Captagon: the drug fuelling the Gulf party scene - and Syria's finances

BEIRUT (Reuters) - From bloody frontlines to buzzing construction sites and even high-end parties, the amphetamine commonly known as captagon - has entrenched itself in the Middle East.

Curbing the captagon trade has become a key demand by Arab states seeking to restore ties with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, whose government is accused of benefiting from the trade.

Here is a look at the drug's history and current use.

FROM FOCUS TO FRONT LINES

Captagon was the brand name of a stimulant first produced in Germany in the 1960s to help treat attention deficit disorders, narcolepsy and other conditions.

It was discontinued but an illicit version of the drug continued to be produced in eastern Europe and later in the Arab region, becoming prominent in the conflict that erupted in Syria following anti-government protests in 2011.

The illicit version - also nicknamed "the drug of jihad" or "poor man's cocaine" - is thought to be made of a mix of fenethylline, caffeine and other fillers. It generates focus and staves off sleep and hunger.

FUNDING A STATE

As early as 2014, Syria was thought to be a major producer and consumer of the drug, and fighters including militants of the Islamic State group were thought to consume captagon to stay awake on frontlines.

As front lines in Syria quieted with the government and its allies retaking most of the country, the production and export of captagon came into focus.

Intelligence sources based in the region say captagon is still produced in small factories along the Syrian-Lebanese border as well as larger ones closer to Syria's frontier with Jordan. Some quantities are also produced in Lebanon, according to security sources.

The United States, Britain and European Union have blamed Syria's government for the production and export of the drug, naming Maher al-Assad - the head of the army's Fourth Division and the president's brother - as a key figure.

Pinning down the trade's value is difficult but diplomatic sources say it is worth several billion dollars a year. The United States, the European Union and Britain have accused the Fourth Division and other Syrian officials of benefitting from the trade, but it is not clear to what extent, if any, it fills state coffers.

FUELLING GULF PARTIES, AND ANGER

One of captagon's most lucrative markets is the Gulf region, where party scenes are flourishing, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Intercepted shipments of the drug are typically headed there, including a recent 10 million-pill transfer from Lebanon.

In 2021, Saudi Arabia put in place an import ban on all Lebanese products over drug smuggling and the issue has become a top concern for Arab countries seeking a solution to Syria's war.

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily; Editing by Angus MacSwan)