The following article appeared on the International Herald Tribune website:
Dubai finds it has imported a drug problem
By Hassan M. Fattah The New York Times
FRIDAY, MAY 5, 2006
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates The man jiggled in his chair and faced his counselor, recounting matter-of-factly his dark slide into drug abuse.
"I tried everything I could get my hands on," said the man, a grim-faced 33-year-old who insisted on anonymity to protect his privacy. Along with friends, he began experimenting a decade ago, and soon recreation led to dependency. "I got hooked on pills and alcohol," he said, and his arms showed telltale signs of old needle pricks. "Then my brothers and I agreed that I needed to get help," he added.
Almost anywhere else in the Arab world he would be in jail. But in this rapidly growing city on the Persian Gulf, his frankness was a measure of the openness with which Dubai and the federal government of the United Arab Emirates are tackling the country's drug problem. He has spent the last eight months in Dubai's Training and Rehabilitation Center.
For years Arab governments kept drug abuse quiet, hoping to ward off embarrassment to families and tribes, but now some countries are placing as much emphasis on prevention and rehabilitation as on punishment.
In public campaigns and speeches, Dubai's police and public health officials are moving past stigma, openly discussing a problem they admit could grow far worse in coming decades if left alone. Government-run rehabilitation centers allow first-time offenders and those who turn themselves in the chance to clean up, undergo therapy and get help finding a new job. Advertising campaigns remind drug users of the toll drugs are taking on their lives.
"We think of policing here as not just making arrests," said Lt. Gen. Radhi Khalfan Tamim, head of Dubai's police force, who is a supporter of rehabilitating drug users. "It's also about prevention. Drug addiction here becomes a familial and tribal problem, so if you save 10 users you save 10 whole families."
Dubai has moved the farthest among several Arab governments paying closer attention to a growing drug problem that officials at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimate consumes 500,000 people across the region.
In Saudi Arabia, television talk shows discuss addiction, and advertising campaigns warn youths against taking drugs. Another Saudi program has sought to tackle one of the most hidden drug problems in Arab society, addiction among women.
In Bahrain, Kuwait and other gulf countries, imams preach against drugs in Friday sermons, while anti-drug organizations in Oman, Qatar and other Arab countries are helping governments to draft more effective drug policies.
"It's no longer quiet, and no longer hidden," said Dr. Farida Allaghi, general coordinator of Mentor Arabia, the Middle East branch of an organization that helps governments formulate drug policy and fight drug abuse worldwide. "The taboo around drug addiction is fading because the problem is becoming too scary."
Social workers and independent organizations have been sounding the alarm about the Arab drug problem for years, prodding governments to begin collecting statistics to get a sense of the scale of the problem and to take aggressive action quickly.
But statistics are hard to come by: of the estimated 500,000 drug users, many are in North Africa, Egypt and the region around Lebanon and Syria, where populations are large. But around the Persian Gulf, where high oil prices have flooded economies with cash and where Asian and Western cultures mingle with Arab culture and the largest portion of the population is young and transitory, the number of substance abusers has grown with a rapidly growing population.
"There are many indicators that suggest this is going to be a big problem," Dr. Allaghi said. "What shows it is that the governments are beginning to ask for help."
In Dubai, rapid development has brought big-city problems. Petty crime and domestic disturbances have risen, and police statistics show a notable rise in drug arrests, to 535 last year from 459 in 2003.
In 2001 a study by Taha Amir, a professor at United Arab Emirates University, compared drug addiction in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, finding that drug users in the Emirates tend to be younger and use harder drugs, with heroin the drug of choice, followed by hashish.
"What is unusual in the U.A.E. is the demographic diversity of the population," said Mohamed Abdul-Aziz, the United Nations drug agency's regional representative in the Middle East and North Africa.
"That is a positive on the economic side," he said, "but on the cultural side it becomes a real challenge." A flood of Westerners and Asians has meant the importation of drug cultures into the Emirates, he said, presenting the government with unexpected problems.
Drugs from Afghanistan and Iran on their way to Europe and the Arab world flow through Dubai, taking advantage of the city's openness and globalization. From 2003 to 2005 the police recorded a threefold increase in the number of arrests for drug smuggling to 164, most of them at the airport.
An admitted former drug dealer who was deported from Dubai last year and asked to be identified only by his nickname, Angel, for fear of incrimination said that Iranian drug mules fly into Dubai with thousands of pills of Ecstasy every few months, while other drugs often come into Dubai by sea.
By the time the heroin reaches the street it sells for about $100 a gram, while Ecstasy is even cheaper, he said. But the risks are high: the Emirates' law imposes up to life imprisonment for drug trafficking.
The Emirates are harsh on drug abusers, too, but also seek to reform them. Drug use is punishable by four years in jail, but judges can send first-time users to rehabilitation. There is one catch: government-financed rehabilitation is open only to citizens, who make up about 20 percent of the population. Foreign drug users who are caught are typically deported to their home countries after imprisonment.
"If someone wants to work with us and get out of the problem, we will help him," General Tamim said. "In other countries people would say that's not the role of the police. But here it is."
The patient at Dubai's Training and Rehabilitation Center, a lush facility complete with swimming, art classes and a gym, deep in the desert, says he cleaned up briefly before returning to drugs. He was in the army at one point, in the police force at another, but simply could not hold down a job as his life seemed to spiral out of control. Then one day he was caught and briefly jailed before his family had had enough.
At the center he receives psychological counseling and training and is taught to ease back into society. Relapse rates are high, officials at the center admit, as many drug users return to the environment in which they were using drugs. Nonetheless, the government intends to continue with the program as a central effort.
"The drug problem here is really an invasion," the man said, insisting that he had cleaned up for good. "There is money, the place is open, so it's bound to happen here."