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Egypt's Tourism Crash Gives Way To Bustling Opium Trade

Opium field in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula
Opium field in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula
Theresa Breuer

SHARM EL-SHEIKH — Abu Saleh (not his real name) used to earn his money giving camel tours to tourists. But now the Egyptian Bedouin farms his 340-square-meter opium field. It’s not legal, which is why he covers his face, although he notes that the police are looking the other way.

When Saleh took his camels to the slaughterhouse, he knew there was no going back. Though he was only offered a fraction of what the animals were worth, he had no other option. “What was I supposed to do?” he says. “I couldn’t afford to keep them anymore.”

Abu Saleh lives in the southern part of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, not far from the resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab. This is where he conducted his desert safari tours, and earned his living. But now there are no more tourists, so instead opium grows where he used to pass through with his tourists.

He has been cultivating opium for two years. Nearly every day he drives out to the desert in his Toyota pickup truck to check on the plants. There are no roads here, but he knows the route exactly. After a few kilometers, the first fields appear. We pass 13 other opium fields before we get to his. All told, he says, he knows of some 100 fields in the area. “Three years ago, there wasn’t a single one,” he says, “but now there are new ones every season.”

Many Bedouins are in the same boat as Abu Saleh. They worked as hotel cooks, tour guides or musicians playing traditional Bedouin music for vacationers. But tourists have been avoiding Egypt since the 2011 revolution. Though some 9.5 million visitors traveled to Egypt last year, the figure was 14.7 million in 2010, the year before the revolution began.

The number of tourists has continued to fall, and the prognosis for 2014 is grim. As the Egyptian Ministry of Finance recently announced, the number of tourists fell again in January and February of this year by some 30% compared to last year. For many families, this is a disaster, as tourism had been the motor of the Egyptian economy.

Directly and indirectly, some four million jobs supporting about 16 million family members are dependent. And no region has been hit as hard without it as Sinai.

“Nobody comes anymore”

A few meters from the asphalt-paved road that leads to the beach resort of Dahab 50 kilometers away, some Bedouins are sitting by a dilapidated hut. The mood is heavy. Nearby a little girl kneels by a small rug on which she has displayed hand-made jewelry. There are no buyers.

“Before the revolution, we had at least 60 tourists a day,” the child’s grandmother complains. They’d stock up on food for their safaris here, and buy the jewelry as souvenirs. “Now nobody comes anymore.” Although high summer temperatures are still a ways off, spring is the best time of year for desert safaris.

This is where Abu Saleh’s tours to St. Catherine’s Monastery, one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world, started. The Bedouin is just 30 but looks older. While he has a friendly face, life in the desert and mountains have made their mark. His teeth are black, and his hands and feet are callused. When he speaks, his voice is resigned. These past three years have taken their toll.

“I only know Tahrir Square from TV,” he says. “I’ve never been to Cairo.” It frustrates him that his life has been so drastically influenced by events he feels so far removed from. “What do we have to do with some revolution?” he asks, referring to Bedouins in general. “No government has ever done anything for us, and that won’t change with the next government, regardless of who comes to power.”

Abu Saleh’s field is in a flat valley surrounded by steep mountains. Two boys work for him, monitoring the plants and watering them. Right now, shortly before harvest, the opium plants are in full bloom, their flowers pink and purple. The opium grows for six months, then the fields lie idle until September.

During a lunch break, Abu Saleh sits with the boys in a small tent where they bake the Bedouin-style bread they eat with sheep’s cheese and sweet tea. This is where they spend their days until the opium is ready to be harvested.

There is no concrete figure for the amount of opium grown in Sinai. Experts, agree however, that compared to Afghanistan and the Golden Triangle (Myanmar, Laos and Thailand), the amount is negligible. According to the UN, Laos and Myanmar alone produced 900 tons last year — or 18% of world production. In 2013, Afghanistan produced 5,500 tons of opium.

Big risks, modest rewards

But despite the small quantities produced in Sinai, the situation is a delicate one for the farmers. Some Bedouins relate how the military drove dangerously close to their fields the other day, and rumors are making the rounds that soldiers have destroyed some fields. “I’ll lose my whole crop if they come to my field now,” says Abu Saleh.

The Bedouin invested his entire savings in his field. Opium isn’t particularly lucrative for farmers, but it brings in more than tomatoes or cucumbers. Growing vegetables in the desert won’t work anyway because the low prices from selling them doesn’t cover the high cost of watering them.

If everything goes to plan, Saleh will harvest some five kilos of raw opium this season. Dealers pay him a little under 1,000 euros per kilo. But he has to share his profit with his business partner.

Subtracting the cost of seed, watering and help, he calculates his profit will be about 600 euros, much less than what he earned as a tour guide. “It’s a joke,” he says.

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