pakistani Tramadol networks were found to be linked to ISIS and Boko Haram, raising security concerns. Drugs continued to freely flow from Pakistan despite the pandemic. There were several instances of seizures of Tramadol from Pakistan destined for Islamic State territory. And this has continued despite international awareness vis-a-vis Tramadol. As recently as February 2022, anti-narcotics officers seized 649,300 capsules of Tramadol 225mg weighing 460.95kg imported from Pakistan via Addis Ababa through Ethiopian Airlines.

In December 2019, at least 1.4 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine was recovered from a passenger identified as Basheer, aboard a Saudi Arabia-bound flight at Islamabad International Airport (IIAP) in Pakistan’s capital. The suspect was reportedly travelling to Madina. Previously Pakistani drivers were found to be involved in heroin smuggling to Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hosts 12 million foreigners, over one-third of the country’s total population. About 1.6 million Pakistanis, most of them foreign migrant workers, make up the second-largest migrant community in Saudi Arabia. The country has executed more Pakistanis, than any other foreign nationality, nearly all for heroin and drugs smuggling.

As per independent estimates, nationals from Pakistani background have been involved in smuggling crimes in the Middle East more than immigrants belonging to other countries. Also, Saudi authorities have in several instances nabbed Pakistani men for allegedly laundering illegal money out of the Kingdom. In one such case, the Saudi police arrested a ring of Pakistani expatriates in Medina for collecting and smuggling unspecified amounts outside the Kingdom. In addition, the authorities also confiscated cash from the suspects which, according to the police, was being arranged for being transferred out of the country through hawala (illegal means).

On 6 September 2023, a Saudi court sentenced 11 Pakistani expatriates, convicted of financial fraud, to seven years in prison each. The Financial Fraud wing completed an investigation into the illegal activities of 11 Pakistani nationals and found that the accused persons were engaged in financial fraud by sending text messages to the victims, communicating with them by telephone, urging them to update their bank information, and then obtaining their personal information and using it to access their bank accounts and steal their money.

Last year police in Jeddah city of Saudi Arabia arrested a group of 13 Pakistanis suspected of stealing vehicles. According to the Saudi police, the suspects stole 19 vehicles of several types which were later dismantled and sold in parts.

There are close to 3,400 Pakistani jailed in Saudi Arabia for various criminal activities, making Pakistanis the largest number of expatriates in Saudi prisons. In 2019, an agreement was reached between former Prime Minister Imran Khan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and KSA agreed to release 2,100 Pakistani prisoners. However, despite the agreement 60% of the Pakistani detainees could not be released as they were involved in drug smuggling.

When this information was shared during the Sub-Committee of National Assembly Standing Committee on the Overseas Pakistanis session, chair Mehreen Razzak Bhutto lamented that 29 kg of heroin was loaded on an airplane and sent to the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia. She questioned how the staff at a Pakistani airport could let go of such a huge quantity of drugs.

So widespread is the involvement of Pakistani expatriates in criminal activities, like drug smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering, theft and others that a few years back top Emirati security official, Lt Gen Dhahi Khalfan, took to Twitter to denounce Pakistanis, accusing them of being a “dangerous threat to Gulf societies,” after a drug racket was busted in Dubai. Khalfan wrote in Arabic: “The Pakistanis pose a serious threat to the Gulf communities for the drugs they bring with them to our countries.” Khalfan resorted to asking his fellow citizens “not to employ Pakistanis”. The security official, who was the head of Dubai Police Force until 2013, termed it a “national duty to stop hiring Pakistanis”.

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