United Nations event to raise awareness about vital work in UAE

More than 300 staff at dozens of agencies operate in the Emirates, but their key work often goes unnoticed

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Dena Assaf UN Resident Coordinator in UAE speaking at World Food Programme Stop the Waste campaign at Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Dubai.  Leslie Pableo for The National

The United Nations will hold a major event in Abu Dhabi on Thursday to raise awareness about its crucial work in the UAE.

Teams from the UN and the UAE Government will mark the Year of Tolerance with a walk at Umm Al Emarat Park, while visitors can learn about the extent of the UN’s role in the country.

The event also marks UN Day — when the organisation's charter came into force 74 years ago.

The UN has a long history in the country with Unicef, the children’s fund, active here since 1972. Almost fifty years on, at least 31 UN agencies with more than 300 staff operate in the UAE tackling everything from climate change to the global refugee crisis. But the huge scope of this work often goes unnoticed and Thursday’s event seeks to rectify that.

Dena Assaf, the UN's most senior official here, has led this new approach.

“People have said to me: ‘I didn’t even know the UN worked here’,” said Ms Assaf. “We felt that needed to change.”

A UN veteran of 20 years, Ms Assaf serves as a type of ambassador for the organisation. About a year into her five-year tenure as the UN’s resident co-ordinator, she wants to raise awareness about the UN, the UAE’s backing for her work and the country’s promotion of the sustainable development goals — a set of 17 global targets agreed by 200 countries in 2015 to eliminate poverty and boost education by 2030.

The UN's work here covers many areas but some stand out. The crown jewel is International Humanitarian City in Dubai. Founded in 2003 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, it is the largest humanitarian distribution hub in the world. Its members include nine UN agencies and scores of businesses working in the sector. Teams dispatch aid to places such as Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen from its huge network of warehouses at Dubai Industrial City.

“The World Food Programme uses Dubai as a global distribution hub,” said Ms Assaf. “It chose the UAE … because of the location and the facility. Even their car fleets are managed from Dubai. What is different here is that the UAE supports other countries [directly] but also provides a platform to support other countries.”

Other areas of co-operation include female empowerment. The first cohort of Arab female peacekeepers graduated in May from a UAE-funded training programme. The initiative is run by UN Women along with the UAE Ministry of Defence and the General Women's Union, and involved more than 130 women from the UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Sudan.

The three-month programme trained the women in peacekeeping, first aid and field engineering. While most of the women are not soldiers or even peacekeepers yet, the skills they gain make them eligible for service in their home countries and eventual UN duty.

Turning to conservation, the UAE has provided financial support to host an office of the UN’s Convention on Migratory Species. First agreed in 1983 and now signed by more than 150 countries including the UAE, it seeks to protect migratory species passing through the region such as raptor and saker falcons.

“They are being hosted here with financial support to do the work,” said Ms Assaf. This support is all the more crucial considering that the UN is facing financial difficulties. Only 129 of the organisation's 193 member states have paid into 2019's budget, compared with 141 last year. The shortfall currently stands at $1.3 billion (Dh4.77bn), compared to about $1bn a  year ago.

Other areas of co-operation extend to Expo 2020 — where the UN will have its own pavilion — and joint efforts to tackle climate change. The UAE hosted the Abu Dhabi Climate Meeting in June where UN chief, Antonio Guterres, issued a warning that the world faced a fight for its life in the battle against rising seas. But this is just some of the work being done and that is where Thursday’s event comes in.

“These are usually held in hotels but I wanted to do it outside and let the public know that the UN is here,” said Ms Assaf. “The values of the year of tolerance match with UN. It is a good partnership.”

The event starts at Umm Al Emarat Park on Thursday at 9:30am and all are welcome.