The unrest in the Middle East began a year ago when 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in Tunisia to protest his treatment by police. His suicide in December 2010 ignited a revolution fueled by activists who used social networking tools to complain about economic disparities, unemployment and long-standing corruption. Protests were organized. Riots ensued. Pro-democracy rebellions erupted across the autocratic Arab world and North Africa, culminating with the collapse of Libya in August. Fighting continued this fall.
Televised events in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen caused HR professionals to debate whether it was safe for their expatriates to continue working in countries imploding from revolution. Many employees were evacuated as protests grew deadly. For example, in Syria the government cracked down so arduously on protesters that between mid-March and the end of September nearly 3,000 people were killed, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
At press time, unrest has dissipated across some portions of the region. Many employers have sent employees back. But the question isn't just whether it's safe to return to the region, but whether it's feasible.
Business as Unusual
If a business wants to return to a country following a revolution, it's important to remember that the country left behind will never be the same, experts say.
Consider life in Libya. "The changing sociopolitical landscape poses greater threats to companies beyond the requirement for physical safety of people and assets," says Nathanael Jarrett, who serves as a travel security manager for International SOS, a provider of medical assistance and security services, and Control Risks, a risk consultancy.
"The potential for an escalation in criminal activity, violent protests, greater and aggregated levels of corruption, and opaque or confusing bureaucratic processes, combined with having to deal with decentralized or localized stakeholders or other third-party influencers on business operations, will add to the complexity of conducting business in the new Libya and impinge upon company reputation," Jarrett predicts.
In an article for CNN this September, Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote: "The protesters … still have no leadership and have yet to translate their protests into any coherent political and economic reform program. With initial objectives in Egypt and Libya met—the overthrow of dictators that ruled over them for years—they have not been able to move into the next phase of building an alternative system of governance."
One of the first questions experts say business leaders should ask is: How do you mind the store if you don't know who's minding the store? Due diligence is important.
HR professionals know, however, that this is "the nature of working in the developing world," says Gary McGillicuddy, founding partner of The Birches Group LLC, an HR consulting company based in New York City. "There's not always a court or a government office to adjudicate things. There are regime changes and the new guys come in, and all those understandings need to be re-evaluated. That's the fundamental nature of working in a developing country—the lack of clarity around governance, about the rules of law."
Judith Wierman, GPHR, has seen this firsthand. Wierman is director of HR and senior global business partner for Nalco, a water treatment company that does offshore oil production. It employs several hundred people in the Middle East and North Africa.
After a revolution, ‘There’s not always a court or a government office to adjudicate things. ... Understandings need to be re-evaluated.’
When conditions began to deteriorate in Libya last February, Nalco immediately began evacuating expatriates from Tripoli, Libya's capital, to Rome.
"We have employees who still have personal belongings there," says Wierman, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM) Global Special Expertise Panel. "They literally left with what they had."
Nalco isn't planning to send expatriates back anytime soon. "We've got locals that work for us in Libya," Wierman says. "Given some of the political turmoil and things that have been occurring there, we want to make sure our employees are safe."
Ultimately, sending people back into areas affected by the Arab Spring—despite the potential for violence—is a "country-by-country decision," says Lisbeth Claus, SPHR, GPHR, a professor of global human resources at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. Even then, she says, HR executives should not be making this decision alone.
Nor should they rely solely on input from chambers of commerce or ministries of foreign affairs in the countries where they seek to do business—or even the U.S. State Department—because, experts say, it can often take them days to report on unrest.
"HR does not have the skills to evaluate this," Claus adds. "Rather, HR professionals should be turning to security consultants who are working in the countries they intend to send employees to, and/or talking to locals who are employed there so they can effectively assess the situation."
Ultimately, "each company needs to weigh its own risks and see if it needs to be there," says John Rose, president of Business Travel Services for Travel Guard, a division of New York City-based insurer Chartis.
For instance, when evaluating security concerns, Jarrett says, "an oil block operator with a multimillion-dollar operation and a staff of 200 will think differently of a local militia group in the operating vicinity than, say, a team of engineers working on the oil block for a short period. Both companies will wish to mitigate risks to their staffs, but the level of security measures they adopt will have vastly different outcomes on their operations."
Having security plans, policies and procedures for dealing with any contingency is crucial, he and other experts say. These days, it's not just about how much you're going to pay someone to return to someplace treacherous.
"Companies used to throw money at employees" to get them to accept international assignments in dangerous places, says Ed Dombkowski, Buck Consultants' national practice leader for global special benefits. "They used to give them extra bonuses and hazard pay. Now, the money has become less important than individual security."
Companies should assess their risk, experts say, and determine whether or not sending an expat into a potentially explosive environment is critical. There are a myriad of questions to consider:
Can someone local perform the same job?
Will expatriate employees need security?
What type of security is necessary? Will they need bodyguards, armed personnel or bulletproof cars?
Will employees be working in an office or on a compound?
Will they be driving around meeting clients out in the open? Is it safe for them to do so?
Will expatriates be allowed to return with their families?
Once the business case for sending an expatriate has been addressed, companies will need to fully brief employees about conditions in the country and prepare plans of action in case violence erupts again and figure out what to do in case of emergency.
HR professionals must establish whether it's financially necessary to send an expatriate and what liability issues exist if that employee is kidnapped and held for ransom or simply disappears. Security should be in place, and ensuring the person's health and welfare should be considered. Insurance, mobility and evacuation plans should be in place, too.
To Go or Not to Go?
True, some parts of the region remain more volatile than others. In early September, the Israeli embassy in Egypt was attacked, increasing tensions in the region. Experts point out that companies seeking to expand or resume operations in Egypt should consider that some Egyptian nationals are trying to leave because of that country's flailing economy.
According to The Egyptian Gazette, Egypt is the largest economy of the Arab Spring states. In 2010, its gross domestic product (GDP) was $497 billion and ranked 27th in the world. And although exports grew GDP more than 5 percent in 2010, the average Egyptian lives in poverty.
Some Egyptians "want to leave because of the economy. They want to relocate their assets to the United States because it's safer economically speaking," says Peter Asaad, co-author of The HR Immigration Pocket Reference (Immigration Solutions Group/SHRM, 2010). Asaad is managing attorney at Immigration Solutions Group PLLC in Washington, D.C., which assists HR professionals and individuals with employment issues.
"They're looking to buy a house or create a business in the U.S. with the ultimate goal of moving all of their assets to the United States because their businesses in their country have been impacted by the unrest," he explains.
In the end, "it doesn't really matter if you're sending them to Tunisia or Switzerland," Claus says. Every country, every location is potentially dangerous because you're not in a familiar environment. "Don't assume that just because you're sending somebody to London or Paris or to Oregon or New York City [that] it's a familiar environment," she says. "People behave differently in unfamiliar environments. You need to be prepared for all interventions."
And resuming business in a violence-prone environment really needs to be worth it.
Because, Dombkowski says, "the last thing a corporation wants is to send someone to a troubled area and worry about repatriation of mortal remains."
The author is an online editor/manager for SHRM.