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

Dubai's Burj Al Arab: good luck finding that. Image: Getty.

“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.

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.”


Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.

Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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