The largest aid hub on the planet

Behind the scenes at Dubai's United National World Food Programme

Area Guides, Community
Area Guides, Community
Area Guides, Community
Area Guides, Community
Area Guides, Community

We go behind the scenes at the largest international aid hub on the planet, located right here in Dubai.

Flick through the news channels and you’ll see a different crisis every day – floods, wars, hurricanes, fighting – killing some, displacing others and leaving families without food and shelter. Though these events may be happening thousands of miles away, much of the emergency relief comes from right here in Dubai.

Since 2001, the Dubai-based humanitarian hub managed by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is dispatching food, shelter, medical supplies and communications to vulnerable populations all around the globe. Located at the heart of the International Humanitarian City, near Al Maktoum International Airport at Dubai World Central, this is the UN’s largest logistical hub anywhere in the world, and you probably never even knew it was here.

Providing food to more than 90 million people in 80 countries on average each year, WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organisation fighting hunger, and from this hub in Dubai Industrial City it is working towards that goal.

As visitors approach the warehouses, they might look unremarkable: blue roofs, white corrugated metal walls, but what goes on inside is the difference between life and death for countless victims of the world’s disasters.

The WFP-managed UN Humanitarian Response Depot (UNHRD) in Dubai has 22,500 sq meters – that’s five football pitches – of warehouse units, all packed with emergency essentials ready to deploy to a crisis anywhere in the world within 24 hours.

But it’s not just ready-to-eat food products that are contained here – the agency also collects shelters, tents and medicines from 60 different partner organisations, which it delivers to places such as South Sudan, Iraq, Tanzania and Syria. Last year, the hub responded to five top level emergencies, namely Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and the crisis in Syria. By October, it had helped 4.8 million people – more than double the entire population of Dubai.

The aid hub runs three main functions – Fast IT & Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team (FITTEST), the United Nations Humanitarian Response Depot (UNHRD) and the Global Vehicle Leasing Programme (GVLP), which provides leased light vehicles and when required armoured vehicles for staff and supply distribution), but even when there isn’t an emergency on the scale of Syria, the warehouse
still operates at a state of readiness.

‘From Dubai in 2013 we had 537 shipments out,’ explains Bekim Mahmuti, the centre’s senior logistics officer. ‘Every working day there are on average two shipments out of here to anywhere in the world – vehicles, tents, high-energy biscuits, every day we send something from Dubai to wherever it is needed.’

Even as we walk around the warehouse the logistics team are receiving emails from country offices with requests to dispatch food. Global vehicle leasing programme fleet manager, Bill Campbell, checks his phone: ‘We’ve just had an email to inform us of increased military fighting in Somalia, which has displaced 100, 000 people’.

The team at the hub speak passionately about their work, and are constantly aware that situations in unstable countries can change and escalate and the work they do determines the fate of people on the
receiving end.

As Mahmuti shows us around the hub’s warehouses and technical units, he explains that the speed of response is vital for the beneficiaries and other organisations working at the scene. ‘We have the equipment and the staff so that when typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, for example, we could deploy from here everything to the Philippines and establish communications.’

Of the six humanitarian response depots strategically located in the world, Dubai is the biggest. In 2000, the only hub the UN had was in Brindisi, Italy, but after the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami in Asia in 2004, in which a quarter of a million people died and two million were made homeless, it had to rethink the strategy. ‘We said “are we best positioned in Brindisi to respond to the whole world? Not really,”’ explains Mahmuti. ‘Here, we have better proximity to disaster-prone areas. Another element was the willingness of the government here to host us.

‘Everything you see here – 15 units of 1,000sq m each on one side and 50 units of 500 sq m on the other – was given to WFP by the Government of Dubai free of charge, even the electricity and air-conditioning.’

Recently, the UAE government announced a $31 million [Dhs113 million] donation to support WFP’s emergency food assistance operations in and around Syria.

Bill Campbell is in charge of the fleet of light vehicles that the UN uses to get staff and supplies to people in need. Inside the centre of workshop is an armoured 4x4 van, the window glass is 35mm thick so it can take bullets from an M16, and AK47,’ Campbell explains. The armoured vehicles are modified to ensure safety of staff in hostile situations. ‘You can’t put a price on a human life. It costs a fortune to keep the armoured cars on the road but we have no option. We’re now deemed as a target by some terrorists, which is unfortunate. They don’t separate the good from the bad anymore, they attack where they can and the UN is a soft target – we’re unarmed civilians.’

While the whiteboards on the walls are full of request forms for light vehicles to be sent to Mali, Tanzania, and Syria. At least five Emergency Response vehicles are kept on standby for emergencies at all times. ‘The light vehicles, which are modified for extreme conditions in Africa and Latin America, cost around US$28,000 [Dhs103,000] each and they work with car manufacturers to keep the price low,’ Campbell says.

Another important arm of the hub is the Fast IT and Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team (FITTEST). FITTEST are a small, specialist crew of frontline responders who establish internet and telecommunications on the ground so that the UN and other humanitarian and NGOs can communicate. ‘They’re prepared for anything, they go through a lot of training to prepare themselves mentally and physically for the challenges they encounter,’ says Mariko Hall, FITTEST’s public information officer.

‘The guys that went to Haiti tell stories of arriving in the middle of the night, working all night and day and when they needed some sleep they grabbed a cardboard box and a plastic bag. They often live like that for months at a time.’ Hall shows us to the tech lab, explaining that there are only 19 members of the FITTEST team and they are all based in Dubai. When not being sent out into the field, they’re constantly working on improving and developing their technology tools, such as renewable energy power-supply solutions.

On the day of our tour, one member of the FITTEST team is working with a specialist from (Government of Luxembourg) and Ericsson Response to advance the internet services kit they must take to emergencies – making it slimmer and lighter for more effective use in places struck by disaster.

‘It is not about the disasters that we see on CNN, BBC and other international media,’ Mahmuti is keen to explain. ‘Just because it’s not on the news doesn’t mean that they don’t need help.’ The UN Humanitarian Response Depot (UNHRD), which occupies the majority of the warehouse has stock moving in and out constantly. Sixty humanitarian organisations store their goods in the warehouses – and just 15 staff are responsible for orchestrating supplies moving in and out.

Naturally, WFP heavily relies on corporate sponsorship and donations to run the warehouse and according Mahmuti, financing is one of the biggest challenges the organisation faces. ‘As we stand today – I have money for another four months, which doesn’t allow me to plan far ahead because we depend on voluntary donations. We survive like this, from one month to another.’

And here’s the kicker – to keep this enormous, worldwide effort to continue saving lives going, donations are constantly and urgently needed. It costs WFP just one dirham to provide a child with a nutritious meal, and less than Dhs300 to feed a Syrian family for a month and every donation goes directly towards supplying food for survival.

Located on the sandy outskirts of the emirate, this humanitarian hub works around the clock to be ready to respond to every kind of disaster, regardless of whether natural or man made. How many people does Bekim think the WFP has helped, since the began operating from right here in Dubai?

‘I would be the happiest person if I could quantify that, but nevertheless I sleep very well at night – unless I get a call with an urgent request.’
To learn more about the WFP and how you can help, or to support the programme’s Ramadan drive, visit

Show your support

Donate to the Human Fuel campaign
Look out for special donation boxes that have been placed across the entire network of ENOC/EPPCO service stations in Dubai, where motorists can conveniently make their donations or directly donate their change at the cashier.

Volunteer at the Red Crescent Society of the UAE
This organisation requires volunteers to help provide training, medical help and admin support to the workings of this humanitarian charity.

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