Computers, Containers but No Memory

Story of a Forgotten Company

Gray Mackenzie and Company established Dubai Port Services in 1970, under decree by Sheikh Rashid, to operate and manage Port Rashid as a commercial Port. DPS played a critical role in establishing Port Rashid as an International Port and Container Terminal and Dubai as an International Centre of Trade. DPS pioneered computerised container operations and developed a level of operational efficiency that received international recognition. Port Rashid's container throughput grew from a few hundred per year in 1975 to over a million by 1990. Despite these achievements, DPS has disappeared from Dubai's collective Memory. There is no mention of DPS's role in the published history of Dubai's Ports.

Dubai Port Services - In the Beginning

Critical part of Sheikh Rashid's Vision for Dubai's Development Plan was building a deepwater port. Initially conceived as a 4 Berth Port, Sheikh Rashid soon wanted a larger port to accommodate more ships. Final design was 15 Berths with construction beginning in 1967. Sheikh Rashid decided Port Rashid should be operated and managed by a Commercial Company as he saw this as efficient. Gray Mackenzie and Company had, for many years, advised Sheikh Rashid on marine matters and were asked to take on the management and operation of Port Rashid. Gray Mackenzie's parent company Inchcape Group, based in London, was reluctant as Inchcape had no experience of Port Management. Eventually Inchcape recognised the significance of Port Rashid's role and agreed to establish Dubai Port Services for the sole purpose of operating and managing Port Rashid. Sheikh Rashid issued his Decree formally establishing DPS and immediately encountered resistance in his Majlis to DPS's appointment.

For nearly a year various local interests vied to replace DPS with their own Companies. But Sheikh Rashid stood by his original decision and DPS came into existence with complete responsibility for operating and managing Port Rashid as a profitable commercial enterprise with Sheikh Rashid taking 40% of profits. Dubai Government had no direct role in Port Rashid's operation and management although DPS developed close links with Government Finance, Customs, Immigration and Security Departments. DPS purchased all Dubai Customs Department Plant used at the Dubai Creek Cargo Wharves and absorbed Customs Department Staff working at Dubai Creek Wharves. DPS also purchased new plant and equipment and recruited management and operational staff from UK, East Africa and the Gulf. DPS began port operations in 1971.

Dubai 1970s - A Boom Town

Dubai was a Boom Town in the early 1970s. Cargoes flowed into Port Rashid in ever increasing amounts until Port Rashid was full to overflowing and close to grinding to a halt. Consequently Shipping Companies began using Shipping Containers to deliver cargo to Dubai to overcome berthing and discharge delays. Initially conatiners arrived as deck cargo then on specialised Container Ships. DPS purchased specialised container handling equipment and modified No.10 general cargo berth to house two Container Cranes. Soon shipping Container Ships were replacing the old style cargo ships and Port Rashid's general cargo berths were used less and less. Despite this growing trend, Sheikh Rashid ordered a further 19 General Cargo Berths to be constructed at Port Rashid. Before construction could commence, the design was changed to incorporate a purpose built Container Terminal to international standards. This was completed in 1982 by which time a major portion of Port Rashid's throughput was Container Traffic. Many of the 30 general cargo berths together with their storage sheds and yards now lay empty and unused.

Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum officially opens Port Rashid Container Terminal 1982

Technology takes over

Efficient Container Operations depend on knowing exactly where each and every Shipping Container is located in the Terminal at any point in time. In the early days a simple card and index system was sufficient but eventually became unable to cope as Container Traffic grew and container movements became more complex. Gray Mackenzie installed a Main Frame Computer in their Bur Dubai Office to deal with their accounts and sales management. This Computer had spare capacity so DPS came to an agreement to share this Computer. DPS set up their own IT Department and began developing software "In House" to manage Container Operations. This was a pioneering work in 1980s as Computerisation had yet to be applied to Port Operations anywhere in the World apart from Singapore, Hong Kong and some European Ports. There was no Commercial Software available then so no option but to adopt a "Do it Yourself" approach.


From thereon Dubai's Container throughput continues to grow together with Dubai's reputation as highly efficient International Port.

Sheikh Rashid's Illness

In May 1981, Sheikh Rashid was taken ill and no longer capable of ruling Dubai. Sheikh Maktoum Bin Rashid Al Maktoum assumed the role of Ruler. In this new political environment, opposition to Dubai Port Services' role and Gray Mackenzie's involvement in Port Rashid began to surface in the Majlis culminating in DPS being issued with a termination notice. At this juncture Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum intervened since ports and airports were now under his control. Sheikh Mohammed negotiated a compromise agreement with Gray Mackenzie whereby they became Managers of Port Rashid responsible for its operation while Dubai Government controlled Port Rashid's finances. Under this new agreement Dubai Port Services ceased to exist, replaced by Port Rashid Authority which was a Port Authority in name only. PRA was never established under Dubai Law and simply became the name under which Gray Mackenzie operated in Port Rashid. Eventually Port Rashid Authority, along with Jebel Ali Port Authority, was to be taken over by Dubai Government to form a new entity called Dubai Ports Authority, a commercial entity wholly owned by Dubai Government. Since then Dubai Port Services has faded from Dubai's memory.

Sheikh Rashid is proved to be right!

Sheikh Rashid's decision to appoint a commercial company to manage and operate Port Rashid was ahead of its time. Today, many Ports and Container Terminals are operated in the way Sheikh Rashid envisaged, namely that the appointed Operator is free to run the port without interference from the Port's Owner (usually a Government) who benefits by a lease rent or profit shares with the Port's Operator. DP World, DPS's eventual successor, manages and operates ports and container terminals around the World today in a similar way to DPS.