Middle East offers much more than just Dubai

The image of boom and bust in the Dubai property market is one that creates a murmur of discontent in other Gulf states where the likes of Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Kuwait and even Saudi Arabia prefer to emphasize their own individualities.They don't want to be seen as some kind of extension of Dubai and when you speak to leading players in the real estate industry they quietly point out that these other Middle East markets have their own unique characteristics.

Few would deny that they have all benefitted from the rise of Dubai on the world property stage. Dubai's success had helped to put the region on the map and showed the rest of the world that the Middle East need not be synonymous with conflict.

In a similar way they do not wish to share in the doom and gloom that now engulfs Dubai. At the same time no one is denying that the region is not suffering from the global downturn. The GGC's combined GDP grew by an estimated 5.2% in 2008 but that is predicted to fall to 2.4% in 2009.

Then there is oil. The slump in the price of oil comes at a time when governments need more cash than ever to prop up the banking and real estate industries. Many property companies in the Middle East are government owned. And GCC states want to avoid a Dubai style crash.

Overall it would seem that they are better placed than many world economies to withstand the global turmoil. Indeed a new report published this week says there are signs of recovery in the Middle East property market.

The report from real estate advisor Jones Lang LaSalle predicts that prices will fall for the next six to 12 months but the requirements for recovery such as rising oil prices and improved liquidity through the recapitalisation of the banking sector in the form government bailouts has already begun.

However, the study warns that the timing of the recovery will vary across the Gulf and predicts no significant upturn in the market until 2011, with prices remaining flat in 2010.

'Driven by vanishing liquidity and the subsequent decline in investor demand, many of the regional markets have been characterised by a negative spiral which has been driving prices down over the past six months,' the report said.

'The key to reversing this credit default spiral will be a return in investor confidence. Just as markets feed off negative sentiment when they are declining, so they will feed off positive sentiment once the seeds of recovery are recognised,' it added.

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A number of factors have contributed to a more positive outlook for the region, the report argues. Oil has risen by around 25% in the last month, going over $50 last week for first time in two and a half months.

There has also been significant injection of liquidity across the Gulf in the last few months. Kuwait last month approved a stimulus package worth $5.08 billion and Abu Dhabi pumped $4.4 billion into the system to recapitalise local banks.

Optimism from the professional analysts is repeated by the large real estate companies. Hussain Sajwani, Chairman of Damac Properties, the largest private sector developer in the UAE, said that he believes that the underlying demand for property in the region is very strong compared to other parts of the world.

'Given the age old boom and bust nature of real estate markets, smart investors are always ready to change their strategy and adapt to the current market conditions. Today the gain is in the longer term and if one has the access to cash or a mortgage they should consider this opportunity seriously,' he said.

'Global research indicates that property attractive to long term renters generates a yield ranging from 12 to 16%. The benefits of purchasing property in the region today, extend further than just the price advantage offered by the market today,' he added.

'The region will always remain the gateway between East and West, and build on its reputation as an important strategic location for tourism and international business. Even though we have seen a reduction in the short term number of international business entrants to the region this is only a temporary glitch in a long-term up curve.'

Sajwani highlights Qatar as a property market well placed to avoid the Dubai downturn. Key development projects such as the New Doha International Airport and the $2.5 billion Energy City will all contribute to economic growth in many sectors including real estate, he says.

'All indicators in the Qatari market indicate that the economy is expected to perform at least as strongly as 2008 driven by energy production and related industries also in investments aimed at economic diversification,' he said.

Damac sees one of the key factors for the market stability is the Qatari authority's impressive macroeconomic performance in recent years, which has strengthened the economy's resilience to the current global financial crisis and economic downturn.

'There is no doubt that the domestic investment programme that was launched by the government has created diversity in the economic base. The banking sector would be one of the major beneficiaries of these projects and also regional diversification programs have also helped to boost the banks' capacity to finance development projects,' added Sajwani.

But prices are falling even in Qatar. That doesn't diminish Sajwani's optimism. 'Today Qatar's real estate sector is showing signs of correction, this doesn't mean the market is falling apart or the demand will stop. Although investors are showing a more cautious approach to property investment in the region, by looking at the given facts and figures, the medium term outlook for Qatar is still in good shape,' said Sajwani.

In Abu Dhabi there has been a move to create a very different kind of identity. Sport has become one way of distinguishing the Emirate from others. The recent inaugural Capitala World Tennis Championships was organised by developer Capitala partly to publicise its $6 billion Arzanah mixed use project but also to send a message that sport is an important part of the real estate sector in Abu Dhabi.

The Zayed Sports Centre where the tennis tournament was held is a major venue for all kinds of sport. Formula 1 comes to Abu Dhabi in November with the emirate's first Grand Prix on the Aldar's Yas Island development where a Ferrari theme park is being built.

Golfing legend Gary Player is designing a course on Saadiyat Island which is being developed by Abu Dhabi's Tourist Development and Investment Company.

The fact that the UAE government is considering plans for a federal real estate authority to regulate developers is regarded as a sign that the region is keen to move forward. Lack of transparency in the real estate market has been a major criticism and even although local bodies like the Real Estate Regulatory Authority exist in Dubai there is still much work to be done in this area.

A possible creation of a central government agency to regulate the real estate industry in the UAE comes as federal concerns grow about overseas developers who rely on large amounts of debt from local banks to fund projects.

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Looking beyond the UAE there is growing interest in Saudi Arabia. With a population of 28 million, Saudi has about 70% of the GCC states population and unlike others it does not rely on overseas workers and companies to bolster its economy.

Saudi has a thriving domestic market, a young population with 60% aged under 24, and a wealth that comes from having 21% of the world's oil reserves. Its banks are not caught up in toxic debt and are still lending.

There is huge potential in the residential and hotel property markets, according to Jones Lang LaSalle. It estimates that the country has 3.95 million homes and needs another 500,000 now and another million by 2012.

Currently private developers build only a small number of residential projects. Around 90% are developed independently by individuals and about 8% by government owned companies.

It is an opportunity spotted by UK property group Kenmore which is actively looking at prospects in the Middle East from its Dubai office. 'Saudi Arabia has a massive housing shortage and future population growth,' said Andrew White, head of Kenmore's Middle East operations.

Saudi is top of Kenmore's list for future investment opportunities. In November the company signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi investment banking group Watan Investment. It hopes to raise $300 million to invest mostly in residential projects but also office and industrial property.

Dubai government owned Limitless is another major player active in Saudi, particularly in the capital Riyadh where 55,000 news homes a year are needed. It is developing a $12 billion mixed use project north west of Riyadh that will provide 55,000 homes.

US developer and fund manager HDG Mansur is eyeing Saudi. A spokesman confirmed that it is exploring various vehicles to invest in the country.

But many are not even looking at Saudi, some perhaps put off by the lack of mortgage access. Most Saudis do not have mortgages as strict lending criteria excludes most of the population. But that is expected to change with a new mortgage law currently being drafted.

'There are a lot of people sitting in Dubai who are not here, not part of the biggest economy in the Middle East,' observes Peter Bibby of analysts DTZ. But you can't operate in Saudi from afar and opening an office is required if you want to do business, this in itself will lead to more demand for commercial office space.

And the future is not just limited to GCC states. According to Saeed Ahmed Saeed, chief executive officer of Limitless Jordan is a key market. 'Recent changes in legislation and an influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi nationals have increased the demand for homes providing ripe opportunities for development and the cost of materials, labour and fuel are low,' he said.

Africa, especially Egypt, is another area regarded as having excellent growth potential. 'With the right timing investments in Africa may prove to be advantageous,' added Saeed.