By John Drake
LONDON: It has been some time since so many crises affected the Middle East and North Africa and many companies have been caught out — and there is more to come. Those who were comfortable working in relatively crime-free Libya found themselves in a war zone overnight. Tourists in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain faced chaos at airports and violence in the streets. Firms have abandoned properties and left employees stranded, unable to organize proper evacuation.
Oddly enough, although protests have taken place in Iraq too, they are not having the same impact on its slowly re-emerging commerce. The underlying grievances such as unemployment, poverty, inflation and a lack of services are as much of a problem here as anywhere else but private companies have not been significantly affected.
One reason is readiness. Companies operating in Iraq (should) have measures in place to mitigate risks and manage crises. The problem is that companies anywhere should have crisis plans too.
But it is no use having them in a document gathering dust on a shelf: in a crisis there will be little time for reading a book. Actions need to be swift and fluid, both by those in the country and those assisting them from outside, such as travel planners, security officers and even those liaising with employees’ families. The only way to ensure fluidity is training and regular practice for all involved.
Evacuation plans must also be reviewed. Many companies already have evacuation insurance but they must check their contracts in light of recent events. In the small print, many providers will only guarantee evacuation from the nearest safe airport. During the crises in Libya and Egypt such airports were often in another country, little use to those stuck in gridlock in Cairo or, worse, stranded in the Sahara desert. Measures need to be in place for evacuation by other means, such as boat or car.
There is no one-size-fits-all plan that companies can sign and hope for the best. An energy firm with staff in the desert will have completely different evacuation requirements from a hotel firm in a busy tourist resort, or a bank or a construction company. Contractors must not assume that security will be provided by the main company: this cannot be left to chance.
In one case, a group of 30 sub-contractors woke up one day in the middle of the Libyan desert to find that the management had disappeared, repatriated by their own country. The contractors’ insurers’ evacuation service eventually turned up, offering to meet them across the border in Egypt: obviously, if they could get to Egypt, they could get anywhere, including safely home. In an added complication, their passports were at head office in Tripoli.
Our team in Benghazi diverted and traveled more than 700 miles into the interior and brought them back. Meanwhile, our Crisis Response Center organized diplomatic intervention to handle their undocumented crossing into Egypt, where they were met at the border by a consular official.
This happy ending conceals a litany of incompetence, lack of planning, inadequate resources and real danger in the middle of a civil war — all of which could have been mitigated by proper risk assessment, intelligence, planning and organized response.
Crisis management can be expensive and time-consuming but it is better than being caught out. Many staff managed to escape Libya and Egypt at the appropriate time without getting in the news, often on a scheduled flight at standard cost before conditions deteriorated. Those that did not react in time were faced with either locking down and staying put or risking dangerous road movements and the high cost of chartering a plane.
Furthermore, if employees suffer harm the cost can be unquantifiable. You cannot put a value on the impact on their families, or indeed a company’s reputation. The financial liability is a whole other problem.
There are no quick solutions and crisis management is a long-term process — but with immeasurable potential benefits. The cost of a crisis can very quickly outweigh the cost of mitigating a crisis, while the impact on staff, assets and reputation can be irreparable.
There are plenty more crises brewing: if plans are only reviewed when a crisis is taking place, it is too late.
John Drake is a senior risk consultant with AKE Group, a British security and risk analysis firm working in Iraq since before 2003 and throughout the Middle East and North Africa.