REPORT: Dubai becoming global first response humanitarian hub

International Humanitarian City in Dubai is home to some of the biggest aid organisations in the world and is positioning itself to be the disaster first-response hub for the planet.
Since 2014, the government of the UAE has been the world’s top humanitarian aid donor by GDP.
Since 2014, the government of the UAE has been the world’s top humanitarian aid donor by GDP.


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Since 2014, the government of the UAE has been the world’s top humanitarian aid donor by GDP, according to the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This came on the back of a tripling of foreign aid contributions in 2012, which culminated in the country giving away from than 1.3% of its GDP per year from 2014 onwards, or more than AED 18-billion (on average).

This tells only half the story though, because while the UAE government has been active in supporting humanitarian crises in the region, with more than US $500-million spent on helping Syrian refugees since 2011, for instance, it has also positioned the country as a global humanitarian response hub. This was done through the establishment of the International Humanitarian City (IHC), which provides warehousing and international freight transport to aid agencies for free.

The IHC is home to the World Food Program, World Health Organisation, UNHCR, the Red Cross, Emirates Red Crescent and several other global NGOs. In March this year it was announced that the government had approved plans to expand, at its expanse, the warehousing provision in the IHC. The storage space will be tripled, enabling the world’s largest humanitarian logistics hub and its member United Nations aid agencies and NGOs to respond more efficiently to several crises and disasters and meet a sharp rise in global demand for emergency aid.

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According to IHC’s incoming CEO Giuseppe Saba, the expansion will see the total warehousing facilities space increased to 360,000 square meters. "A few years ago, IHC underwent its first tripling in size, up to the current 105,000 square meter space in the Dubai Industrial City. The total number of shipments delivered for emergency responses by IHC's members from 2011 to 2016 climbed to 8,211 worth AED 2.298 billion - $625.9 million. In addition to this, from 2009 to2014, IHC’s humanitarian impact has increased by 87 per cent," Saba told WAM.

To help its members meet their immediate growth needs, IHC will expand the current facilities by an additional 20 per cent (20,000 square meters), to reach 120,000 square meters of storage space. It will then embark on the broader expansion plan, which will result in tripling the size of the IHC a second time to reach 360,000 square meters.

"The continuing rise in demand, along with UAE's strategic location, serving two thirds of the world's population and the highest risk geographical areas, justify the need to triple the IHC's size once again," Saba said. According to several of the NGOs at IHC that Logistics Middle East spoke to, however, the strategic position of Dubai and the IHC means that it is now increasingly becoming a ‘first response’ humanitarian hub.

“We do a lot of pre-positioning and preparedness of supplies here, in case we want to send it out to somewhere else in the world,” explains Marie-Laure de Quina Hoff, logistics manager for the Dubai Office of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). “We gather stocks from different suppliers around the world and consolidate it here in Dubai for crisis response.”

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From its IHC hub in Dubai, the IFRC is able to mobilise emergency non-food items (NFI) for up to 5,000 people overnight. “Dubai is in the middle of the world, with excellent airports, seaports and some of the biggest logistics companies in the world based here,” Hoff says. In fact, on the day that LOG ME met with Marie, she was coordinating the loading of NFI freight for Sudan, which was to be flown that night aboard an air freighter chartered by IHC. “IHC provides the warehousing for free and regular air cargo flights that all of the NGOs based here can put aid on,” she adds.

In this way, the IFRC’s Dubai hub, through the IHC, was one of the very first NGOs to get emergency supplies onto the ground in Nepal following the devastating earthquake in 2015 that killed nearly 9,000 people, injured 22,000 and left hundreds of thousands homeless. “When there is a big disaster like there was in Nepal, we get a team on the ground within hours and they asses what is needed and the logistics of getting it into the country and to the people that need it,” Hoff says.

“The first response came from Dubai, within the first few days after the disaster we flew nine air cargo flights from the country,” she says. “Then our hub in Kuala Lumpur began to take over for more long-term support, with a total of 40 air charters from there until we were able to set up a road supply operation from India.” This is how the strategic location of Dubai is making global crisis response easier for NGOs, and it is why it becoming the most important part of their operation.

“Our Dubai operation is the first line of response to developing situations,” says Soliman Mohamed Daud, senior global supply officer at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). “Just last week we had two flights from here to Angola and Uganda to set up camps for the thousands of people fleeing Sudan and gathering on borders.” Both the UNHCR and the IFRC sending NFIs from Dubai, these include tents, blankets, mosquito nets, water sanitation tablets, kitchen utensils and stoves for cooking, as well as four-wheel-drive cars for transporting goods across difficult terrain.

The World Health Organisation and IFRC have a fleet of emergency vehicles standing ready to be flown to a crisis point anywhere in the world, the WHO even has fully-stocked mobile clinics and the IFRC has an entire flied hospital that can be mobilised within 48 hours. “The various branches of the IFRC, so the Canadian Red Cross, the Japanese Red Cross and so on all have their own field hospital, but when it was needed in Somaliland recently it was consolidated here in Dubai, all the items for the hospital,” explains Hoff.

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For Nevien Attalla, in charge of pharmaceuticals at the World Health Organisation in the IHC, the ability to consolidate goods in Dubai is of the utmost importance. “The lead time from the supplier is up to four months, and the items that we need have to then be packaged into surgical kits, emergency kits, different kinds of medicines from antibiotics to anaesthetics. Here in the Dubai warehouse we have more than 4,000 of these different kits and we’re also able to add and remove items from each kit according to the need on the ground.”  

The IHC provides these NGOs with the ability to prepare then, which Giuseppe Saba, CEO of the IHC says is crucial. “The humanitarian emergency response is crucial for saving life and the response can be more efficient if there is a good level of preparedness behind it. IHC provides such preparedness and we intend to support our members in the critical preparation phase of a crisis.”

The IHC then has played a pivotal role in providing the first and fastest responses to crises in places as far away as Haiti and Vanuatu, but is especially critical in moving goods to trouble spots in the MENA region and East Africa.

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