x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Lifeline for people caught in unrest

Risk consultants have been busy chartering planes, planning evacuation routes and organising the escape to safety of their corporate clients' staff stuck in trouble spots.

:Egyptians participate in the Million Man March in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February.
:Egyptians participate in the Million Man March in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February.

DUBAI // While many nervously watch the news from Syria out of concern for family and friends, others are keeping a strictly professional eye on the latest manifestation of the Arab Spring.

They scan the TV news looking for a signal, an event, a turn for the worse; something that will force international companies to pull out their staff. out. When - if - that happens, the crisis managers are ready to step in.

Risk consultants in Dubai have had a busy 2011, with many pushed to peak capacity as they battled confusion and government shutdowns to lay on flights, coaches and ships from Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain.

The international consultancy Control Risks has helped some 2,000 people from 60 companies to escape to safety this year alone.

"We've not had anything on this scale for quite some time," says Paul Beat, the firm's Dubai-based regional director. "At the height of the crisis our call centre in London was receiving over 500 telephone calls a day."

The company sent dozens of their operatives into the thick of the protests in Egypt and Libya to escort corporate clients to airports or seaports, or in some cases simply to drive them in rented vehicles over a border.

There were times when that was far from simple.

"In Cairo, it got a bit exciting when we were trying to get clients to the airports," Mr Beat says. "In some parts of the city the rioting was so widespread it was almost impossible for them to travel. There were roadblocks on every street corner and tensions were high."

In Libya, the government was allowing only scheduled flights to land. Although the company was able to book a number of flights in place of some that had been cancelled, it was forced to bring many out overland, in vehicles rented at the Egyptian border and from then on to Cairo airport. Others were taken out by sea from Benghazi.

So far, although many have left both Syria and Yemen, the company has not offered "exceptional" help as scheduled flights are still running.

"We have teams of security consultants who visit countries regularly to make sure we have local logistics and security company contacts," Mr Beat says. "But most of our clients have been able to get their personnel to leave on scheduled flights. All we've done is help to co-ordinate things."

Control Risks charters jets through brokers. One of them, Air Charter International in Dubai, has experienced a spike in business.

Its sales manager, Claire Brugirard, says the company's ability to field requests has been stretched to full capacity.

"Many times we worked through the night," she says. "Instead of getting additional staff, we invested in coffee and Red Bull to keep us awake at night. We managed to do what we did with the people we had."

Her company has chartered planes for humanitarian organisations, governments, travel agencies and corporate risk companies, lifting more than 5,000 people, from oil and gas executives to students, from Libya and Egypt.

Recent weeks have been quieter, although an oil and gas company in Yemen has asked for up to four planes to be put on standby for an evacuation.

"We've had an increase in demand for aircraft on standby," she said. "Instead of being reactive, people are becoming proactive."

Noura al Ali, an Emirati, was brought out from Cairo at the beginning of the year on a scheduled Emirates flight that landed with only minor delays despite the crisis.

"On the way from the hotel we saw people on the street setting fire to buildings," she says.

"It was quite scary. We were considering seeking help from the UAE Embassy, but luckily everything went OK with our flight."

Mr Beat says his company's services have not been in such high demand since the aftermath of 9/11, when many companies were concerned about potential instability in the region.

It has a "surge capacity" of additional staff it can call on temporarily in cases like that. However, are were no plans to downscale, he says.

"The big unknown right now is Iran," he says. "We get calls from clients who are concerned about that country."

mcroucher@thenational.ae