While devastating military conflict and mass displacement has focused attention on humanitarian relief efforts throughout the Middle East, an analysis of humanitarian logistics hubs in the context of these wars has received little scrutiny. Yet these hubs—where private firms and international organizations coordinate on the movement of data and material to conflict and disaster zones—are increasingly a key mechanism of intervention. They are also, moreover, increasingly a central element in the projection of power for the Gulf regimes that are the primary belligerents in the Yemen war. Thus, rather than reading military intervention separately from so-called humanitarian agendas, it is essential to trace the symbiotic relationship between humanitarian, commercial and military logistics.

A focus on the multiple concurrent forms of intervention by states like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which boasts the world’s largest humanitarian hub, illustrates the role humanitarian logistics can play in amplifying and projecting military power. As the most aggressive partner in the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, the UAE’s military intervention includes a clear strategy to control Yemeni ports on the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, alongside the primary maritime trade route between Asia and Europe and a major chokepoint in global shipping, the Bab Al Mandeb passage at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Three ports—Mukalla, Aden and Mokha—as well as the island of Socotra and an oil export terminal located in the eastern coastal city of al-Shihr, have all come under UAE control.

Alongside the occupation and control of these ports, the UAE has employed humanitarian aid as a tool to distract attention from its ongoing military campaign, with Emirati aid agencies inviting journalists to accompany them while distributing supplies to areas under their military control. Indeed, although Yemen has become the largest recipient of all UAE foreign and humanitarian aid, this funding is increasingly aimed at supporting infrastructure projects that link Yemen’s ports to regional shipping routes.

Along with its expanding port and infrastructure foothold in Yemen, the UAE has also been developing a growing network of commercial ports across the Horn of Africa, which are frequently attached to provisions for military, police training and/or military bases. This expanding presence amounts to a broader regional economic and military intervention from the Persian Gulf to the Horn of Africa, which would enable the UAE to significantly control and impact the circulation of goods in coastal areas including Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Somaliland.

This overlap between the UAE’s military, commercial and humanitarian practices illustrates the necessity to look much more closely at interventions within and through logistics spaces, which Deborah Cowen describes as “network space, constituted by infrastructures, information, goods, and people, and is dedicated to flows.”[1] A focus on the multiple forms of intervention by states like the UAE illustrates how logistics spaces have become important arenas for geopolitical and geoeconomic interventions, ambitions and conflict. The UAE’s rapidly expanding logistics space thus functions at the intersection of trade and war, with the production of distinct spaces such as Dubai International Humanitarian City (DIHC), the largest humanitarian logistics hub of its kind in the world.

In utilizing its logistics space for commercial expansion, war-making and humanitarian aid, the UAE is blurring the lines between all these modes of intervention, while simultaneously promoting the role of private logistics firms based in the country. The UAE’s successful efforts to attract high-profile aid agencies and international donor organizations to DIHC has, moreover, allowed the government to leverage the surge of humanitarian logistics as part of a national branding campaign—positioning the UAE as a giving nation despite its intensified military intervention in Yemen and elsewhere.


Expanding UAE Logistics Space

Despite its small size, the UAE has become an important nodal point within global logistics space: Its network of state-owned enterprises such as Dubai Ports World (DP World), and Etihad and Emirates airlines, position it centrally in international supply chains and global commodity flows. In addition to its physical infrastructures and large transnational corporations, the UAE’s logistics space is underpinned by hyper liberalised trade regulations designed to facilitate circulation, including a network of interlinked free zones and incentives to corporations such as 100 percent foreign ownership and zero percent corporate tax for 50 years (a concession that is renewable).[2] Through major investments in transport infrastructure, it has also become a regional trade gateway and a re-export zone for commodities on the Europe/East Asia trade route.

But it is the UAE’s location at the intersection of one of the globe’s most militarized maritime routes that has made it a significant logistical node in regional wars. For example, during what came to be known as the Tanker War (attacks on oil tankers carried out by both sides during the Iran-Iraq War), the United States reflagged and/or provided US Naval escorts to oil-laden vessels from the Gulf monarchies to deter attacks. This had the immediate effect of increasing the US naval presence in the region and the long-term effect of increasing militarization of maritime trade routes. UAE maritime ports in particular have long been strategic assets for the US military in the region. The US military stations personnel at Fujairah port and at Jebel Ali, where the deep-water harbor is able to accommodate the larger US naval vessels.

