Emirates Post is a relative newcomer in the world of delivering mail. Despite the boom in email, Twitter and other social messaging, the post is still a vital service. Now with the My Home, My Building, My Zone scheme, letters and packets can be received at home, as Alice Haine reports
Postman Safdar Abbas is a busy man. He has an hour to sort the post for 400 mail boxes before he loads it into his Nissan Tiida and delivers it directly to people's homes.
Mr Abbas, a former taxi driver, has been delivering mail to villas in Arabian Ranches, Motor City and Jumeirah Village in Dubai since January as part of Emirates Post's new My Home, My Building, My Zone scheme.
The service allows customers to have mail delivered to a personal mailbox outside their villa, in the lobby of their apartment block or at a kiosk containing 250 boxes in their area, and it is growing in popularity.
Mr Abbas had only 170 boxes on his route in January, but he now delivers post to 400 homes - 200 one day and the other 200 the next.
"It is easy to remember the route," says the 37-year-old father of three from Pakistan, who has worked for Emirates Post since 2010.
The initiative was tested in Mirdif for three months and, after receiving the thumbs up, was rolled out to the whole of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain in January.
And as it nears its first anniversary, 740 villas - 600 in Dubai and 140 in Abu Dhabi - have signed up for the My Home scheme, 7,000 residents for My Building and numerous My Zone kiosks have been installed.
"The added value of this service is that you can have your own PO box number, so if someone is in Abu Dhabi and then decides to move to Dubai, their PO box moves with them," says Ibrahim bin Karam, chief commercial officer of Emirates Post Group Holding. "And you can send and receive mail via the box."
Receiving mail on the doorstep is an entirely new concept for the UAE, which until this year operated only a post office box system.
While many receive mail through a central office PO box, others have a personal box at their nearest post office, driving once or twice a week to collect their post.
However both systems slowed the journey of mail from sender to receiver - with international post sometimes taking days or even weeks to reach recipients.
"Letters could take two or three days from landing in the building to getting to me," says Darren Lyons, a British financial adviser for Nexus Insurance who arrived in the UAE in 2009.
Used to a UK system, where mail popped through a letterbox in his front door every day, Mr Lyons was surprised when he found the same service was unavailable here, and opted instead to receive his post via his company's PO box number.
However, after noticing silver Emirates Post boxes popping up on villa walls around his community, for Dh750 a year he now has his mail delivered three times a week to his own box outside his home in Jumeirah Village Triangle.
"That is not a large amount of money for the convenience of getting it to your home address. Before, if I was off work, I would have a week's worth of post sitting in my company," Mr Lyons adds.
Emirates Post introduced the service after observing how the UAE's rapid growth made the PO box system ineffective.
"With changing lifestyles and traffic jams, people don't have time to go and queue in the post office to collect their mail," says Mr bin Karam.
So the organisation approached developers such as Aldar and Emaar to find out how they could improve their service and the feedback was unanimous - deliver post directly to customers' homes.
For a mail system with a history of just over 100 years - the Royal Mail in Britain dates to the 16th century and the German postal service to 1495 - it's a huge step forward.
The first service, set up in Dubai, was run by the Indian postal service and relied on postmen delivering mail on camels.
In 1947 it became embroiled in politics when Indian stamps were overprinted with the word "Pakistan" on mail sent through the Dubai office.
In 1948 the British Postal Administration took over management of the Dubai Postal Office and later extended the service to Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah.
Mail in Abu Dhabi used to come via Bahrain, until the emirate took control of the post office in 1967 and the use of British stamps ceased. Although the emirates unified under one system in 1972, it was not until 2001 that the Emirates Post Corporation was established with a government mandate to upgrade and commercialise the service.
Today the network has 125 post offices and plans to extend the My Home service to as many homes as require it, no matter how remote their location. They also hope 20,000 residents will take up the My Building option by the end of 2013.
However there is one thing that could propel the nation's postal service to the next level - an addressing code.
While the different emirates have worked on developing their own addressing systems in the past, they have now come together, forming a committee to develop a nationwide system.
Mr bin Karam says while the proposed system is complete, the committee is currently studying the advantages and the cost of implementing an addressing code.
If it goes ahead, it would revolutionise Emirates Post.
"To know the addressing code of every area or building would be an advantage for us. We have been part of this committee and offered our thoughts and recommendations, so they are working on it. Maybe in a few years we will have the addressing code all over the UAE," Mr bin Karam says.
He says a comprehensive addressing system would not only pave the way for a traditional door-to-door postal service, but also offer opportunities in direct marketing and e-commerce.
But, with no definite launch date, it was up to Emirates Post to develop their own initiative - hence the My Home, My Building, My Zone.
To date the service has been particularly successful in Dubai's newer communities, where many villas sport a shiny new mail box outside their home.
However, postman Mr Abbas did encounter a few residents on his round unaware they could send as well as receive mail from their box.
"I don't usually see the postman so I only found out today I could send mail," says Serpil Kriechbaum, a Turkish mother of one and an Arabian Ranches resident.
While the modern developments have a clear addressing system, making it easy for postmen to find, not every villa is as accessible.
Later, as Mr Abbas bumps his way over sand to a remote villa in Nad Al Sheba, he explains that the first time they visited the customer had to direct them to their location from a nearby school. "After that, we remember," he adds.
Mr bin Karam says while this works while they only have 740 villas to service, as demand grows they will upgrade the technology to make it easier to locate homes in remote areas.
"We are developing a system with GPS so when the sorter first goes to install the box, it will be on our map. They will know that this PO box belongs to this GPS."
While this would all be irrelevant with a proper addressing system, Mr bin Karam acknowledges that "we are working with what we have at the moment".
And for Emirates Post, innovation is something they are constantly working on.
They regularly visit postal services around the world in countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Japan to learn from their sorting systems and find new ways to diversify their services.
After all, while Emirates Post sorts between 500,000 to 700,000 letters a day - a figure that goes up to a million letters over Christmas - it is a number far lower than the glory days of a mail system now diminished by modern communication methods such as email and texting.
As a result, Emirates Post has worked hard to ensure the service is still relevant and commercially viable.
Under the Emirates Post umbrella, they operate the courier service Empost, the Electonic Data Centre, which manages the printing and distribution of corporate bills, and the exchange house Wall Street Exchange Centre.
Emirates Post has also transformed into a one-stop shop for a range of services, from paying utility and phone bills to buying air tickets and renewing tenancy contracts.
And next year you will even be able to pay your HSBC and Citibank credit card bills there, and those buying overseas can take advantage of a new international shipping service.
"Many people are unaware we provide more than 50 services through the post office. We cannot just rely on letters because there is a decline every year," says Mr bin Karam. With the advent of technology the traditional postal service of today will be very different in 10 years' time, he says.
Nevertheless, he is a strong believer in the importance of letter writing, with Emirates Post regularly hosting school workshops and competitions to promote letter writing and stamp collecting.
"If I send you a greeting by SMS, you will delete it. But if I write you a letter or give you a postcard, it will feel more personal and maybe you will keep it on your desk. Letters will not disappear because the feeling you get from receiving one is so much more personal."