Many travelers do not prepare adequately for upcoming business or personal trips to a new or even well-known country. Often, frequent travelers feel they are experienced enough to handle situations as they arrive, however with an increase in global terrorist threats and cyber risks, it is more important than ever to be prepared. Political instability, terrorist attacks and regional conflicts can change the security situation without notice. Enhancing your awareness of the security situation is a good first step. One way to do this is by using technology combined with traditional security measures. Technology, though useful and important, relies on the individual using it along with system security, location of technology use, etc. This includes everything from cell phones to tracking devices since they rely on how well the communication infrastructure is within the country or region to which it is being used.
One of the elements which makes modern Western countries examples of technological advancement is the widespread accessibility to common technological tools, means of communication and infrastructure. Expecting the same convenience in the Middle East is a dangerous fallacy among Western travelers and expats which leads to exposure to higher levels of risk once they are in the region.
For example, consider this scenario. It is common protocol for business professionals to report back to the regional office or to headquarters each step in their journey once on business in the Middle East. It is also common practice for security advisors to equip business professionals with tracking devices for online monitoring. What often goes unexpected is that there are city-wide and region-wide connection blind spots in most of the countries in the Middle East. Therefore, reporting or tracking is nearly impossible in those areas unless it is done with a satellite phone or similar technology that does not rely on local connection providers. Even in this case, however, the satellite phone or similar technology may not work. I have even experienced significant data inaccuracies when tracking devices or phones are reliant upon WIFI networks. In fact, analysts have observed an individual’s reported location jump from one country to the next while the traveler remains stationary at their hotel.
Additionally, despite the widely advertised low rates of petty theft in major cities of the Middle East, it is more common in uninhabited or uncivilized areas that phone thefts occur. Westerners are likely unaware of the practices they routinely follow that may draw attention to the technology they carry. Bear in mind, many Western countries receive the newest technologies earlier and perhaps cheaper than some economies. Carrying the newest model smartphone may increase targeting in these areas which have limitations to technology access.
It’s equally important to consider that most recently blockages of certain internet services in the Middle East region were announced making it even more difficult to keep in touch with the corporate office or the security point of contact in case of a critical situation. Applications that you may traditionally anticipate will be available for check-in with family or the office will not function. Many free applications have been blocked and even some paid services will not function. To date, I am unaware of business communication applications such as Citrix, that have been blocked, however, certain applications such as Skype for Business have been impacted in the region.
There are several steps to mitigate the above risks:
- Conduct research and rely upon the tools available to business travelers to keep the informed of the security and safety situation in the region. Reliance upon information that does not come from regional sources may be inaccurate or lack essential detail, so travelers should engage with trusted regional advisors when necessary.
- Transportation should always take place through large, well-developed, safe areas and cities under government control in each of the countries; even if it means traversing a longer route. No risky shortcuts should be taken; being on-time should not have higher priority than being safe and secure.
- Tracking/reporting tools should be based on satellite or similar technology tools and trip updates should be sent frequently via the device so that there is always a footprint of the traveler’s last location. The ability to monitor and connect are key elements to situational control.
- An individual should always keep belongings safe and secure looking after their most valuable items whether they are in the desert or in a hotel. Even in considerably safe cities in the Middle East, no security measures should be taken for granted, including low rates of petty theft and workplace violence or strong presence of law enforcement and government forces.
- Situational awareness should be maintained at the highest level possible. For many Westerners this does not come naturally, so additional efforts will be necessary to stay aware. Business professionals should study the social, cultural, religious and ethnic composition of countries of activity; it may seem superfluous, but only until a critical situation occurs. Awareness and prevention is always cheaper and easier than situational problem solving and consequent restoration.
- Travel plans should be communicated to others, especially if changes occur to trip itineraries.
- It is always important to participate in travel and situational awareness training prior to departure to the Middle East or any foreign county.
With the above in mind, there is a general rule to stick to when on travel in the Middle East: a business professional should not expect to be met with the same set of values and behavioral norms as in the home country; rather, he/she should blend into the environment of activity as much as possible.
As in most cases, maintaining a low profile is essential to avoid possible risk exposure. Acting in an intelligent, socially aware way is essential to successful crisis resolution, even in the risk exposed situation.
Andreas Karki is based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and has oversight of AT-RISK International’s consulting, protection and operational security matters within the region. He has more than 15 years of experience in the private security sector working on large, multi-cultural assignments in Scandinavia, Europe and the United Arab Emirates.