December 16, 2017
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Nearly all the world's relief supplies pass through this desert

In an unlikely spot in the middle of the desert lies the world’s largest stockpile of humanitarian relief supplies. Blankets, tents, buckets, and bodybags await the next big disaster. But why here, in Dubai? And what are conditions like for the city's migrant workers? A travel log from a surreal place.

By Maite Vermeulen, De Correspondent

A brand new strip of asphalt cuts straight into the desert of the United Arab Emirates, as far as the eye can see. The Dubai skyline shrinks in the rearview mirror, and the countless skyscrapers, like so many bolting plants, soon fade in the dusty air.

All color is washed out by the sand and sun. It’s not yet summer, but outside the mercury has already topped 100 degrees. Along the road, there’s nothing but gray desert scrub, power lines, and the occasional camel. The miles tick away on the odometer.

Suddenly, an oasis of palm trees, fountains, and shimmering glass appears. The top of the main building reads in capital letters: International Humanitarian City. It may seem an unlikely location, but since last year, the IHC is officially the largest logistics center for emergency relief supplies in the world.

Tons of emergency supplies are stored here – hundreds of thousands of tons – awaiting the world’s next big disaster: blankets, tents, buckets, soap, tarps, toothbrushes, mosquito nets, medical supplies and pharmaceuticals, but also bulletproof vests, vehicles, bodybags, generators, and water treatment equipment.

The facilities include some 560,000 square feet of storage (about ten football fields), filled with 30-foot-high shelving units, plus another 107,000 square feet of office space (two football fields). Last year, over 70% of humanitarian aid for Syria was sent from Dubai.

And the humanitarian community gets all of this at no charge – absolutely free – compliments of the government. That makes the United Arab Emirates unique: a country that not only donates money and supplies to humanitarian aid organizations, but also makes available space, manpower, and convenient customs arrangements to facilitate the swift import and export of humanitarian goods. But how does that work? And what’s in it for Dubai?

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The vision of His Highness

The United Arab Emirates is a young country. The union of seven emirates turns 42 next year. Just decades ago, the Emirati people were pearl fishers and date traders; now they live in one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

The UAE has pumped its oil and gas revenues into the country’s hypermodern infrastructure. Dubai boasts the largest port between Rotterdam and Singapore and the world’s largest tax-free zone. Dubai wants to become the center of the world.

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"Everything you see here is years in the making, a carefully thought-out strategy devised by the country's leaders," says Julien Chauvelle, Supply Unit Manager at the Dubai offices of Doctors without Borders. From the car, he points out a giant mural depicting the current prime minister, the emir of Dubai. "This sort of strategy can easily be adhered to in an autocracy. And even more so if you have such a small population."

Although the UAE is home to some 9 million residents, only 1 million are Emirati. The vast majority are foreign nationals. "The Emirati people get everything they want from the government," Chauvelle says. "Don't get me wrong, this is certainly a dictatorship. But the Emirati are happy. They have no need for democracy; they already have it all."

But simply being a center for business was not enough for UAE leaders. The Emirates want to be the center of the humanitarian world, too. "The wealthy should give to the poor," the first president of the UAE Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan is often as saying. In power until his death in 2004, he believed, "God has given us this fortune to develop our nation and contribute to the development of less fortunate countries."

And the UAE would seem to be putting its money where its mouth is. As of this year, the United Arab Emirates is the world's biggest provider of foreign aid, relative to its gross national income.

And the Emirati went a step further: In 2007, a law was issued by the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, which declared a humanitarian 'city' was to be founded, an undertaking fully financed by the government to help humanitarian aid organizations. United Nations aid organizations would be able to make use of all storage and office facilities in the International Humanitarian City free of charge; NGOs would be charged at cost. The new location was completed in 2011.