Its mega transport infrastructure and naval capacity have been central to the UAE’s military build-up and more aggressive foreign policy. This infrastructure is entwined with a flourishing private commercial and military logistics sector which cohered largely around the supply of logistical labour to the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the context of the US-led War on Terror, private logistics firms became more central to the US military, taking on contracts to move supplies and feed and house troops.[3] Indeed, several UAE-based logistics firms were initially established as contractors for the US military.[4]

In this militarized context, the UAE’s military strategy has included bolstering its own naval capacity, as well as controlling or developing maritime ports and military bases outside its territory, which includes not only its recent intervention and port/infrastructure expansion in Yemen but also across the broader Horn of Africa. In Somaliland, for example, DP World signed a 30-year concession in May 2016 for the port of Berbera, which included the construction of a logistics park and free trade zone. In 2018, the UAE announced it was also building a military base adjacent to those DP World facilities. The UAE military also has a 30-year concession agreement for the Eritrean deep-water port of Assab.

The UAE’s expansion into the Horn of Africa is an attempt to control an important trade route by developing new infrastructure while also protecting its existing ports by blocking future competition. DP World in particular is seeking new ports, but also aiming to maintain the advantage of established ports such as Jebel Ali. Despite many initial successes, regional states are beginning to grow wary of the UAE’s intentions. In March 2018 DP World was forbidden from operation in Djbouti, where the government also repossessed Doraleh Port, which had signed a 30-year agreement with the firm in 1999. Somalia also viewed the UAE’s expansion of port facilities in Berbera, Somaliland as an infringement on its national sovereignty. Somalia has no mechanism, however, to prohibit construction in the autonomous territory and the port project is going ahead.


Leveraging Humanitarian Logistics

The aggressive territorial expansion of the UAE’s maritime ports and related infrastructure has also included major investment in positioning the UAE as a regional and international humanitarian logistics hub, largely building on its existing commercial infrastructure. Thus, the UAE harnesses humanitarian logistical spaces in a branding exercise, attempting to make its authoritarian governance model more palatable for local and international consumption, not entirely different from the ways that Western interventions have relied on a blending of humanitarian engagements and military occupations.

Although logistics are historically associated with militaries and the organization of violence, logistics have been increasingly central to global humanitarian operations.[5] The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the catastrophic lack of logistical preparation and capabilities to meet the crisis helped spark the adoption of business logistics modalities and the internalization of market imperatives for humanitarian operations. The UN’s Humanitarian Reform Programme entrenched the role of logistics by establishing topical clusters to improve disaster and crisis response, one of which was the Logistics Cluster. Part of this program included the formation of regional logistical hubs for multi-agency use for warehousing and pre-positioning supplies, the largest of which is in Dubai International Humanitarian City (DIHC).

The centrality of logistics to humanitarian operations has accentuated the role of private logistics firms in humanitarian action—whereby they can provide logistics functions equally across militaries and aid agencies. While logistics traditionally played a subservient role in humanitarian organizations, it has gradually come to define humanitarian strategy, with logisticians elevated to the top ranks of aid agencies.

DIHC, which was founded through a government directive in 2003 merging Dubai Aid City and Dubai Humanitarian City, is a clear illustration of the UAE’s ambitions in humanitarian logistics. Situated within Dubai’s broader logistics infrastructure encompassing Jebel Ali Port, Al Maktoum Airport and associated free zones for warehousing and commercial functions, all are connected through a customs-free corridor. As with other free zones in the UAE, the Dubai government encourages international aid agencies to relocate to DIHC by providing free space, support with visas, zero customs fees and exemption from the new VAT introduced in 2018.

