In today’s world of instant connectivity, the post office endures with a remarkable story of its own.
Abdullah Mohammad Al Ashram, CEO of Emirates Post, traced the evolution of postal services in the UAE.
He said: “In times of wars or hazards, everything stops, but one of the things that continues is post. A postman is looked at as more of a neutral party to deliver the right messages to the right people, even in war zones. In the past, they were the ones who used to give people the news.”
In the UAE, it all began on August 19, 1909, when the first postal agency was set up in Dubai.
Over half a century later, it grew into an established postal authority, with offices in all seven emirates.
Initially managed by the Indian Post Office Services until India’s independence in 1947, the postal services were finally established as the General Directorate of Postal Services under the Ministry of Communications in 1972, following the formation of the UAE.
Since then, the country’s postal system has gone from letters that were delivered on camel-back to same-day mail, international delivery and much more.
Abdullah said: “When Emirates Post started in 2001, there was a lot of commercialising and automating, and we were moving into many ventures, such as the establishment of Empost... it focuses on our package and parcel delivery. The Electronic Documents Centre (EDC) was created for direct mail and hybrid mail, which is printing large quantities of mail for large organisations. We also moved into money transfer and remittances.”
It led to the establishment of Emirates Post Group in 2007, with Emirates Post, Empost, EDC and Wall Street Exchange becoming subsidiaries of the Group. The Group currently employs about 2224 people.
For Abdullah, the expansion of post office services was inevitable. Writing letters was fast becoming a thing of the past.
He said: “In the past 15 years, a lot of postal administrations worldwide have realised that there is a drop in letters, possibly about an 8 to 10 per cent decline. We saw it with personal mail and now we’re seeing it with corporate mail. There was also a time when people would record a [cassette] tape to send back to their family. We would see a lot of mail like that coming in. But now, people just pick up the phone and call. Technology has changed the business.”
In order to stay relevant, Emirates Post management decided to look into other revenue streams. They added non-postal and third-party services to their existing functions.
Al Ashram said: “We introduced more value-added services and a better mix of functions within the Group. Our core business is registered mail, parcels and other postal services. But we added governmental services, such as renewing trade licenses and getting an Emirates ID. Other services involve third parties, such as insurance and retail companies. Today, there are about 55 services you can utilise at the post office.”
The change is part of a dynamic post office evolution happening worldwide.
As part of the Universal Postal Union (UPU), the UAE meets regularly with regional and global postal administrations to share experiences, discuss strategies and streamline operations.
According to Abdullah, the most popular non-postal service today is the easy payment of utility bills, followed by money transfers. Within postal offerings, Express Mail Services (EMS) and parcels are the most sought after facilities.
Abdullah credits the popularity of these services to two factors.
He said: “We are unique in that we’re all over the country – from the border with Saudi Arabia to the border with Oman. Also, the postal system worldwide is trusted, because it’s supported by the government. Definitely, people are more comfortable doing business with us.”
The introduction of new services was aided by adopting technologically advanced operating systems and machinery.
Abdullah said: “About 15 years ago, we didn’t have any automation in our post offices. Everyone was working on a manual basis. Today, all our 116 post offices are automated through our point of sale system (POS).”
The country’s mail sorting centre at the Emirates Post main hub in Umm Ramool, Dubai, is unique and one of the largest in the region. Almost all of its operations are automated.
He said: “This had to be done for efficiency, volume, optimisation and cost reduction. With technology, we have increased the volume we can handle on a daily basis. On an average, we reach around 800,000 letters a day. Parcels, today, are still sorted manually. In the future, when the volume increases to a point where it makes sense to have automation, we’ll look into it.”
Abdullah is optimistic about the future of the post office industry in the UAE.
He identified key growth sectors: “The industry is shifting and we have to be more dynamic. Growth is happening in the business generated by e-commerce. The post office could also play a big role within e-government services, which means handling the logistics part of electronic transactions. There must also be focus on financial services, such as money remittances and money transfer.”
Human interaction can never replace electronic services – and so the post office’s role cannot be discounted, according to the CEO.
He said: “The post office is not just going to go away. There is a revolution in this industry. Things are being done differently. It’s going to change and evolve — that’s what we’re trying to focus on.”
Technology in the sorting room
The state of the art sorting room in the Emirates Post main hub utilises technologically advanced and even custom-made machinery.
More than 500,000 letters are sorted in this room every day, according to Abdullah Khalifa Saeed Al Gaizi Al Falasi, mail sorting machine engineer.
Implemented in 2008, the automated mail sorting machine processes approximately 40,000 letters an hour.
Mail is fed into the machine, which uses scanners and optical character recognition to sort letters. A feeder in the shape of a drum also serves the same purpose.
During the scanning of mail, addresses that cannot be read are automatically transferred to the video coders’ room. Here, employees assess the mail and send it along to the right address with the press of a button.
Once sorted and processed, the mail is automatically stacked in different queues, based on the recipient’s postal address. It is done in a large, serpentine machine that has an overhead bridge. The machine was customised for Emirates Post by the Japanese company NEC, in order to fit within the confines of the building.
Al Falasi said: “Instead of the old pigeon holes, where sorters used to place mail, we now have digital boards where we can see which zone the mail is going to. Letters that cannot be read by machines, such as those with handwritten addresses or bigger envelopes, are sorted manually.”