Planning for a change of plans: Protective Services at a major world event in Saudi Arabia

Richard Whitelam
Richard Whitelam


Planning for a change of plans: Protective services at a major world event in Saudi Arabia

A mantra from my previous life within the military was “prior planning and preparation prevents poor performance.” Now, as an advisor to private sector clients doing business in the Middle East, I find that these words remain quite relevant.

When protecting our clients in Yemen, Syria, Pakistan and the Gulf, our strongest recommendations are to always engage us in the planning process early and to remain utterly flexible--because in these particularly complex environments, one must expect the unexpected.

This proved true for a number of eminent global companies during the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia last year.

The FII is a forum for global leaders, government officials and CEOs to network, discuss trends shaping the international business environment, and create business opportunities in Saudi Arabia. Given the high-profile nature of the event and its attendees, protective services are critical. Control Risks’ clients turn to us not only ensure their safety and security, but also to enable them to be in the right place at the right time in order to achieve the objectives of their visit.

In the build up to the FII in 2018, our planning process was as meticulous as ever. As with all major events, a thorough review of each detail is necessary to ensure the client is in the right place at the right time, with no security issues or delays when moving throughout the multi-day conference. In the case of the FII, not only did we have five teams providing protection to various clients, but the number of global leaders in attendance, including senior members of the US Administration which made security and logistics especially complicated.

As the lead consultant, my task was to ensure that our journey management planning was complete well in advance. This included driving and walking the route, understanding the local threat environment and considering the atmospherics that could impact communications, and thereby affect our clients’ primary and secondary routes when moving between venues. It was also critical to understand, coordinate and deconflict the security requirements of the protective teams managing each world leader, from the security needs of our clients.

Thus, we had to manage and maintain effective communications between all necessary parties. Control Risks’ security teams were fully briefed on program timings, scheduled meetings, and the locations of private functions and ad-hoc networking opportunities. With that done, what could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as it turns out. Due to the high-profile status of the global leaders and high-net worth individuals in attendance, six hours before the start of the event the Saudi Royal Guard unexpectedly closed all access points to the venue (a large, international-brand hotel). This presented significant issues from both a logistical and security perspective.

Logistically, it was a catch-22: the FII access passes were to be collected inside the venue at a registration point, but no one could enter the event to collect their pass because no one was permitted access without one!

The second and more pressing issue was one of security. As guests were refused entry into the venue, there was a backlog of hundreds of vehicles queuing on a main road outside— essentially corralling a group of the world’s most prominent political and business leaders in an area with no access or exit points should an attack take place.

Fortunately, our experience at previous events had taught us to expect such actions from the internal Saudi security authorities, so we had pre-emptively secured a room at the venue hotel for logistical contingencies. As a result, we were able to enter as hotel guests and collect our incoming clients’ access passes, allowing them to bypass the commotion and arrive safely, without delay. Our clients managed to attend the high-profile opening ceremony whilst the majority of other invited guests remained stuck at the event entrance, frustrated and arguing with the Royal Guard.

Upon completing our engagements, it is vital to conduct a lessons-learned review with our clients. These valuable discussions allow for quality-enhancing feedback and the continuous strengthening of our client relationships. The consistent feedback following the major FII event in Riyadh was that our forward planning and flexibility in dealing with unexpected challenges helped our clients to prepare for issues they would not have considered without our advice. As a result, they were able to successfully seize business opportunities that would have been denied to them otherwise.

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