The Expert Commentary

Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA'A BCW Arab Youth Survey 2019.

Action needed to tackle rising drug use among Arab youth

Osama Al-Sharif

Osama Al Sharif

Osama Al-Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator from Amman, Jordan. Educated in the US and Britain he has published a number of newspapers and magazines in Jordan and edited leading Arabic and English language dailies in Amman, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi. In the mid-1990s he co-founded and managed, the Arab world’s first portal. In 2004 he was appointed to the Royal Commission for the National Agenda in Jordan where he drafted the media law. Currently he contributes political analysis on the region to Gulf News, Arab News, Jordan Times and the Middle East Institute.

One of the most disturbing findings in this year’s ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey is the one concerning the rise in drug use among Arab youth. A majority of those surveyed, 57 per cent, said that they believed the number of young people using drugs in their country is on the rise. This was especially evident among youth in the Levant, where 76 per cent said drug use was increasing, and North Africa (59 per cent), while less so among GCC youth, where just over a third (36 per cent) thought drug use was on the rise.

The figures on use correlate with accessibility; in the GCC, just 32 per cent of youth say that drugs are easy to get, compared with 68 per cent for North Africa and 70 per cent for the Levant.

While most countries have strict laws targeting both criminals who engage in illegal distribution and, to a lesser extent, those who abuse drugs, the fact remains that there are few studies which show conclusively how to deal with the issue. Stricter laws are not enough to overcome this challenge – there is an urgent need to look at this problem from a social, economic and even political angle.

Moreover, this is a global challenge and no country can deal with the challenge of drug abuse on its own. Each country and sub-region represents a special case, and the factors contributing to the rise in drug use in Jordan, for example, differ from those faced by the UAE.

The ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey findings back up other studies into drug use in the region. One such study found that drug use in Jordan had risen by 32 per cent in 2018 compared to the previous year. This is a distressing statistic, and one which should have set alarm bells ringing in the kingdom. Looking further at the Jordanian case one finds that, over the years, Jordan has moved from being a gateway or transit for illegal drug smuggling to nearby countries, into a destination for drug use and even a manufacturer.

Other studies have shown that prescription drug abuse is on the rise among young people in poor areas of the capital Amman. There is now a real problem of drug addiction in the kingdom, requiring a deeper look into the causes and possible remedies.

Last year, Egypt’s Ministry of Social Solidarity said that the rate of drug addiction in Egypt had reached 10 per cent (9.6 million people) – double the global average. A report by the ministry found nearly 8 per cent of high school students abused drugs, while a study in 2017 by Egypt’s Fund for Drug Control and Treatment showed that 10 per cent of drug users are children or youth within the 12-19 age group.

While figures on the number of drug users are out there, studies focusing on the drivers behind the rise of drug use among young people are rarer. In this regard, the Survey adds real value, It shows us that 62 per cent of those surveyed said that peer pressure is a main driver and that people start using drugs at school or work encouraged by friends.

As to why they use drugs in the first place, four other reasons were mentioned: stress relief (45 per cent), boredom 43 per cent), ease of access (43 per cent) and lack of entertainment options (41 per cent).

These reasons may differ from one country to the other. I would also mention unemployment among youth (Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt) political instability and lawlessness in other countries (Syria, Iraq, Libya).

While countries must work together to fight international enablers of drug use – the drug cartels and cross-border smugglers – they need to prioritise short and long term solutions to stem the rise in drug use among young people. In 2015, the UAE’s National Rehabilitation Centre reported that drug addiction costs the country $1.49 billion every year and that 6.1 out of every million people died from abusing drugs. That was up from 4.5 out of every million in 2013. Staying with the UAE, in 2018 Sharjah Police reported that the use of synthetic hallucinogens has increased in the UAE.

The rise in drug use represents a major and immediate challenge for all governments. How to address that challenge is unclear, although youth agree that law and order should be a priority: while 63 per cent of those surveyed called for stricter laws to deal with the rise in drug use and 58 per cent more efficient law enforcement. Youth also call for softer approach, with 54 per cent urging better education and awareness on the negative effects of drugs and 50 per cent wanting more rehabilitation and counseling services to be made available.

For society to combat this dangerous phenomenon, all hands must be on deck. This means that there is an urgent need to focus on targeting youth where the message can best be put across, especially in schools and universities.

That is something that richer states can do while others will have a tough time dealing with it. Additional funding must be found to promote sports and extracurricular activities. But governments cannot be expected to do all of the work. Civil society organizations must also chip in, and families will need guidance to work effectively with children who face ever stronger peer pressure and other factors that may lead to drug use.