Travel security in the Middle East and North Africa

What new security concerns exist for international businesses amid the political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa?

Many of us watch the events in the Middle East and North Africa unfold from afar. But for businesses with operations in these global regions of political unrest, protests, rebel uprising and deteriorating security often force difficult and immediate decisions for the sake of keeping employees out of harm's way.

Faysal Itani, Deputy Director of Middle East and North Africa Forecasting at London-based Exclusive Analysis, an intelligence company that predicts commercially-relevant political and violent risks worldwide, explains how the security environment varies widely throughout the region, and what foreigners who travel or live in at-risk countries must keep in mind for safety.

See also: Employee safety: Travel guidelines and Employee safety in global hotspots

CSO: How much of an impact have the events in the Middle East in recent weeks had on the commercial operations of your clients?

Faysal Itani: I has depended on particular geography. In Libya, there has been a significant impact, but in places like Egypt, not really. In Yemen, the security environment has not deteriorated significantly. There have been a number of cancellations of travels to Bahrain. So, this is some of the activity we are hearing a lot of concern about among clients.

There are travel advisories for all of the countries that you just mentioned, but you indicate that in Egypt there has not been a lot of commercial impact. Why not? Contrast what is happening in Egypt with the situation in Libya.

The key point is whether or not there is a state collapse in the country; whether the institutions, including the bureaucracies, the ministries, and armed forces especially, are still functioning or are fragmented and essentially nonexistent.

In Egypt, what happened was a series of protests that pressured the military, which has always been in control of Egypt anyway, for about 60 years, to get rid of the president and the small elite that surrounded him. But while it was a regime change, it wasn't the collapse of the state, the armed forces didn't fragment, and, in fact, the state is still very much intact and in control of security. They have had some problems with the police, which has been somewhat weak and demoralized. But the general security situation is fine, really. There are sporadic incidents of violent unrest -- some of which are political, some of which are just opportunistic, or theft-related and economic.

In Libya, really this state is Moammar Gadhafi. Therefore, when his political survival is in peril, the entire government apparatus falls apart. The security forces fragment and, indeed, they are fighting each other right now. So you're looking at really problems that are of the opposite sides of the extreme in Egypt and Libya. Most countries we are hearing about are somewhere in between.

How likely are people who have to travel to these regions for business to adhere to travel advisories?

I think that among certain sectors there tends to be a much higher threshold for risk. We find that corporate security managers, for example, whose job it is to actually know the security situation, often have a higher appetite for risk. Situations others may perceive as too risky they may be willing to see it is a price worth paying, a risk worth taking -in the hydrocarbons industry particularly. Usually hydrocarbons industries are well entrenched in the country, they have a high entry costs, they're already operating there. Short of an all-out destruction of assets and the entire sector, they are not going to leave. Hydrocarbon companies in Iraq and Yemen, for example, are under no illusion about the environment they are operating in. It would take a serious deterioration of the security situation for them to leave -- if they will at all.

Others who are not security oriented, or not interested in strategic sectors, they will probably leave quicker and we tend to find that they don't stick around. So it's sector-specific really.

Are there security protocols those working in turbulent regions can follow in order to minimize risk if they do insist to continue to travel or do operations in these countries?

There is. Some things can't be helped. If you are, so to speak, 'white and western' and in Yemen, you are already at heightened risk and there's nothing you can do about it. However, say you are, for example, staying in one of the high-profile international hotels. Paradoxically, even though security there might be quite high, you may indeed actually be targeted because there are only a few of them and the would-be attackers will know that that's where the Westerners are. They will also target tourist sites. They will target popular restaurants and clubs. It is best not to frequent the places that foreigners, westerners, would frequent.

In terms of travel, we find a lot of people tend to employ the armed convoy approach with branded logos on their cars that drive through populated areas. That's just another way of putting a big bull's-eye on your vehicle. The best approach we find is get to know a local, ask them questions about the security situation, make friends with them if you can. Stay at one of their houses. If you can stay outside of the up-market, western areas, that is often even better.

Looking at the extreme end of the security spectrum with Libya - what has the situation there meant for businesses with operations or some tie to commerce in the country?

In Libya, if you are a successful business or have struck deals that are lucrative, odds are you have probably done so through the Libyan government. Odds are very high that you have done so with personal relations with the elite -- either Gadhafi himself or his sons and political allies. So, essentially you are one and the same with the political apparatus. Therefore, you're at risk for a number of reasons.

The first reason is that you may be viewed as a collaborator with the state. You could therefore be kidnapped or shot or harmed on purpose.

The second reason in Libya is that there is a lot of hydrocarbon interest and there is a very high risk that if Mr. Gadhafi finds himself isolated and his armed forces are fragmented, he may, to turn a phrase, go out in a 'blaze of glory' and burn down some of the strategic assets in the country with him. That could mean airstrikes against oil facilities, against refineries, oil wells, against terminals, strategic infrastructure like airports and ports. Those may be deliberately targeted by heavy weaponry, so that's another risk.

In general, whenever you have a lack of security in an environment, where people are basically taking security into their own hands, you have a general opportunity for all sorts of things; like banditry and Jihadist militia who carry out opportunistic attacks for apolitical reasons sometimes. It just creates a vacuum and all sorts of agendas pop-up. You may find yourself unable to travel, unable to move, stuck at home. A curfew may be imposed and you may be shot on site for violating it. Libya is the extreme, I must emphasize. But it certainly is a graphic example of this kind of environment.

In these types of situations, do countries generally advise citizenry who are working abroad to evacuate?

Well, they do it, but sometimes they do it too late. Sometimes they miss the countries that are actually at high risk and sometimes they do it where the risks aren't that extreme. The case in point is Bahrain, for example. Bahrain is indeed in a critical situation. It could escalate rapidly into political violence in the capital in the commercial district. But as of two weeks ago, when the protests were in full swing, there was no travel advisory warning against going to Bahrain.

Bahrain's own economy and size is not that huge, but because of its geopolitical importance it's a place where you might find proxy wars fought, where the state is likely to use heavy force against protesters. Because it's so small, and because all businesses are generally concentrated in central Manama, then you are best off not going there. But these nuances are sometimes missed and sometimes travel advisories are a bit reactive, so they come after the fact.

Do those who find themselves in a turbulent country once a travel advisory has been issued then find it difficult to leave?

Yes, but obviously at some point that can be avoided. For instance, in July 2006 when war broke out in Lebanon, there was no warning and no way to tell the war would break out. A lot of people were stranded and embassies had to evacuate their citizens to naval forces and it got very messy.

But those are wars, and they can arise quite quickly. But things like popular uprisings, and in deteriorating security situations with the fragmenting of armed forces, things like that, you can probably spot it if you're a bit more discerning and understand the nuances of the politics in the country. It really depends on the violent situation. But in a war between Israel and Lebanon you would probably have zero warning time and you would be caught in the middle of the situation.

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