Lack of a functional address system in the UAE provides a special challenge to courier companies.
Addressing a pressing problem
DHL, a multibillion-dollar international company with access to the latest satellite positioning systems, still delivers packages in Abu Dhabi the old-fashioned way: using the memory of a man who has been around town for a while. These days, that man is Ijaz Hussain, who on most mornings can be found in a warehouse at the Cargo Village of the Abu Dhabi airport, distinguished from the crush of couriers around him by his electric yellow baseball cap. As he pulls out each package from a large green bag, he barely glances at the writing on it - usually just long enough to see the company name or the first few digits of a long-since memorised post office box number - before handing it to the courier covering that company's route.
"I recognise the routes because I've been here for the past 15 years. Abu Dhabi, almost 95 per cent, I know. And some shipments which I don't know, I'll put in here," says Mr Hussain, gesturing to a blue bin where a colleague will pick up the packages and call the phone number on them. If the phone number doesn't work, Israel Veneracion, who specialises in tracking down new customers' locations, will send a fax, which he said often takes three days to elicit a response.
Such is the procedure throughout the UAE, which, like many Middle Eastern countries, lacks a functional address system. But that is about to change. Dubai, Ras al Khaimah and Sharjah are all putting in new address systems. Not far behind is Abu Dhabi, which will announce the design of its new system next month and begin implementing it before the end of the year, according to Mohamed al Jabri, the project's manager at the municipality.
A map of midtown Manhattan fills his computer screen as he discusses what lessons Abu Dhabi - an island city laid out on a grid, with a booming economy and rapidly expanding population - might take from the address systems of Doha, Muscat, Manhattan, Toronto, rural Ontario, Paris and Japan. These were some of the places selected by Norplan, the Norwegian city planning consultants, for study as part of their two-year, Dh10-million contract with the municipality to design and implement a new system here.
"We see the advantages and disadvantages of all of these," he said, though the map behind him offered a hint at where the design might be heading. The municipality ordered the overhaul because the current system is a "failure", Mr Jabri said. Created in the late 1990s for Abu Dhabi Island and expanded to Musaffah in 2000, the existing system is based on an abstract hierarchy of zones, sectors, main streets, internal streets and plots or buildings, arranged sequentially. A typical code for a building's address might be 11-07-0057-0, for example ? extremely logical but almost impossible to remember.
As a result, no one apart from utility companies and the Government uses the system, while everyone else is left to use landmarks - a tricky and often frustrating prospect in a city filled with newcomers and a continuously changing landscape. "We normally tell them that we are in ICAD 1 [Industrial City of Abu Dhabi], near Emirates Steel Factory, and we are the third building on the right side," said Geraldine Garcia whose job as a secretary at Abu Dhabi National Paper Mill entails frequent phone conversations with couriers and visitors trying to reach her company's Musaffah offices.
"It is quite difficult for a first-timers," she said. "It would be good if they could put some streets or roads in here." Even internationally known and centrally located institutions describe their location in relation to other business. "We mostly use landmarks and street names," said Mohamed Meigag, the Abu Dhabi branch operations manager of HSBC Middle East. He described his branch as "adjacent to Gulf Air building and opposite the Etisalat main office".
But for the courier companies, even landmarks don't seem to be as much help as post office boxes - which the firms use as a filing system for their data on each customer - and mobile numbers. "We go by telephone numbers," said Anil Kumar, assistant manager for the Emirates for Kanoo Rapid Transit, which employs 38 couriers throughout the country. "Normally, we call the customer." But relying so heavily on telephone numbers has its drawbacks. "They call once in the morning to say are you there, the second time later in the morning, and a third time to say he's lost," said Peter DeBenedictis, marketing manager for FedEx Middle East and Africa. "We don't do that."
He said Fed Ex has some "ways to mitigate" such harassment by mobile, but declined to say what they were for fear of giving the competition a leg up. UPS uses a similar two-tiered system for finding packages' destinations- company name or post office box, followed by call to the customer if these are not recognised - but often also makes deliveries using a "descriptive address like 'Company XYZ is located two blocks north of the Fairmont Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road'", said John Flick, the director of international public relations for UPS.
"Over time many of the deliveries are performed by local knowledge," he said. But, he added, "our UAE staff is obviously very excited about the new postal system. It will obviously make deliveries faster, easier and more efficient". Just how much more efficient is hard to quantify, given the lack of consistent data on the subject, said Tom Freese, the principal of Freese & Associates, a US-based logistics consulting firm. But he expects the effect to be "dramatic".
"For routing optimisation, an address system is quite beneficial," he said. "It allows for us to digitise a geographic area and identify the least distance travel routing from point to point, with greater accuracy than the type of system you are presently using." As record fuel prices put pressure on couriers' profit margins, these measures become more important, he said. "Right now, everybody is looking to save energy, and there are two things that highly impact that in a delivery system: idle time - the time a truck is idling, waiting for directions - and travel time," he said. "A detailed analytical address system will save on both of these."
On top of that, such a system will reduce labour costs, he said, because couriers will be required to have less local knowledge and geographical training. Officials in South Korea, which began instituting its new address system last year, calculated that as much as 4.3 trillion won (US$4.7 billion) was wasted each year in fuel costs from traffic delays and time and energy wasted trying to find places with its informal system, according to the Korea Herald.
South Korea has a population of about 50 million, and had been planning its national address overhaul for more than a decade. It plans to roll it out gradually over five years. With fewer than a million people today, Abu Dhabi faces a much less daunting task. But estimates that the population will treble in the next two decades have lent urgency to plans for infrastructure improvements. Back in the DHL warehouse, Dinesh Dasanayake, the operations manager for Abu Dhabi, said he had seen a 40 per cent increase in the volume of packages in the past year as the capital's growth has exploded. With that growth has come an increase in the number of businesses moving, and thus a weakening of the institutional knowledge that keeps the delivery system moving smoothly.
"As rents go up, or they want a bigger space, a company might move from Mina to Musaffah, so we have to be up on that," he said. "Because there are loads of companies moving." Having an address system "might not make a big difference for the guys who sort it, but for the guys who check it" - those who have to make the phone calls and use the maps to locate recipients - "it has to make it easier, for sure".