BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia will ban fruits and vegetables originating from Lebanon from entering or passing through the kingdom due to an increase in drug smuggling, Saudi state media reported on Friday.
The Saudis cited a recently intercepted shipment of pomegranates coming from Lebanon as a motivation for the decision. Customs officers in Jeddah had found some 5.3 million Captagon pills hidden inside the hollowed-out fruit.
The ban could increase economic pressure on Lebanon, which was already on the verge of financial collapse because of a shortage of foreign currency.
State news agency SPA quoted the Saudi authorities as saying Lebanon had failed to take practical measures to stop the smuggling. The ban will take effect 9:00 a.m. local time on Sunday and last until Lebanese authorities provide “sufficient and reliable” guarantees that they will take the necessary measures to stop systematic drug smuggling in Saudi Arabia.
Lebanon's Foreign Ministry said on Friday it had been informed by Saudi Arabia's embassy about the ban.
“The decision was transferred to top officials,” Lebanon's caretaker Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe said in a statement.
Lebanese security “has been exerting tremendous efforts combating drug smuggling,” caretaker Interior Minister Mohamed Fahmy told Reuters, adding that smugglers might sometimes succeed despite those “meticulous” efforts.
He also called for “more cooperation” between the security services in the two countries.
The ministry statement said the illegal practice of drug smuggling using export cargoes harmed the Lebanese economy and that it had urged the security authorities to work diligently to foil any attempts that ultimately harmed Lebanese farmers.
Another Lebanese official, speaking with Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the ban appeared to be political.
“The export of Lebanese vegetables and fruits to the Gulf countries and especially the kingdom was one of the few doors that were still open to bring dollars into the country. Closing this import line increases pressure on Lebanon,” he said.
Farmers and port workers have registered their objections to the ban, saying it unfairly punishes their sectors for crimes they did not take part in.
Ibrahim Tarshishi, the head of the Bekaa Farmers’ Association, said in a statement that “Lebanese agricultural production is innocent of the accusation of exporting drugs to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
With regards to the intercepted Captagon shipment in particular, Tarshishi said, “We do not have pomegranates to export; rather we import them.” Any trafficked goods arriving in pomegranates were probably coming in trucks from Syria that simply passed through Lebanon, he said, calling for more thorough checks of all Syrian trucks dropping cargo at the Port of Beirut.
Meanwhile, Tripoli port head Ahmad Tamer told L’Orient Today that the pomegranate shipment in question had, in fact, come from Syria and had transited at the Beirut port. Tamer’s comments came after the Tripoli port workers’ union had put out a statement that condemned drug smuggling operations but called on Saudi Arabia to reverse its ban on Lebanese produce shipments, saying that "this decision will inevitably lead to great damage to a large sector of workers."
Lebanon's total imports to Saudi Arabia were worth about $72.82 million in the fourth quarter of 2020, official Saudi data showed.
Lebanese caretaker Agriculture Minister Abbas Mortada said on Friday that the ban represents a “great loss” as the produce trade was worth $24 million a year.
“The issue is very serious especially if it negatively affects the rest of the Gulf states, which could take similar or stringent measures,” Mortada told Reuters.
Lebanon is in the throes of a deep financial crisis that is posing the biggest threat to its stability since the 1975–90 civil war. The currency has lost about 90 percent of its value, and dollars are scarce.
Lebanon’s agriculture sector has already been struggling amid the country’s currency crisis, with farmers being unable to access the dollars they need to import supplies like seeds and fertilizer. Many have cut back on planting as a result.
The crisis is being compounded by political deadlock, with politicians unable to form a government to unlock much-needed foreign aid.
Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have so far been loath to offer aid to ease Beirut's economic woes, keeping their distance while alarmed by the rising influence of Hezbollah, a powerful group backed by their arch-rival, Iran.