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Sat 25 Aug 2007 12:00 AM

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Why this post haste should be junked

The UAE's postal service should be moving online - and why we should all be celebrating when it does.

I can't remember the last time I received a letter that didn't contain a bill, and I'm thrilled. Not because I like receiving invoices, you understand, but because I'm a 21st century e-Man - why clutter my desk, when you can clutter my inbox? Now, even the moderately alarming bank statements that used rain down have been replaced by an electronic bulletin sent to me by the robots at HSBC, bless them; and if Etisalat takes this hint, then even those pesky printed bills will be a thing of the past, and I'll have a clean workspace at last.

Or will I? Last week, the UAE's postal services company revealed that a pan-GCC mail transportation company is likely to be set up to carry postal mail and courier parcels across the region. The company, which was first proposed at a meeting of GCC postal officials last May, would facilitate package delivery among the different postal systems of the six GCC member states, an Emirates Post statement read.

The committee agreed on the framework and the financial and operational model for the proposed company at a workshop hosted by Emirates Post in Dubai, and Abdullah Al Daboos, director-general of Emirates Post, insisted that plans were well advanced. Indeed, they called business consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton in to brief delegates about the findings of a relevant study of the GCC market, and the strategic options available to operating a postal logistics company across the Gulf region.

A big pat on the back for all of those involved, obviously. Yet seeing as the next meeting of GCC postal officials is not scheduled to take place until November, haven't we rather missed the boat on snail mail? And as we near the end of the first decade of the 21st century, shouldn't we instead be looking to reduce the quantity of printed media (business magazines aside) that we wade through each and every day?

To assess our new service's prospects of success, let's take a look at the fortunes of the oldest postbag-pusher on the block. In Britain, the Royal Mail service is fast approaching its 500th birthday - only to find that the internet has well and truly crashed the party. The group posted a fiscal-year loss of US$274m in the year to March 25, after mail volumes declined and customers made use of cheaper products. For example, the volume of marketing offers sent by email has overtaken print direct mail in the UK for the first time, as companies exploit the low cost and other benefits of electronic campaigns. Royal Mail has found itself on the losing side in a US$30bn-a-year industry, and the advertisers aren't coming back any time soon.

In short, at the same time it is becoming increasingly expensive to maintain a postal network, businesses and consumers are deserting printed communications in favour of their information age equivalents.

For those advertisers too slow-witted to grasp the concept of electronic mailshots, a GCC postal service raises the tantalising prospect of a junk mail bombardment across the Middle East. For those of you unimpressed by the number of unwanted emails that flood our inboxes each day, just wait until you get home from work to find a small mountain of leaflets has been pushed through your filter-free letterbox.

Moreover, and with a little enthusiasm on the part of those dark-age companies who rely on printed mailshots, the region should simultaneously scale new heights in the field of gratuitous waste production. I don't mean to come over all Al Gore, but won't that make us a little uncool?

A fully functioning postal service is something to be proud of, on an organisational level. Yet that doesn't mean that it will make money - unless stamp prices are prohibitively high - and the postal officials' enthusiasm seems a little odd considering that the rest of the world is e-focused. Or didn't they get the memo?