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March 16, 2015updated 21 Sep 2021 9:48am

Buildings in Dubai and Abu Dhabi didn't have official addresses. But that's finally changing

By Olivia Cuthbert

“No it’s the first right after the garage and all the way to the end where the road bends to the left. Left. Villa behind mosque. White Pajero parked outside. Can you see the car? White Pajero car? What can you see now?”

It’s a familiar frustration: for anyone trying to direct a delivery to an address in Dubai, conversations like this are part and parcel of life in the Emirate. The lack of a proper postal system has long been a contradiction for residents of a city that loudly proclaims its status as a regional hub and a global gateway between East and West. But such discrepancies are not unusual in Dubai, where service departments scramble to keep pace with rapid urban development.

From the earliest days of the Emirate, when the local mail service was conducted by Indian postmen on camels, Dubai’s delivery system has been a wishy washy affair. For a while, it was in the hands of the British Postal Administration, which extended a basic service to the rest of the UAE. Following that residents have relied on a post office box system, receiving mail through their company or driving to a nearby post office several times a week to check for letters. It wasn’t until 2001 that the Emirates Post Corporation was formally established with a mandate from the government to improve and commercialise the service.

This was easier said than done, however, because nowhere in Dubai, or in the wider UAE, had a proper address. There weren’t even road names, just an incoherent system of numbers with which to navigate the network of back streets.

With the rise in digital communication, the problem has seemed less pertinent for private mail. But it remains an issue in other areas of daily life, such as directing delivery men, steering taxi drivers and navigating new routes in the hyperactive road system, which no sooner conquered changes shape as fresh waves of construction arrive.

Uber has provided welcome relief on the transport front. The pinpoint mapping system means that most of the time (they aren’t immune to misinterpreting the placement of the pin) the car is actually waiting outside the correct building, and Dubians have, not surprisingly, embraced the service with gusto. “It is a utopian market for Uber – that’s the reason we have grown so fast in the UAE,” Jean-Pierre Mondalek, Uber’s general manager for the UAE , told The National newspaper. “The smart city government initiative encourages innovative technology like ours.”

The success of the Uber approach bodes well for the future of local mail: that’s because, at long last, the Emirate’s postal service is joining the modern world with a brand new GPS addressing system. Gone will be the days of Christmas cards received in February, takeaways that arrive stone cold because they’ve been circling the backstreets for an hour and time-consuming trips to the post office to check for mail. Dubai, it seems, is finally going postal.

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An extract from Google’s map of Dubai. You see the problem, can’t you? 

The new system, christened Makani (“my location” in Arabic), promises to be every bit as state-of-the-art as the city it maps. Based on a Geo Address System, which pins every one of Dubai’s buildings to a GPS coordinate via 10-digit smart codes, the approach heralds a long-awaited move towards a new era of efficient navigation. According to Hussain Nasser Lootah, director general of Dubai Municipality, it will resemble the US zipcode and enable Dubai’s multicultural population to share a common system that makes finding locations around the city significantly simpler. Not only that, he says, it will also be a huge benefit to security and emergency services.

Users can download the Makani app, available on iOS, Android and Blackberry devices as well as online, then search for locations using their unique smart code. This can then be shared with other users via the app, or converted into a voice navigation guide, Google Maps style. Larger buildings, such as The Dubai Mall, will have separate coordinates for different entrances. The project is unfolding in conjunction with a citywide street-naming programme that will finally give the maze of backs roads more identifiable tags than the likes of 27a or 16c.

In neighbouring Abu Dhabi, the new Onwani (“My address”) application presents a similar promise for residents and visitors to the UAE capital, where an inconsistent addressing system and an erratic postal history have created a like need for modernisation.

“The implications of not having a street naming or address system are enormous,” said Clifford Selbert of Selbert Perkins Design, the firm responsible for creating the signage programme in Abu Dhabi. “This is a common situation in the Arab world. You simply can’t get from A to B. Businesses are slowed to a crawl because deliveries can’t be made and security is also a huge concern. People who live there have learned to navigate by landmarks, but now the landmarks are becoming invisible as the city gets more dense.”

Dr. Abdullah Ghareeb Al Bloushi, executive director of the Abu Dhabi Department Municipal Affairs, explained that the city has had “an addressing system of sorts” for over 12 years now. But “recent rapid development means we have to change… We’ve developed a new coherent and unified way-finding system which, once implemented, will provide many benefits to the people who live in and visit the Emirate, helping to set the standard for a better future.”

Abu Dhabi. Yep.

The new signs, developed in conjunction with Selbert Perkins Design and Abu Dhabi Municipality, will, Selbert says, “Ease the flow of traffic, facilitate ambulances, enhance police security and generally improve all functions of the city”. There are some 12,000 new street names across the capital, 200 new district names and 20,000 new roadway signs, not to mention new address signs for every house and building. Each features a QR code enabling visitors and residents in the city to identify their location and link to information regarding local events, retailers, city services and other matters of interest.

Authorities in the capital looked to the likes of the UK, USA, Australia and other Middle Eastern countries where similar approaches have proved effective, adapting them to suit the particular requirements of Abu Dhabi. It’s the largest project ever undertaken by the city municipality with new names for thousands of backstreets and a distinct address for over 65,000 homes and businesses.

In a later stage, the system will be updated with a feature that provides a short newscast about events and activities held in each area. In short, Selbert says, “The new signs will transform the identity and economy of Abu Dhabi – not to mention the experience people have of the city. These signs will save lives, energise the economy and link the city and the Emirate to the future.”

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