‘Huge disaster’: Lebanese farmers decry Saudi Arabia produce ban

Saudi Arabia’s agricultural product ban, which comes after finding 5.3 million illegal pills hidden in pomegranates, is threatening already-suffering farmers.

Bekaa Valley is a major area for the production of vegetables and fruit in Lebanon [File: Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE]

Beirut, Lebanon – Already grappling with an economic crisis crippling the country, Lebanese farmers fear a recent produce ban by Saudi Arabia will be a decisive blow to their livelihoods.

Saudi Arabia announced on Friday an indefinite ban on Lebanese agricultural products after foiling an attempt to smuggle 5.3 million pills of the illegal amphetamine Captagon hidden in a shipment of pomegranates at Jeddah Port.

Captagon is manufactured in Lebanon, Jordan and possibly in Syria and Iraq, primarily for consumption in Saudi Arabia, according to (PDF) the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

“This is an unjust decision,” Hassan Abbas of the Agricultural Workers Union told Al Jazeera. “We were astonished that a country like Saudi Arabia that has provided so much aid to Lebanon to make such a hasty decision.”

Saudi Ambassador Waleed Bukhari said in a tweet the kingdom had found more than 57 million illicit pills from cash-strapped Lebanon since the beginning of 2020. Lebanon fears other countries will follow Riyadh’s decision, which has been endorsed by Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

A panicked Ibrahim Tarchichi, who heads the Bekaa Farmers Association, said farmers and the agricultural sector are facing a “huge disaster”. Much of Lebanon’s agricultural production is based in its eastern Bekaa Valley.

“Everyone is going to yield less and earn less,” he told Al Jazeera. “Lebanon as a whole is paying the price for a few criminals and the bedlam taking place in other countries.”

Various estimates say the Lebanese fruit and vegetable trade is worth between $20m and $34m annually.

Tarchichi said 1,000 tonnes of produce on 40 trucks were scheduled to leave for Saudi Arabia through the Beirut Port, but the shipment was halted after the ban was announced. On Wednesday, Tarchichi received word that Saudi Arabia would make an exception and allow it to go through.

Riyadh has not said it intends to reverse its Lebanese produce ban.

‘We don’t have any pomegranates’

Lebanon is living through an agonising economic crisis, which has pushed more than half the population into poverty and sent the currency into a tailspin.

Farmers sell their yield in Lebanese pounds, which has lost 85 percent of its value against the US dollar, pushing the country into alarming inflation rates that are hamstringing farmers.

“We are operating at a loss because farmers sell their produce in lira [Lebanese pound], but the expenses to produce and cultivate have skyrocketed,” Abbas said. “If I sell a kilo of tomatoes at 3,000 pounds, that used to be worth $2 but is now worth about 25 cents.”

Farming inputs are bought at the US dollar rate, pushing their prices as well as the cost of fuel skywards.

Abbas and Tarchichi disagree over whether the Saudi produce ban was politically motivated. However, they both agree that Lebanese farmers are being unjustly penalised for it.

“We all want to combat the drug trade, but if someone did something wrong, you can’t just punish all of Lebanon’s farmers because of it,” Abbas said.

Lebanese authorities, meanwhile, have been on high alert, with President Michel Aoun urging security agencies to step up their efforts to control smuggling at the border.

“We are confident that Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf countries know well that a ban on Lebanese produce will not stop drug smuggling and [that] cooperation between us will help stop these networks,” caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab said.

Tarchichi insisted the Captagon-laced pomegranate shipment was not even Lebanese, but Syrian.

“These are not Lebanese pomegranates, we don’t have any pomegranates to export,” Tarchichi said.

Tarchichi said this was a Syrian shipment that transited in Lebanon. “The evidence shows that this shipment is coming from Syria, the person who shipped it and counterfeited the certificates and documents is from Syria,” he said. “The investigation will reveal everything.”

Farmers pack potatoes in boxes in Taanayel in the Bekaa Valley [File: Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE]

‘Fighting the scourge of drugs’

Caretaker Minister of the Interior Mohammed Fahmi told Al Jazeera ending drug smuggling is a battle that Lebanon cannot face on its own.

“Lebanon is fighting the scourge of drugs with its available capabilities, but like the rest of the world, it cannot completely stop the smuggling operations,” he told Al Jazeera in a statement. “This is what technically advanced countries such as the United States, the European Union, and others are also facing.”

Fahmi called for greater cross-border coordination to thwart smuggling operations. “There should be more security coordination between states in order to control cross-border smuggling operations more accurately and effectively,” he added. “This death trade indiscriminately harms everyone.”

Lebanese security forces arrested three men linked to the Captagon shipment on Tuesday near the southern city of Sidon. Two of the three wanted men, Wahm Kueidri, Hussein Harfoush and Hussein al-Mawli, were severely wounded in an exchange of gunfire. The names were reportedly passed on during an exchange of intelligence between Beirut and Riyadh.

But despite these developments, farmers and agricultural workers fear the ban could also be imposed by other countries. The United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait announced their support for Saudi Arabia’s move, Saudi news outlet Arab News reported.

“We need to close these gaps in the borders and restore our reputation as it once was,” Tarchichi said. “Back when the whole world loved to import our products.”

These concerns extend to Lebanese working in other sectors, too. Rabih el-Amine, who chairs the Riyadh-based Lebanese Executive Council, said he worries the produce ban could inflict “big damage to our reputation”.

“The farmers are directly damaged who lost a key artery that links them to foreign markets,” el-Amine told Al Jazeera, noting Lebanon and Saudi Arabia’s once “historically powerful” economic and political ties could further fray.

Source: Al Jazeera