Business, Economics and Jobs

This resort chef lost his job. Now he grows opium with his friends


Mohamed, 26, used to take tourists on week-long safaris into the South Sinai mountains but now grows opium to make a living.


Bel Trew

SINAI, Egypt — Beside a field of poppies, near Egypt’s popular Red Sea resorts, sits a motley crew of unlikely drug lords: an Oud player, a resort chef and a taxi driver. Spring is peak tourist season, when the out-of-work Bedouin tour guides would normally be taking vacationers on desert safaris to this very spot.

But since visitors stopped traveling here, they started a new business: producing opium in the depths of South Sinai.

“Growing opium is wrong but there is no other option,” says Mahmoud, the cook, who is 26 but looks twice that age. The drug money brings shame to the families involved, he adds, but it is better than stealing.  

The country’s top generals have ruled the country with an iron fist since ousting Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last July. More than 3,000 Egyptians have died and thousands have been arrested.

Former tour guide Abu-Salah, 30, keeps watch over his opium field with two young men who help tend to the poppies. (Bel Trew)

Weekly clashes between protesters and security forces and a spike in retaliatory terror attacks — especially in the Sinai, where government forces also battle Islamist militants angry at the coup — have scared visitors off. The number of foreign travelers has plummeted by 30 percent since last year, according to the Tourism Ministry, and tourism revenues have been cut in half.

Sinai’s holiday region has been dealt the worst blow. In February the bombing of a tourist bus that killed three South Korean travelers and the Egyptian driver at the Israeli border prompted 15 countries, including the United States, to issue travel warnings. 

Even the area’s main city, Sharm El-Sheikh, with its coastline of five-star resorts, restaurants and nightclubs heavily guarded by the military, is practically empty. In peak times, hundreds of thousands of tourists would descend on the popular winter sun destination. Many of the 300,000-strong Bedouin community started working in the industry when they were children, selling handicrafts to the vacationers on the packed beaches.

Opium has been grown in South Sinai for decades. But in desperation an increasing number of amateur Bedouin farmers, like Mahmoud, are joining in. Before the 2011 revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak there were only about a fifth of the poppy fields there are now, the local Bedouin say.

Nestled into the cliffs to the east of St. Catherine’s Monastery, a popular tourist attraction near Mount Sinai, there are now dozens of new poppy fields. Crouching in the back of a battered pick-up truck we break through the jagged teeth of Sinai’s mountains into a sheltered enclave. According to Google Maps we are just a kilometer away from the heavily armed military checkpoints.

Behind the ridges that protect the area from the prying eyes of those guarding the roads, a carpet of color emerges: poppies. In the very clearings where Bedouin used to entertain foreign visitors, they have started tilling to soil to produce the illicit drug.

Dozens of poppy fields are nestled into the mountains surrounding St Catherine's Monastery, now one of the only sources of income left in South Sinai. (Bel Trew)

Spring is harvest time, so the grey terrain is punched with bright pink and purple flowers that top the meter-high plants laid out in lines. The only sound is the whir of generators pumping water from wells into an intricate system of irrigation pipes that feed the fields, which are just 50m x 100m.

By each colorful plot are weathered canvas tents, where the Bedouin owners, like Mahmoud and his friends, quietly keep watch.

The trio used to work together entertaining tourists here with traditional food, music and camel rides. When the work dried up, Ahmed, 24, the taxi driver, says they jointly invested nearly $30,000 in a well — but the government refused to give them the mandatory permit to grow legitimate crops like vegetables.

“We thought we’d give growing opium a try but we are not experts. There are five of us working this field, professionals might make more money out of it,” Ahmed said. After subtracting the costs of running the field and dividing the profits among the large group, musician Mohamed, 37, estimates they will make just $2,500 in one six-month season.

They demonstrate the laborious task of amateur harvesting: the fat squat pods are scored three times with a razorblade by hand. The latex substance that oozes out, which is odorless and bitter, is then left to dry overnight. This process is repeated several times until the pod is empty.  

Each opium poppy pod is carefully scored with a razor blade by hand allowing the milky latex substance to ooze out and dry ready for sale. (Bel Trew)

Just a kilometer north in Wadi Safra or Yellow Valley is another cluster of fields, where Abu-Salah, 30, another former tour guide, is producing opium as well.

“The less work by the sea, the more work in opium, for sure,” says Abu-Salah, who was also refused the government permit to grow vegetables. Last year his field produced 340 ounces of opium, which he sold at $43 an ounce to dealers who either peddled it locally or took it across the border to neighboring Israel, he explained.  An ounce of opium goes for $370 on the streets of Cairo, cash Abu-Salah never saw. In the end he made just $5,800 profit for six months’ work.

He said he would make three times that amount as a tour guide and would probably earn more growing tomatoes but neither were options. At least, Abu-Salah added it was far better than what most of his fellow Bedouin in Egypt survive on. Mainland Egyptians regard the desert-dwelling Bedouin community as foreigners; they are excluded from the police force and the army as well as from most mainstream employment in the region. As a result, half of South Sinai’s “Bedu” survive on just 60 cents a day, and according to a recent study by the American University in Cairo 81 percent experience shortages of food.

In 2010, when the government monitored the poppy-growing areas, it cleared some 222 hectares (550 acres) according to a 2013 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “Since the revolution there have been none of these campaigns, so cultivation of drugs has risen,” UNODC’s Faisal Hegazy tells GlobalPost.

In Egypt, opium is used mainly by taxi drivers and laborers for pain relief and to sustain impossibly long working hours. It is also mistakenly used to boost sexual performance, says Amr Osman, who manages the cabinet-affiliated National Front for Drug Control. It’s increasingly prevalent among young people, who turn to the drug for its numbing effect.  “The starting age is about 11 years old,” says Osman.

Bedouin tour guides invested $30,000 in these wells to grow vegetables in the desert but were refused state permits and so turned to opium. (Bel Trew)

The government is aware Bedouin tour operators are turning to drug production, says Osman. But the military and security forces have been focused on efforts to crush an insurgency in North Sinai. Development plans to encourage legal cultivation of crops and tourism are on hold while the peninsula remains unstable. Anti-drug campaigns are sporadic.

The day after we visited the fields the military stormed the area in helicopters and armored personnel carriers, destroying 90 percent of the plots we saw. It announced that 250 plots of opium had been cleared in total. The security forces had waited until harvest time to wreak the most financial damage on the community.

“Our message is for tourists to return,” says Mahmoud as he keeps anxious watch over his plot of poppies: the only hope of paying back his debts. He and his two friends pray it is a temporary measure until the political situation is stabilized and they can go back to running desert treks. “There wouldn’t be any opium if there was tourism.”