No one predicted the revolutions that have erupted throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa. The full extent of the social and political transformations will only become evident in the years — and decades — to come, but the immediate fallout for foreign nationals in these countries was obvious: stable cities became danger zones.
In January, widespread protests in Egypt, for example, forced many companies, universities and nonprofits with personnel in Cairo to determine if the situation had become too treacherous for their workers. The magnitude of the unrest even surprised Charlie LeBlanc, who, as president of security evacuation provider ASI Group, makes his living by staying abreast of breaking developments across the globe. “If anyone says they saw this coming, they’re lying,” said LeBlanc.
Having traveled to Egypt many times, he knew there were many foreign nationals living and working there who would need assistance when the riots broke out. He did not know there were close to 80,000 expats, however. And he never imagined there would be an event so widespread that so many would need his company’s advice at once. “It seemed like all 80,000 were calling at the same time,” said LeBlanc. He expects that this will be the largest event of this type that he will ever come across. “We can’t envision a larger-scope scenario,” said LeBlanc. “You know, short of Armageddon.”
LeBlanc’s company is who you want to call if you are trapped in such a situation. Through a 2008 acquisition, his ASI Group, which was founded in 1989 as Air Security International, became part of MEDEX, a travel assistance and international medical insurance provider that works with insurers including Travelers and Chubb.
Immediately following the unrest in Egypt, the ASI team had some 30 corporate clients seeking consultation on how to keep their employees safe. All told, the company directly chartered more than 800 people out of Egypt in short order.
There were many others who wanted advice but wound up on State Department flights. ASI provided them with information on where they needed to go and how to sign up to get evacuated, but they made final arrangements on their own. LeBlanc does not know how many cases of indirect assistance his firm was involved in. “We stopped even counting,” he said.
For most people, all they wanted was a way out of the country. “When you’re talking to these folks,” said LeBlanc, “they’re frustrated, they’re upset, they’re discouraged and some of them…are worried that they’re not going to be able to get off the ground.”
But the decision on when to leave ultimately comes down to organizational and personal risk appetite. Those in the oil and gas industry, for instance, may have a vested interest in toughing it out longer then, say, an agricultural researcher for a nonprofit. And while most companies will adopt a blanket determination on when to pull out, the decision may be more personal in other cases. “On the scholastic side, it gets down to the individual,” said LeBlanc. “We had a lot of students in Egypt that didn’t want to leave. They felt safe. They’re young. We’ve all been there where we feel…that this is literally history in the making and we don’t want to leave.”
While some choose to live more dangerously, Dominick Zenzola, vice president and travel accident expert at Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, recommends that all organizations have insurance coverage that includes access to a travel assistance provider. When employee lives are at stake, you would rather have something you don’t need than need something you don’t have.
There are many reasons why. First of all, the companies that provide evacuation services have done this before and will not make the type of rushed, uneducated decisions that an HR manager on a separate continent might. Second, they have access to a wide array of transportation options. If the location is as chaotic as Cairo has been at times, a travel assistance company can likely call up a friendly partner to send an armored car that will drive the employee to the airport to board a chartered jet en route for, say, London if that is the safest, quickest way out.
“The employer is not going to have the means to be able to make those arrangements,” said Zenzola. “They’ll maybe be able to call a commercial airline to see if they can get on the nearest flight out of there, but in order to utilize all the available transportation options, the travel vendors, because of their network of resources, are going to be able to do that much quicker — and obviously much safer.”
This is the case not just when political unrest erupts, but when any major emergency requires the worker to make a quick exit. Injuries and illnesses happen all the time, for example. And the associated costs can pile up quickly. “Because of the fact that they use physicians and nurses on emergency helicopter flights and they have to fly into some pretty tight spots, that’s not cheap,” said Zenzola.
Regardless of whether the situation is triggered by a medical or political emergency, in many instances, travel assistance companies can offer a vulnerable employee another invaluable service: a reliable source of news. If you are stuck on a road in Cairo with little media access, your whole reality can become the information — or misinformation — you receive from the people in your immediate vicinity. At times like this, when the available information on the ground is more rooted in speculation than fact, the travel assistance company becomes a lifeline.
“We’re so used to being connected,” said LeBlanc. “Egypt is a modern country from a technological perspective. Those folks expected their smartphones and their internet to work and when that was taken away from them, it really blacked them out. You have to deal with that part of the stress, too.”
ASI helped evacuate one man who had to deal with such frustrations. Wanting only to get home safe, he felt fortunate to arrive at the airport and board a private plane that the company had arranged to take him home. But then he was forced to sit on the tarmac for nine harrowing hours when, unbeknownst to him, the Egyptian military made a snap decision to search every single airplane.
“That was a rule that just popped up,” said LeBlanc. “It was one general deciding we need to search these planes to make sure they don’t have Egyptians on board or large amounts of cash. So that took nine hours.”
Unfortunately, this was what passed for normal during the height of Egypt’s unrest — something LeBlanc and his colleagues learned time and time again while trying to get people to safety. “The only thing that was constant was that nothing was constant,” said LeBlanc.
In a way, however, this is nothing new. The political risk reality is constantly in flux throughout the globe. Security in different regions, countries and cities ebbs and flows between safety and danger. And in the Middle East, increased political risk may be here to stay. “We could honestly be looking at a completely different landscape in the Middle East in five years than what we see today,” said LeBlanc. “Whether that’s good or bad, time will tell. But it has the potential of changing the risk profile in those countries pretty dramatically.”
Regardless, as the risk changes, just as they did in Egypt, LeBlanc and ASI will also adapt. And all companies who put their employees in harm’s way would be wise to do the same.