- Middle East Drugs Bazaar: Production, Prevention and Consumption by Philip Robins
While on a biostatistics fellowship under the auspices of the Fulbright Program in Bahrain during the mid-1980s, I had the jarring experience of seeing an unresponsive body of a young man dumped in front of the emergency department before the vehicle sped away. Another heroin overdose. Since the official position was that hard drugs were not an issue in Bahrain, it was understood that we were not to talk [End Page 318] about it. Eight years later at a conference in Kuwait City, I met a local police officer who was completing his doctoral dissertation research on drug abuse among Kuwait’s prison population. He expressed his concern that officials were very wary, if not opposed, to his research, since it was not a problem that anyone wanted to admit existed. In a region where family honor is paramount, a topic like drug abuse is too fraught with shame.
Fast-forward decades later, and drug abuse is still a taboo subject. Philip Robins’s beautifully written, interdisciplinary examination of the issue is therefore a welcome addition to the literature. Although Robins has been an academic for many decades at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, his early years spent as a journalist in the Middle East are apparent. Not only is his writing superb, but he brings a journalist’s insight and sensibility, expertly sensing the sometimes subtle but unique cultural, historical, political, and social differences between the many countries he examines. And he is not afraid to call out hypocrisy and name names. Professor Robins should be admired for his courage in writing with such undisguised frankness.
The one overarching question that arises while reading this book is what to call it. Is it an historical account of drug trafficking in the region over the past 50 years? Is it a book, as noted by the subtitle, about the “production, prevention and consumption” of drugs in the region? It is not quite those things, and yet it is much more. Perhaps a more accurate subtitle would be “production, consumption, and transshipment” since the book does not address prevention per se. The book also opens a window into how the policy making process moves forward or stalls.
Middle East Drugs Bazaar is organized into three sections: Production Spaces (Morocco, Lebanon, and Yemen), Consumption Spaces (Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran), and Transit Spaces (Turkey, Dubai and Iraq). Each of the 10 country chapters is a thorough, interdisciplinary account; it is almost as if the author is using the drug problem merely as a means of illuminating the history, politics, culture, society and policy-making of each country.
One could reasonably ask why Afghanistan is not included, and Robins wisely remarks that he deliberately did not include it “for fear that the topic would eclipse all else!” (p. 212). Moreover, Afghanistan’s drug economy is covered comprehensively by other researchers almost to the exclusion of other countries in the region. Nevertheless, the role of Afghan opiates passing through Iran and the role of laundered Afghan drug money passing through the United Arab Emirates’ real estate market are properly touched upon.
Researching this topic must have been a monumental undertaking, and judging from the citations, statistics, interviews and field visits, it was apparently done over many years. The book publishing process also can take many years, so even though the publication date is 2016, many of the statistics only go up to 2012. To be fair, some of the data simply are not available. Nevertheless, it would be useful to have subsequent editions fix this problem, even though the current situation and outlook in each country has changed little in the past decade.
Although all of the chapters are solid, the four that stand out are those dealing with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Yemen. The chapter on Yemen provides an excellent explanation and discussion of the country’s water crisis, accurately attributing it to increased qat production. What Robins foresees as the inevitably devastating...