MATEEN Express - Iraq's link to the world

Published: Saturday, July 18, 2020

It was one of those shining moments for Eng. Majid Saidgul Babasheikh Barzanji, the Chairman & Executive Director of MATEEN Express & Logistics Iraq, who also serves as the Executive Board Member of the National Association of Freight and Logistics-UAE (NAFL) and chairman of the Courier & e-Commerce Subcommittee, as he recalled how the logistics industry pulled through during the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic in China.

Heading a great team that is passionate about air transport and logistics, Majid was among the movers and shakers who led the industry out of the woods and on stable ground, particularly in Iraq, his home turf.

“Through our good communications with different governmental departments across multiple regions, we quickly obtained the necessary permits for 3 main activities: clearing the inbound traffic of shipments already in the pipeline; transferring these cargoes to our national hub for sorting and storing; and lastly the one we are most proud of, delivering the necessary shipments to their final addresses,” he said in this exclusive interview with Air Cargo Update.

Majid has not blinked an eye on what lies ahead for the industry in light of the current situation.

“I think the pandemic has proven that the air cargo industry is, in general, robust and agile, adapting to situations quickly and creatively. The same goes for the supply chain and logistics generally.

“Every element and every aspect of our industry has room for improvements and optimization. Collaboration within same company or group, reaching out to rivals, going untapped path, involving more technology, changing or modernizing the rules and regulations, we will see all these and many more as time unfolds,” he said.

Read on the rest of his insights in this Q&A.

The Covid-19 pandemic required quick and extraordinary commitment from the air cargo and logistics sectors to deliver valuable cargo like medical supplies to sustain lives and livelihood. How did MATEEN Express handle the situation?

We handled it quite well, fortunately, I would say in two stages, and here is how.

As we have two main branches in China since 2007, especially in Guangzhou, we came to know what to expect early on. So, even before March 2020, we got all our branches preparing for complete or partial lockdown, lack of mobility and working from home. So, by the time the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) announced the first lockdown starting 14 March 2020, we were not taken by surprise. In fact, we were quite well prepared.

Through our good communications with different governmental departments across multiple regions, we quickly obtained the necessary permits for 3 main activities, clearing the inbound traffic of shipments already in the pipeline, transfer those cargo to our national hub for sorting and storing, and lastly, the one we are most proud of, delivering the necessary shipments to their final delivery addresses all over Kurdistan and Iraq, despite the complete lockdown in Kurdistan and travel ban between the cities. We refer to this as Stage One.

Those volumes were already on the go, medical and personal protective equipment, seasonal commercial cargo, few projects, some oil and gas and telecom related.

Stage two is the critical times where almost all new cargo volumes where medical and life support related, and every hour counts. All this while, life in the rest of Iraq, UAE and the region goes as normal, for another 10 days.
Learning from our Kurdistan region experience, we got fully ready for the UAE lockdown (National Disinfection Program). Bear in mind, as the UAE is quite advance in all aspects, our industry was exempt from the lockdown.

Please share with us some of the challenges MATEEN Express experienced in delivering vital medical supplies to Iraq and other parts of the world. How did you manage?

Just like any other operator, we have faced many challenges, the toughest being how to get the medical support mainly from China to Iraq, via UAE and other transit routes.

Towards the end of March 2020, almost every cargo aircraft available on the market was dedicated to export pandemic related traffic out of China which made the availability and cost of the aircraft way too difficult to predict, let alone to secure.

This led to multiple hikes in the cost of air cargo, not expected by the customers and sometimes too difficult to fathom, on one hand, and very less flexibility left to match the supply of the cargo with aircraft availability and/or capacity availability.

Yet we managed through good and trusting relationship with our long-standing partners, and in some areas, through collaboration with operators that we were not engaged in business prior to those days.

Another challenge was trucks crossing the international boarders during the pandemic and quarantine requirements. This has put so many operations to a hold. However, one solution we came up very quickly was changing the trailer head at the border, and so minimized the impact of this new challenge, and moved on.

How busy was MATEEN Express during this pandemic crisis? What types of medical supplies you delivered and in which places?

Our Kurdistan, Iraq and China branches were very busy and under enormous pressure, but the UAE and Turkey were kind of quiet.

We have made major contributions in the shipping lots of medical, ventilators, testing kits & PPE from multiple locations in China, with direct exports from the mainland and also via Hong Kong to Iraq direct and via transit routes.

Shipments just arrived from China, being prepared to move forward to Baghdad & other cities.

Here in the UAE, we were mostly engaged in flight operation connecting China to Iraq for the medical supplies. Also, with whatever Iraq-bound exports of Oil & Gas and ITC volumes, with less medical related cargo due to export rules and restrictions.

How do you see the future of air cargo and logistics in light of what’s happening?

I think the pandemic has proven that air cargo industry is in general robust and agile, adapting to situations quickly and creatively. The same goes for the supply chain and logistics generally. However, due its own nature, the air cargo industry is always grabbing more attention due to the immediate results people are looking for in both success cases and otherwise.

We have seen many nations deploying all government resources including air force and air mobility divisions responding to the national supply needs due to the pandemic. Civil aviation approved passenger freight operations, removal of seats in certain cases.