Although largely unknown and hidden within a larger complex of free zones, DIHC’s glass-fronted buildings and large depot provide warehouse facilities and operations centers for major international organizations, such as United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross. These warehouses store emergency aid items like water purifiers, emergency vaccines, vehicles, communications equipment, specialized foods, tents and blankets which are regularly shipped or flown out of Dubai. The space is part of a network of UN Humanitarian Response Depots, with additional locations in Ghana, Italy, Malaysia, Spain and Panama that manage the supply chains of emergency items for UN agencies and NGO partners.

DIHC members have procured and shipped materials from the hub to conflict zones in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan, flood recovery and educational projects in Pakistan, and drought areas in East Africa. But the hub is more than just a warehouse—it is a networking space to nurture commercial partnerships. In addition to UN agencies and NGOs, DIHC hosts many private logistics firms that handle the movement of supplies to aid groups but also service various militaries operating in the region. For example, the firm Automotive Management Services (AMS) monitors and repairs large fleets of vehicles for militaries, police, and other government clients from its main office in DIHC. Originally headquartered in Great Britain, it followed UN agencies into Dubai because, in the CEO’s words, “The UN tends to go to markets as they’re developing, so we enter new locations with the UN, whether it’s in Somalia, South Sudan, Mali or Chad, and then…we can develop that into a commercial model.”[6]

The presence of DIHC in Dubai helps to reinforce the entanglements between military, commercial and humanitarian activities. The promotion of the UAE as a humanitarian logistics hub and major donor is intrinsically linked to its military interventions and competition over trade routes. Moreover, DIHC as a distinct spatial structure, although ostensibly liberal, should not be abstracted from the labor regime in which it exists. In Dubai’s case, a highly hierarchical, ethnoracial labor regime underpins the operations of DIHC: A layer of upper and middle management, largely with previous UN experience and drawn from the region, manages the overall operations of DIHC, while the hard physical labor of logistics is provided by a mainly South Asian migrant work force. An added perversion is that some of these laborers (including Yemeni workers) come from the very same communities that are impacted by UAE military and commercial interventions.


The Politics of Logistics Space

The UAE’s commercial and military expansion into the Horn of Africa and attempts at incorporating Yemeni ports into its network of logistics spaces is part of a long term strategy to exercise control over multiple access points across existing and emerging trade routes.[7] This strategy has clear implications for wider power arrangements, especially in light of proposed networks like China’s One Belt One Road initiative, which the UAE hopes to connect to and benefit from. Abu Dhabi’s accelerated efforts may heighten intra-Gulf tensions as well, as it has intensified regional competition that UAE commercial entities are keen to manage. For example, nearby Oman is vying to secure its space as a regional logistics hub with heavy investment and private-public-partnerships with European maritime terminal operators. Saudi Arabia is also investing in maritime infrastructure and building its own humanitarian hub—the King Salman Centre for Humanitarian Aid and Relief (KS Relief).

The shape of post-conflict political arrangements in Yemen, Syria and Iraq will be powerfully shaped by developments and interventions across these logistics networks that underpin future flows of development and reconstruction assistance. Investments in and developments of the UAE’s logistics space is itself a mode of intervention that will be critical to shaping regional politics and reconstruction agendas in years to come.  ■



[1] Deborah Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), p. 8.

[2] Rafeef Ziadah, “Transport Infrastructure and Logistics in the Making of Dubai Inc.,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 42/2 (2018).

[3] Adam Moore, “US Military Logistics Outsourcing and the Everywhere of War,” Territory, Politics, Governance 5/1 (2017).

[4] Darryl Li, “Migrant Workers and the US Military in the Middle East,” Middle East Report 275 (Summer 2015).

[5] Wesley Attewell, “‘From Factory to Field’: USAID and the Logistics of Foreign Aid in Soviet-Occupied Afghanistan,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 36/4 (2018).

[6] John Bambridge, “Full Metal Fleet: A Story of Three Continents,” Construction Week Online, July 5, 2015.

[7] Adam Hanieh, Money, Markets, and Monarchies: The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Political Economy of the Contemporary Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

How to cite this article:

Rafeef Ziadah "The UAE and the Infrastructure of Intervention," Middle East Report 290 (Spring 2019).

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