From Sand to a City

Dubai Humanitarian City in construction - click for full size view
Gianluca, (“Can you build it?”), the project coordinator, wrote:
"Gianluca, do you want to come to Dubai for a few months to help us build a city?" is how it all began for me, in a call from Peter in Dubai.
"Well, where do I start?", "Can you send me a copy of the job description?" was the immediate response, like someone had already planned the whole thing. The answer sounded so simple I even felt silly asking.
The job meant working with the Government on the conceptual and practical design of the city, the buildings, the security measures, the warehousing facilities, the interior design, the services to be provided, and, last but not least, the presentation of the facilities and services to other UN agencies – and introduction of Government Executives to humanitarian agencies’ representatives.

Now let’s run through the check-list: this requires logistic experience (I have very little), architectural background (none), strong security know-how (very little), good knowledge of the UN (-ish), experience in establishing and running UN common premises (uh?) and, most importantly, know-how in dealing with high-level government bodies (ouch). My initial reluctance (why me?) was dismissed when I was persuaded that nobody would have all these skills together, therefore I was just as good (or useless) as anybody else. "Ah, that’s fine then (I guess).", was my answer.

A month later I was in Dubai, looking at a few sand dunes where the city was to be built, with Peter whispering in my ear: "One day, all of this will be yours, my son." (Why me?)

In the Dubai office, everyone kept laughing at "my HQ tie". They all run around in T-shirts and sandals, many of them in shorts. I managed to keep my tie on for two weeks, and then gave up. I stopped wearing shoes after a month. And they made fun of my red face when I tried to lift one of the FITTEST telecoms engineers’ toolboxes (which they carry nonchalantly from their Dubai base around the world). My red face also had something to do with the fact it was over 40 degrees in the shade.

Things in Dubai move fast, soon we had to answer some critical questions:
• How flat should the warehouse floor be? (bo!)
• How steep should the warehouse entry be for forklifts? (eh.. like this?)
• What fire-extinguishing system for a computer room? (obviously not water..)
• What security measures at the entrances to control staff and visitors’ access? (body search?)
• How about explosives detection at the entrance? (a light bulb?)
• How do you verify the installation of the blast-proof film? (a hammer?)
• What kind of walls to install in the office, taking into account a possible change in layout in 24 hours? (Yellow ones?)
If you know the answer to all these questions, that proves my point: why me?

Luckily, we had sufficient in-house expertise in our organisation, and I don’t think I spared anyone from the Security, Procurement, Administration and Logistics sections in Dubai and Rome. With their help, we got the answers:
• "How flat? – triple 0."
• "Explosives detection? – dogs".
• "Fire extinguisher? – use the C02 ‘bomb’".
• "Walls? – demountable wooden framed panels on anodized aluminum support
grid," or something like that.

Three months after I arrived, the desert started shifting - pillars pointing out of the sand, walls Constructing the Dubai Humanitarian City with Dubai's Sheikh Zayed skyline in the background - click for full size viewand buildings taking shape. One warehouse, two warehouses, one office, two offices, guard houses, electricity complex, water complex, fences, roads, security systems. Even the long awaited fountain arrived. Then trees, grass, flagpoles.

I have always felt I was achieving something through my work, helping people, particularly in the field, in their day-to-day work. But I never actually saw the practical result, because it happened elsewhere. But here, I saw my words change a piece of land, our discussion become a new City, our vision become UN agencies working together.

My best memory? Just before leaving Dubai for Rome, I stopped at the Humanitarian City. I thought of all the people that helped me figure out why me?

Peter (“Can you build it faster?”), the boss (kind of), wrote:
It is all true. When we met H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, then the Dubai Crown Prince, he said: "If you want anything from me, talk to this man," and pointed to Mohammed Al Gergawi, Chairman of the Dubai Development and Investment Authority. So I went to see H.E. Al Gergawi, whom I got to call ‘Mohammed’ after two meetings.

During our second meeting, he said: "Peter, I know you never wear a suit, so don’t put one on for me. Now, give me three things you want from Dubai!". I named one. He said "not interested". I named another. He said: "not interested". Then I described building a compound for the humanitarian organisations geared towards humanitarian emergency response. Mohammed leaned forward and said: "Tell me more." It was easy to explain our vision: Put humanitarians together and they will start to work together. And the work will be easier, faster and cheaper. So, what’s in it for Dubai? Well, Dubai makes money, it’s a regional business centre, a regional commerce and logistics hub. Let’s add: "Dubai, the city that cares", let’s add a humanitarian vision to Dubai…

Mohammed said: "Give me a few days."
Two days later, he called: "Let’s meet. I want to show you something." He drove us around an old military base: many warehouses, small offices. "Would this do?" he asked. I was not enthusiastic. Too spread out, too old, too small.
Mohammed said: "Give me two weeks."
After two weeks, he called: "Refurbishment of an old facility would cost too much; we will build from scratch. Give me a few weeks."
In August 2003, someone in his office sent me an email: "Have money, will build. But bigger than a humanitarian base. Let’s build a humanitarian city!" They found a stretch of 300,000 m2, prime real estate close to the Dubai centre, and had a serious budget.
"Let’s build," Mohammed said. “Let’s build!”, I said, and called Gianluca.

So we built it. We locked ourselves up with about twenty people from the government – budget, finance, engineering, marketing, project gurus, IT, architects, Dubai Humanitarian City plan - click for full size viewlegal, etc. After half a day, we had a project concept, the basic design and cost estimate for our city. On January 1 2004 we started from a patch of land with nothing but sand. On March 1 (yes, the same year!), we had two fully functional warehouses. On 1 June (yes, the same year!), we had the office building ready, and our staff moved in by the end of August (yes, the same year!).

Official opening of WFP's office at the Dubai Humanitarian CityDuring the official opening ceremony, the visitors described it as the nicest, best thought-out facilities every built for our organisation. Equipped for 150 people, with training and meeting rooms, a storage area of 40,000 m2, including 10,000 m2 warehouses, it is the now largest humanitarian rapid response facility in the world. Meanwhile several other buildings and warehouses were constructed to make it a true Humanitarian city. It was built from sand to city in six months time. ‘With the compliments of the Dubai Government.’ Only possible in Dubai !

Text source courtesy of Gianluca Bruni and Caroline Hurford
Pictures courtesy of Gianluca Bruni
Check out more posts about Dubai on this blog!

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Anonymous,  03 February, 2007 18:20  

You have both a unique perspective and a unique opportunity to share something with everyone.

jeh 19 October, 2007 16:21  

I am really inspired by your detailed and indigeneous approach. I am an architect from India coming to Dubai if given a chance i would really love to work for you.

Peter 21 October, 2007 18:58  

Hi Weirdweasel,

Unfortunately, in the mean time, I have left Dubai and now work in Rome.
Wishing you the best of luck in the UAE!


Anonymous,  27 October, 2008 11:52  

An excellent piece of writing.

Wish I could find a job in Dubai and move over there to work in the future city.

Mauricio Vas

Office Design 30 August, 2010 07:10  

I think... you are creating a post by which could think about to visit on Dubai, its awesome feeling to visit on Dubai, if i got a chance then definitely i could arrive on their.

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