Dozens of angry Shia Muslim workers stormed the Schlumberger Ltd camp in Basra, Iraq last week after a British employee took down a flag that was placed on the company’s car to commemorate the death anniversary of Imam Hussein, Prophet Mohammad’s grandson. The Brit was hospitalized after he was severely beaten. The incident comes a day after an Egyptian working for another company, Baker Hughes, removed a similar flag from a company vehicle. Media reports said local protests prompted Iraqi authorities to arrest the Egyptian worker on charges of insulting the religion.
The incidents prove once again that nothing is more important for soldiers or businessmen than to understand the culture particularly when operating in conflict zones. The “do and don’t” cultural manuals so often given to troops and international corporation people going to the Islamic world have often proven worse than nothing because it presents a didactic mechanical view of a very fluid and dynamic culture. I should know because in my time as a cultural expert and instructor at the John F Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. I had to present many of them back then although they were not my choice for sure. My superiors told me that an hour was all that was needed, or that they had time for!
A video showing Iraqi Shia workers beating Schlumberger’s British employee
Looking back at the incidents, they both coincided with Ashura, an occasion of profound sadness observed by he Shia around the world and particularly in Iraq. Every year and millions of Shia on foot pay homage to Imam Hussein who was killed and buried in Iraq’s Kerbala.
Shia communities in Iraq as well as Iran or Bahrain, fly flags or banner, mostly black, and marked with phrases such as “Labaik Ya Hussain”, Arabic for “We are here for you Hussain”. Eulogies and recitations honoring the life of the Imam abound on Ashura which is also observed by oceans of tears, chest beating and self-flagellation.
What happened in Basra to Schlumberger’s employee is truly unfortunate, yet one must remember that when operating in a foreign environment such as Iraq, it is critical that cross cultural differences are recognized especially when we know that in the past years several similar incidents took place to other western companies there.
For instance there is this misconception among many westerners, particularly western oil companies, that working in an environment like Iraq would be similar to that of the Arab Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Unfortunately some of them tend to use the same cultural briefing designed for their staff in Saudi Arabia with those heading to Iraq.
In case of Baker Hughes, you would think that the Egyptian worker would be more familiar with the Iraqi culture but the truth is not really. Assuming that he knows Arabic, language does not necessary make him a cultural expert. In fact, his Egyptian origin could be exactly why he got himself in trouble. Click here to read why.
What Schlumberger or Baker Hughes ought to know is that Iraqis are their own kind of people. They are neither like Gulfies nor like those in the Levant. It is also important to realize Iraqis themselves have various ethnicities within them such as the Kurds and Assyrians. It is perhaps best to categorize them as Mesopotamians if we must generalize.
After all these years of experience I have spent in giving cultural briefings on Arabs and Islam, the articles and conference papers I wrote, and the travels I have made to the region, I can confidently say that there is not a single-one-over-the world briefing that fits the entire Arab or Islamic world. There are commonalities for each country, and they are important to know. In fact they are essential to know, but as a starting point not ending. Part of that knowledge is to acquire a basic understanding of the symbols and inner meanings of these symbols.
Those who are interested in identifying an essential starting point can benefit from reading The Arab Mind, a book that unfortunately has come in for a lot of criticism from academics, mostly those wallowing in political correctness. As I wrote in the forward to the latest printing of the book, “Not only is the Arab Mind one of the best books ever written on Arab culture it is also the only one in English that delves deeply into the culture, character, and personality of Arabs. The author, Raphael Patai was very sensitive to a stereotype of Arabs, writing that the “regional differences led to a creation in many parts of the Arab world of local tendencies, which frequently clash with the larger ideal of all-Arab unity.” Much of Patti’s analysis is supported by the well-known Iraqi psychologist, Ali Al Wardi.
Schlumberger and Baker Hughes should have better prepared their staff to such possibilities by illustrating the impact of cross-cultural awareness though custom- designed briefings to educate the staff on the sectarian and ethnic tension in Iraq, particularly how each sect or group have special characteristics and how occasions such as Ashura is of a highly sensitive value among Shia in south. Similarly, flying Iraq’s national flag in Kurdistan could get these companies in trouble. In this regard I vividly remember an incident in Kurdistan when I was there in 2003. At a small Iraqi government building on top there was a very dirty and torn Iraqi flag flying. A Kurdish militia member who was with me pointed to the flag and told me that the mere sight of the flag made him feel humiliated. To him it represented the occupation of Kurdish land by Saddam’s Iraqi Arab army. One should also note that flying Imam Hussein’s flag in the western Sunni province of Anbar could get you killed. Like Patai noted, “the regional and even village differences must be known and taken to heart”.
What happened to the British national is example of people looking through the lens of their own culture to understand the Iraqi culture. I know that the British are quite cavalier about their own union jack flag, using facsimiles for underwear.
In my advice to these companies that are probably considering resuming work in Basra, I suggest that they start educating their staff about the sensitivity of the environment. They also should consider some public relation efforts targeting their local staff and village residents living near the camp in order to polish the company’s image, gaining back their trust and avoid future attacks. One example would be offering water bottles for free to walking convoys that will be heading to Kerbala again to pay a tribute to the same Imam on a day they call Arab’yien, the 40th days that follows the Imam’s death anniversary.