On paper at least, Euan Fraser’s current post sounds like a job to die for.
Location: surrounded by sand in a warm climate (currently 30 degrees and
rising.) Accommodation: a bijou residence on Park Lane. Dress code: casual,
typically shorts and a polo shirt. Budget: unlimited.
There is of course a catch, quite a big one. Fraser, 41, is one of a small
team of 11 Ministry of Defence financial and commercial specialists, all
volunteers, currently working in the war zone of Iraq. And he has the dubious
claim to fame of being the only qualified accountant who is currently on a tour
in the region.
The accommodation isn’t quite as salubrious as it sounds, either – in reality
it’s a combination of tents and 20ft by 10ft Portakabins lined up in ‘streets’
named somewhat ironically after the properties on a Monopoly board. Fraser is
one of the lucky ones – he doesn’t have to share his metal box with anyone.
At least the 15-hour working days, seven days a week, mean he hasn’t had a
chance to go stir crazy from the inside of his tin can. ‘It’s hard graft. That’s
why generally people do only six months at a time. You can’t do much more than
That said, he has just returned to Basra for the start of his seventh month
out in the field, for what was supposed to be a five-week stint in the war-torn
province. Fraser was initially flown over to manage the closing down and sale of
the Shaibah logistics base – the main British military base in the region.
‘Originally the plan was to give the base to the Iraqis. It was my job to
deal with all the financial issues to do with closing it down – making sure we
had taken the right assets from the base and tidying up the contracts we have
out there. They started planning the sale about a year ago, but there have been
delays. There’s UK time and Iraqi time. It’s not that things don’t get done as
quickly, but it tends to be one man working and six men watching.’
CIMA-qualified Fraser speaks with some authority on the issue of work ethic
in Iraq. His latest stint marks his fifth time in the region since 2002, when a
project in Saudi was interrupted with the news of the outbreak of Gulf War II.
Fraser’s first war job was to set up a number of air force bases in the Middle
‘None of my job involves balance sheets. We provide information on debtors
and creditors but balance sheets are put together in the UK. My involvement is
looking at the contracts and infrastructure we need to put in place and putting
together business cases and investment appraisals for contracts.’
His working environment may be unusual, but he says the job involves pretty
much the same processes as for any procurement project.
‘It’s a case of do we or don’t we do it, and we have to choose between buying
or hiring. The main difference is that a lot less time is spent on the process
because you need the decision tomorrow. You go out to tender but whereas in the
UK it’s a three- to six-month process, here it might be a week or two depending
on the necessity to get things done.’
With no actual budget in place, the funds at his disposal can run into
millions of pounds. Admittedly, the nature of his work means there’s no fall in
share price, or shareholder revolt to worry about, but any wild deviations from
the estimates submitted to the Treasury at the beginning of the year have to be
justified directly to Whitehall.
‘There is planning but it’s difficult to put a figure on it. If you do need
more money, it’s not as if you’re going to hold off until next year.’ Current
spending in Iraq is around the £1bn a year mark, and around the same is spent in
Afghanistan. Most of that money is controlled centrally from the UK, including
food and welfare contracts. ‘In-theatre, we control between £130m and £150m –
that’s effectively life support for troops.’
Despite its rather dramatic name, life support refers to the rather mundane
but essential elements needed to run an operation in the field, notably catering
services, provision and delivery of water and fuel, and hire of vehicles.
Negotiating these contracts has been increasingly tricky and expensive. When the
war started, prices for most commodity items trebled overnight. Fraser blames
the Americans for aggravating the situation.
‘They would just throw money at things. With some of our existing contracts
in the Middle East we were able to keep our rates, but when we retendered,
prices shot up. It was a supply and demand thing.’
But with more suppliers trying to muscle in on the action, the situation is
definitely easing up. ‘We recently went out to tender for a contract for
laundry, waste disposal, Portaloos and cleaning. We had four companies
interested – one from the UK, one from Germany, a Kuwaiti outfit and one from
Having spent a chunk of his MoD career prior to the war working for the
Defence Procurement Agency, in its pricing and forecasting group, Fraser jumped
at the opportunity to volunteer his services for a posting in the war zone.
‘I wanted to try something different. I thought it would be interesting
working with the military almost on the front line. I felt very detached from
things in the UK. It’s nice to see what the money is being spent on and to
really feel as if you’re making a difference.’
For the little time he isn’t working, there aren’t too many creature comforts
to distract him from the harsh realities of the war. ‘You get 30 minutes a week
of free phone calls, and access to email and the internet. Apart from that,
there’s a gym facility, the Naafi has a couple of outfits, and there’s an Indian
restaurant, a Pizza Hut and a Subway.’ At least he has the Americans to thank
Fraser is certainly no shrinking violet. In many respects it’s easier to
imagine him behind an assault rifle than putting together a cashflow forecast.
Despite the risks he faces on a daily basis, he says he’s never really felt
scared. ‘In 2003 there wasn’t any real threat. Today it’s a bit more
So how close do things come exactly? ‘Within metres. I’ve had one or two
near-misses. Just last week, a rocket landed 40 feet from my accommodation. Only
one person has been killed from indirect rocket attacks. It doesn’t scare me –
Although civvies aren’t given any military training or weapons, they are
issued with body armour and a helmet. ‘The MoD also runs a week-long course at
Chilwell covering a basic awareness of what’s going on in the area, first aid,
cultural awareness, weapons recognition and mines awareness training. There’s
also some NBC – nuclear, biological and chemical – training, although the risk
is very low.’
Perhaps his early career working for the DHSS in his home town of Glasgow
stood him in good stead. Fraser might still be there were it not for the fact
that a dearth of jobs in the DHSS led him to apply for and get a post in the MoD
as a project finance officer.
That initial move to the MoD back in 1989 may have been rather ad hoc, but
Fraser hasn’t looked back. It’s certainly not part of his career plan to go back
to a typical desk job. ‘The last four years have been really exciting. The MoD
is getting fewer volunteers now, partly I think because of the perception of
danger but also because they’re reducing the financial package. I’ve done pen
pushing in the past and I enjoyed it but I couldn’t go back.’
The cost of war
The £1bn annual price tag for the war in Iraq is well documented. For Euan
Fraser, keeping a tight hold on the purse strings is a key part of the job.
‘Parliamentary questions on the cost of the war means we’re under real
scrutiny. We still follow government accounting and do value for money
accounting and things like that. Essentially we’re the keeper of the public
purse while we’re out here. It’s about operational necessities, not
But in other respects, it’s business as usual, particularly for those
commercially-minded Iraqis keen to make the most of the situation. ‘They’re
looking to make money and some are happy to work without us providing force
protection – escorts and protection of assets. We are trying to redevelop Iraq
as a country.’ He admits to being frustrated that not more good news about the
redevelopment effort trickles through to the international community. ‘Iraq has
reduced in profile, so you only hear about the bad things. You don’t hear about
what the Department for International Development is doing to redevelop Basra.
The quicker things are redeveloped, the quicker we’ll be out.’