Despite the continuing violence, firms can thrive in Iraq as long as they pay attention to security and local values, says Heyrick Bond Gunning
The day that George Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq were over was the day I flew into Baghdad’s Saddam International Airport, hoping to play a part in the country’s new dawn. Iraq was in chaos but many entrepreneurial Iraqis, as well as various onlookers from abroad, had already begun to recognize the opportunities emerging in the war-torn country.
The new entrepreneurs
While the violence and political turmoil continue today, the lure of adventure and profit has been strong enough to bring together a diverse range of people to help rebuild Iraq – among them Brits, Americans, Fijians, South Africans, Australians, Malaysians, Thais, Nepalese, Bulgarians and Moldovans.
As a contractor setting up services across the country for DHL, a logistics company, I recruited Brits and Antipodeans with the promise of adventure ahead. But the spirit of this newest wave of entrepreneurs in Iraq is best exemplified by some of the DHL crews in Iraq. They flew Antonov cargo planes with crews of seven: two pilots, a navigator who sat in the glass nose of the plane with a set of binoculars, a radio operator and three “technicians” whose role included anything from preparing inflight meals (such as a frankfurter boiled in a kettle) to loading and unloading the plane.
Their unorthodox approach was apparent when I first met the team in Bahrain, where they were repainting their plane. Painting was preferable to washing it, they explained, since it would take seven of them two days to wash it but only five of them one day to repaint it (the 27-year-old plane is painted about twice a year).
They were a close-knit and at times disorderly bunch, but they were vital to the DHL operation in Iraq. The crew realized that they were working in an unstable environment but, rather than fear it, they relished it.
For instance, when a DHL Airbus was shot down at Baghdad Airport in November 2003, the Antonov continued to fly. In truth, nothing would stop the team working. Even when one of the Antonovs lost a window the day before departure they simply flew at a lower altitude using oxygen masks, rather than cancel the flight.
Business as usual – with caution
For many Iraqis, however, the situation across the country is far worse now than during Saddam’s reign. There have been only marginal improvements in critical infrastructure and the quality of life for most is desperately poor. The air of anarchy that prevails means that no one is safe. The threat posed by the insurgents and terrorists is significant as they have access to a fairly large arsenal of weapons and explosives and are becoming ever-more sophisticated in their tactics.
Yet, against this treacherous backdrop, business is nonetheless being conducted successfully and safely – after the appropriate precautions are taken.
International companies in the region must protect their employees from the threat of death, serious injury or kidnap, as well as from damage to the company’s commercial interests, reputation or brand value.
By improving their own security, foreign companies can boost their business prospects before setting up on the ground. Such a strategy should include the following safeguards.
»Pre-deployment: training of all personnel deploying to Iraq, even those only operating for a short period of time; reconnaissance of potential areas of operation, preferably with a security manager; security surveys of all areas of operation, including remote sites, offices and accommodation; planning for emergencies, crisis management and evacuations.
»Post-deployment: provision of effective life support and communications networks; provision of security-management structure; completion of physical security measures and any enhancements; exercises and rehearsals of crisis-management plans.
For the rebuilding to be successful in the long term, foreign contractors must, above all, exercise cultural sensitivity. They must take time to understand the local environment, its people, norms and practices.
Companies that employ locals and integrate domestic companies into their business plans, while also being mindful of religious and political traditions, will have a much stronger platform than those operating on a purely western basis without attention to such concerns.
The local touch
The most important part of the rebuilding process, however, is the Iraqi people. The country has vast potential, well beyond its petroleum resources, most profoundly in its people.
Our local DHL employees, for example, were under constant threat. They couldn’t even tell their neighbours where they worked and would only don their uniforms when they arrived at work. Yet their dedication was such that they would always turn up for work, even in the face of direct threats or having narrowly missed explosions.
Blessed with an irrepressible sense of humour (as dry as the English), a vibrant passion and the sharpest of business minds, the Iraqi people are something of an inspiration. Even when their world is falling apart around them, they work hard and are quick to laugh and enjoy themselves.
The sheer determination of Iraq’s people is what augurs best for the country.
CV Heyrick Bond Gunning
Heyrick Bond Gunning is managing director of the consultancy arm of Kroll Security International. He was previously the point man for DHL in Iraq. A former soldier in the British Army, he is also the author of Baghdad Business School.