Maryland companies, port anxious about Egypt turmoil

Firms cancel trips, help employees flee country

February 06, 2011|By Gus G. Sentementes, Jamie Smith Hopkins and Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun

As Molotov cocktails, rocks and gunshots filled the streets of Cairo last week, executives at ARINC Inc. in Annapolis fixed on their employees' safety and getting them out of Egypt.

The company, which outfitted Cairo's international terminal with electronics systems and maintains U.S. Air Force jets there, decided Thursday after days of anti-government protests and clashes to pull employees, contractors and their families out. It was a harrowing time — there and here.

"This is what we've been living and breathing 24/7," said Alice Lao, ARINC'S director of international human resources.

And it was just one of many tremors that the unrest in Egypt triggered in Maryland, a prominent trade partner with Egypt during the past decade. Maryland exports more to Egypt than all but three U.S. states — about $400 million in goods last year alone. And the port of Baltimore is a key trading hub with Egypt, shipping vehicles and machinery to that country and receiving liquefied natural gas, minerals and road salt.

From large defense contractors to small equipment firms, Maryland companies have benefited from trade with Egypt. Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp. has sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of F-16 fighter jets to Egypt's air force as part of the United States' strategic military relationship with that country. Ellicott Dredges, a Baltimore dredging equipment company, has been doing business in Egypt for 50 years.

In the global marketplace, unrest can reverberate through international commerce. And when Egyptians revolted against the 30-year authoritarian rule of President Hosni Mubarak, a number of U.S. companies scrambled to get their employees on flights out, to assess the potential impact on their business and to obtain information about fast-moving events on the ground.

Egyptian port operations have stalled, and companies are closely watching Egypt's Suez Canal, a shortcut for oil and cargo shipments from the Middle East and Asia and a linchpin in international shipping.

The first priority for many companies was their employees in Egypt. Thousands of foreign nationals and tourists, including Americans, have been evacuated from the country in recent days.

Among them were employees of Northrop Grumman Corp., whose Linthicum-based electronics and radar division has worked on Egypt's air traffic control infrastructure. Company officials arranged for dozens of employees from a technical services division in Northern Virginia to leave Egypt.

At ARINC, which specializes in transportation and communications systems for government and commercial clients, officials said they cannot gauge when their employees might be able to go back. The company plans to take its cues from the State Department; if the agency lets its nonessential employees return to Egypt, ARINC would consider letting its workers return.

Lao said it is too early to know whether ARINC's long-term operations in Egypt will be affected.

"Mass unrest is never good for anyone's business anywhere," said Peter Bowe, president of Ellicott Dredges, one of several companies that was cancelling employee travel plans to Egypt last week.

"We did have a field service technician scheduled to make a routine trip in a couple weeks that we'll hold off on," Bowe said.

Annapolis-based iJET, a risk-assessment company that helps multinational organizations monitor and respond to global threats, has been evacuating clients' employees as the unrest worsened. Many are out of Egypt already.

"Larger groups we had to get out using charter flights," said Ed Daly, director of intelligence and watch operations at iJET, whose 500 clients include banks and universities. "In fact, we're still arranging flights for people."

The company is also providing ground transportation to commercial flights, which are still leaving the country. A number of long-term expatriates have chosen to stay, but that could change if the situation deteriorates, Daly said.

"Those that were compelled to leave by their sponsors or had the sense that 'this isn't the place for me,' they're out," he said. "It's now this other group, the expat or hard core, that are taking a wait-and-see attitude."

Business and trade ties with Egypt are only part of the international commerce equation. Many companies are watching how events are affecting the globally interconnected shipping routes from the country's critical ports.

Officials with the port of Baltimore are among the many port officials around the world who are concerned about potential disruptions to the flow of ships engaged in international trade by way of the Suez Canal, which is controlled by Egypt. The port of Baltimore's smooth operation is partly dependent on the canal.

So far, the Suez Canal has not seen its operations disrupted. But if its operations were hindered, there could be a domino effect worldwide, shipping experts said.

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