Sure, on the commercial side, logistics industry in general and air cargo, correspond to the global economic trends.
Nevertheless, the air cargo industry remains on top of the supply chain with high demand for the foreseeable future.
Having said so, I do believe we all have learned valuable lessons from the situation. Every element and every aspect of our industry has room for improvements and optimization. Collaboration within same company or group, reaching out to rivals, going untapped path, involving more technology, changing or modernizing the rules and regulations, we will see all these and many more as time unfolds.

What challenges are you seeing as far as the Middle East logistics is concerned?

There are quite many challenges around here: instability in the region, leading to some kind of demographical changes, drop in oil prices and its impact on the regional economies forcing some governments to hold or postpone projects. Also, new routes from China to final destinations like Africa & Europe, partly impact the volumes used to move via the Middle East, and probably we see more volumes leaving as the road and belt initiative get more into shape.

Please update us with the different multimodal services/ specializations that MATEEN Express currently offer to customers and other potential clients. Please elaborate and specify each one.

Historically, air transportation to Iraq and express delivery have been the backbone of our success. However, driven by the growing demand in quality logistics and transport services in oil & gas and projects sector in Iraq, we diversified our portfolio and secured some great contracts for many years.

Yet, as Iraq being very unstable for many years, MATEEN Express eventually expanded its geographical coverage to GCC and MENA region in general since 2016 onwards, focusing mostly on challenging and specialized logistics solutions, like oversized, heavy and bulky, dangerous and multimodal.

One of Our Repair & Return Logistics Solutions for Energy Sector in Iraq.

Last year, we were awarded a contract to move precast concrete in the GCC for more than 1,300 trips of specially equipped fleet. And the last phase of this contract coincided with the Covid-19 outbreak.

Also, during January 2020, we were awarded another contract to move raw materials from multiple origins to the GCC and the final products to half a dozen destinations in Europe. Again, highly specialized multimodal and multistage logistics and transportation were managed mainly by our team’s professional and creative approach.

Every company is now on survival mode following months of lockdown all over the world. How important is honesty and integrity in today’s business scene to make things work and help in the recovery efforts?

Well, we have proven to ourselves and our community, yet again that it is all in the Core Values.

As we could see from our China branches what is going to happen if the virus spreads in our regions, we have had very open and candid discussions with our entire workforce across all our stations.

As early as mid-March, we declared to our staff that this will be the last month we expect to have our full wages. And everyone was advised to strictly budget themselves for months to come. I am very humbled by the trust and loyalty of our people everywhere.

In March-2017, we increased the salaries by 6% across the group, with no real business improvement expectations. Our team appreciate these gestures and has gone the extra mile during these tough times to ensure the service remains functional and we keep the company safeguarded.

We have not laid-off a single staff due to the pandemic. Yes, we cut on many luxuries and reduced salaries for April and May, but kept our people on their jobs.

It is a harsh reality; no service provider can sustain by moving only medical and top urgent necessity shipments alone.

Our business has always been flourishing with stable and prosperous times where there is trade and development. However, during this difficult time, we keep moving forward and holding up, while we focus on training, optimization, cost reductions and many other initiatives.

I am equally thankful to our customers and partners who kept trusting us during this unprecedented time.
We started publishing regular updates on what is happening in Iraq through our website and social media, even before the mainstream media get them through.

This extra level of integrity and transparency was very important for our customers, contractors, service providers and staff. We kept everyone in the know of what is going on and what to expect next. And we certainly had moments of hesitation whether to share the info to the public or withhold to avoid any possible panic and let the public find out later on mainstream media. Yet, we decided early on, that we will keep our message brief, clear and concise.
MATEEN Express is known for its cost-effective solutions and honesty, which are now more relevant, given today’s unprecedented global crisis. Please share your thoughts on this subject as far as companies seeking your services are concerned.

Well, thank you for thinking nicely about us. I would say, the traits we are mostly known for are, trustworthy & reliable. When we started back in 2003 & 2004, all the concepts and services we introduced in Iraq were all new, and never tested prior to us.

So, a major reason for customers to get on board was our honest approach. Then we gradually proved our worth to be Trustworthy & Reliable not only to individual customers, but to SMBs, Corporates, MNCs and Interline Partners, Integrators and Freight Forwarding partners as well as Governments.

Time and time again, customers are telling us on different levels, why they stick with us. The core values we live by are not brochure and presentation materials, in fact it has been our guiding principles in every aspect and since the inception of the company; in our recruiting, selecting business partners & associates, proposing solutions to critical situations where things can get blurry, and so on. Most of the time, you will have to sacrifice an immediate or short-term gain in return to stick by these values and principles, but in the long run you will harvest what you planted.
And the beauty of living by sound principles is, for as long as you stand by such high principles and practice them in your daily business, you gain the trust of your surroundings and you get loads of ideas and insights, feedback and advices. And word of mouth proved to be one of the best ways to connect with new potential customers.

Having said so, one has to keep his tools sharp and his people prepared and motivated, and adapt to the new realities and market evolution and new technologies breaking ground every day.

I can humbly say, when it is about Iraq, you don’t need to think further, we always have you covered.