Crisis control

International Humanitarian City in Dubai is the world’s biggest aid depot, playing a vital role in channelling live-saving supplies to refugees in Syria and other disaster zones

The full scale of the crisis in Syria was laid bare in early March, when data from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was made public.

The agency calculates that more than 1 million citizens have fled the war-ravaged state to date, most seeking shelter in hastily erected refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. They arrive traumatised, without possessions, often having lost members of their families. Around half are children.

The strain of this influx on neighbouring countries is immense. Lebanon’s population alone has swelled an estimated 10 per cent, while Jordan’s resources have been stretched to breaking point. Global aid agencies have worked around the clock to supply the camps with food rations, tents, and other essentials, alongside shipping aid directly into Syria’s conflict zones. It is no exaggeration to say that without Dubai, this rapid-fire response might not have been possible.

Dubai’s biggest contribution to the global aid industry sits in a dusty industrial zone about 40km from the heart of the city. International Humanitarian City (IHC) is built on the emirate’s tried-and-tested free zone model, clustering an army of aid actors in around 100,000 square metres of warehouse, office and storage space. Its tenants range from UN agencies and humanitarian organisations, to sellers of tents and mosquito nets.

The WFP has secured more than $1bn from Saudi Arabia since its launch and leases the equivalent of five football pitches in warehousing space from IHC, free of charg

Supply channel

On size alone, it is the world’s biggest aid depot, stockpiling relief supplies for agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP), the International Red Cross and UNHCR.

In 2012, these prepositioned stocks were flown to disaster-hit countries ranging from South Sudan, to Yemen, and the Philippines. More than $28m worth of shipments was sent from IHC to Syria alone.

“We are a platform for humanitarian aid,” says IHC chief executive officer Shaima Al Zarooni. “There’s nothing else like it in the market. Dubai is eight hours by air from about two-thirds of the world’s population; it’s hard to replicate our model elsewhere without that logistical advantage.”

Dubai’s credentials as a trade hub are as appealing to aid agencies as they are to multinationals. The city is at the heart of intercontinental flight paths, a halfway house between Europe and Asia, while its ports are among the world’s largest and most efficient.

When needed, these trade links can morph into critical lifelines to disaster zones, allowing aid to be shipped in at an unprecedented pace. The UNHCR, for example, holds enough stock in Dubai to kit out 350,000 people with basic items such as mosquito nets, blankets and kitchen sets. Relief cargo can clear customs within 24 hours.

Dubai’s close proximity to stricken swathes of Africa and Asia is also a boon: traditional headquarters for humanitarian agencies such as Geneva and Oxford can, by comparison, seem a long way from their client base.

“This was the thinking behind IHC,” says Al Zarooni. The cluster was formed in 2007, at the behest of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. “The idea was to support humanitarian actors not just through donations, but by providing them with the infrastructure and the support that they need to deliver aid.”   

Lebanon’s population has risen by 10 per cent since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, while Jordan’s resources have been stretched to breaking point

Platform for aid

IHC is bankrolled by the Dubai government, receiving an annual budget of about $5.5m. This arrangement allows it to host its nine UN tenants free of charge, and to offer subsidised rents to 33 charities and other non-profit groups.

Commercial agents pay a base rent of around $220 per sq m and their utility costs; a rate significantly below the market price for prime office space.

The free zone has steered clear of independently funding aid programmes or organising aid efforts. Instead, with a raft of humanitarian players under one roof, IHC bills itself as a subsidised platform for inter-agency coordination.

“Having this sort of umbrella is good for them, and it’s good for us,” says Al Zarooni. “As a local entity working with global aid agencies, we can help them to connect the dots when it comes to the local NGOs [non-governmental organisations].”

It’s a timely move. The business of aid is flourishing, an unfortunate reflection of a spate of humanitarian crises in the Arab world and wider region.

Donations to aid agencies, however, are not; a legacy of the financial crisis and the ongoing economic woes of Europe and the US. The amount of aid gifted to developing countries by rich nations fell 4 per cent in 2012, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the first successive slide since 1997.

Many humanitarian agencies are operating on shoestring budgets, and have warned of shortfalls in funding. The WFP, IHC’s largest single tenant, appealed in March for an urgent $156m in funding to supply food rations to displaced Syrians. WFP’s emergency operation in Syria needs $18m each week to run.  

Growing role

Aid agencies are increasingly looking to the oil-rich GCC states to help plug the gap. Earlier this year, the UN launched a call for $716m to supply water, shelter and medical aid to more than 7 million people in Yemen. Appeals were held in New York, in Yemen itself – and in Dubai’s IHC.

In January, a fundraising gathering in Kuwait raised more than $1.5bn in pledges for Syrians stricken by civil war. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait each committed $300m to the cause.

“International aid in support of our operations in the Middle East has increased but not sufficiently to meet the demand triggered by regional conflicts,” says Mohamed Diab, country director for WFP in the UAE, and director of donor relations in the Middle East. “It’s crucial for GCC states and for the region’s private sector to further support the humanitarian and development needs of neighbouring countries.”

The WFP has secured more than $1bn from Saudi Arabia since its launch and leases the equivalent of five football pitches in warehousing space from IHC, free of charge.

“Regional alliances need to be sustained and expanded,” Diab notes.

The UAE has gained a bigger role on the global aid stage in recent years, in part because of IHC’s rising profile as a humanitarian hub. But the Gulf states more broadly still prefer to channel foreign aid bilaterally, comparatively shying away from multinational agencies.

The UAE has also taken an increasingly active role in the field, delivering aid to earthquake victims in Haiti in 2010, and distributing supplies directly to those affected by the Syrian conflict. “Most of the contributions now are going bilaterally to countries or being executed directly by our local agencies,” says Al Zarooni. “We can do it ourselves now. We were the first people to arrive in Haiti in 2010. It’s capacity building. You want to have your own organisations and your own players in the field.”

This can be problematic when aid agencies are increasingly expected to do more with less. Too many actors in the field can raise the risk of a breakdown in communication or the duplication of efforts, a potential waste of vital funding.

“The GCC’s multinational aid should be strengthened,” says Diab. “It has advantages over bilateral aid in that it’s politically neutral, is cost-effective thanks to economies of scale, and offers financial transparency and established expertise on the ground.”

The January pledges to the UN by three of the wealthiest Gulf states were heralded by some as the start of a new era of participation, one that could give rise to the region playing a more prominent role in the work of global aid agencies.  

Humanitarian hub

HC is likely to take a front-line role in any future campaigns. The free zone will take on a further three tenants this year, and is in talks with a clutch of other agencies.

In addition to the subsidised facilities it offers, it is also lobbying local hotels to offer cut-price room rates to tenants, to encourage aid agencies to host events in Dubai. It’s a business-orientated approach that could prove to be the model for future aid hubs around the world.

Al Zarooni recalls a visit in February to IHC by the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon. He toured the facility alongside Sheikh Mohammed, taking in its massive warehousing and relief stores. “He was fascinated by the infrastructure here and the work we’re doing,” she says. “He said it was amazing. We’re very proud of that.”