Saudi Arabia bans Lebanese produce over drug smuggling


FILE PHOTO: A Saudi vendor sells fruits in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia April 25, 2016. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia announced on Friday a ban on imports of fruits and vegetables from Lebanon, blaming an increase in drug smuggling, in a measure that will add to Lebanon's economic woes.

Lebanon is already in the throes of a deep financial crisis that is posing the biggest threat to its stability since the 1975-1990 civil war. Its agriculture minister said the move was a "great loss" and that the trade was worth $24 million a year.

The Lebanese foreign ministry said it had been informed of the ban through the Saudi embassy and the foreign minister had relayed it to top officials.

"Lebanese authorities must exert utmost efforts to control all smuggling operations ... to prevent harm to innocent citizens, farmers, industrialists and the Lebanese economy," the Lebanese foreign ministry statement said.

The ban will take effect from 9:00 a.m. local time on Sunday.

Saudi customs authorities at Jeddah had foiled an attempt to smuggle in more than 5.3 million Captagon pills, a type of amphetamine, hidden in pomegranate shipments from Lebanon, said Mohammed bin Ali al-Naim, undersecretary for security affairs at Saudi Customs, according to Saudi Arabia's SPA news agency.

Lebanon's caretaker interior minister Mohamed Fahmy told Reuters Lebanon was ready to cooperate with all states to stop drug smuggling and that it had already been exerting "tremendous efforts" but that sometimes smugglers might succeed.

One Lebanese official, speaking 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.

A senior official at the Lebanese agriculture ministry said there were no documents showing that produce used to smuggle Captagon pills was Lebanese.

Lebanon's total exports to Saudi Arabia were worth 273.1 million riyals ($72.82 million) in the fourth quarter of 2020, official Saudi data showed.

Lebanon's foreign reserves have been depleted and its currency has lost around 90% of its value since the start of the financial crisis in late 2019.

Its economic collapse 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.

($1 = 3.7502 riyals)

(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Maha El Dahan in Beirut and Yousef Saba in Dubai; Editing by Toby Chopra, Peter Graff and Raissa Kasolowsky)

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