The annual Cityscape conference has evolved during the past two years from a high-flying property sales event to a sober gathering of survivors from the financial crisis.
At Cityscape Dubai 2008, developers launched some of the most ambitious projects in the emirate's history, including Jumeirah Gardens, which was estimated to cost Dh350 billion (US$95.28bn) and the planned Nakheel Tower, which would reach 1km into the sky.
Those projects remain on the drawing board two years later. The event this year will cater to fewer participants, taking up less space. Even its name has changed to Cityscape Global, a sign that the conference organisers are reaching for markets beyond Dubai, where a recovery in prices remains elusive. Gone are the speculative investors crowding the halls and making deals amid the multimillion-dirham architecture models.
As a prelude to this year's event, the Real Estate Regulatory Agency and the Dubai Land Department are hosting a parallel conference focused on the policy issues and practical concerns of a commercial sector. It begins on Sunday, the day before Cityscape starts.
The first annual Middle East North Africa Real Estate Society conference is entitled "Surviving the Storm, Emerging Stronger" and features such serious conference sessions as "Re-thinking the Selection of Projects", "Cycles in Real Estate" and "Policy Making in Real Estate, Balancing Supply and Demand".
Rohan Marwaha, the managing director of Cityscape, says the two groups may even collaborate in the future. For now, the lectures at the other conference stand in contrast to his more upbeat Cityscape sessions, such as "Global economic trends and recovery prospects" and "Re-evaluating global debt appetite - where will the money come from?"
Despite the wider focus, Cityscape this year has 38 fewer exhibitors than last year. Mr Marwaha says that is a "natural effect of the economic crisis and real estate prices, not just in Dubai but across the world".
"We have attracted a lot more international participation this year, with a spotlight on Egypt," he says. "That's not to take the attention away from Dubai but we wanted to show everybody that Dubai is where people converge . It's a good moment to highlight other markets."
Mr Marwaha says international exhibitors are likely to be responsible for the lion's share of project announcements. Developers from Korea, Egypt and China are playing a bigger role this year.
This year's schedule includes all the major Dubai players, including Emaar Properties, Nakheel and Dubai Properties Group. Mubadala Development, a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, and Waha Land are representing Abu Dhabi.
"For the Dubai developers, the key focus this year . is delivery and completion," says Mr Marwaha. "Those are the key messages for the return of confidence to the market."
Analysts in Dubai point to the availability of finance, lack of long-term residency visas for property owners and a lack of transparency as factors hampering a recovery of the market. Billy Rautenbach, the managing director of the Dubai estate agency The Property Store, says the industry is hoping for regulatory changes this year that could help lift the economy. "The two main factors for a sustainable property sector are the availability of visas and the ability to own your own business," Ms Rautenbach says. "If you can't live and work here, then you aren't going to buy property."
So far this year, however, there have been two announcements of major transactions that could prove to be early signs of a pick-up in sales. Emaar Properties, the largest developer in the region, sold building Number 5 in its Emaar Square project for Dh331 million. And Union Properties has indicated it is finalising the sale of the newly completed Ritz-Carlton hotel next to the Dubai International Financial Centre for Dh1.5bn.
While prices may have dropped in Dubai, as well as in the rest of the Emirates, the international property services company Jones Lang LaSalle says these transactions show there is still investor demand for high-quality space in Dubai that is already leased out. Such transactions could offer some reassurance to the owners and developers of the large swathes of empty space around the city. Dubai is still the pre-eminent centre of business and trade in the Gulf but new supply is still putting a brake on the recovery.
Prices in some areas have dropped by as much as 70 per cent, while more established neighbourhoods have seen more modest declines of 15 to 50 per cent, brokers say.
With large office buildings still coming on to the market, available Dubai office space has climbed to 50 per cent in areas such as Jumeirah Lakes Towers, according to a recent Jones Lang LaSalle report.
Still, there are increasing signs that landlords of both residential and office buildings are responding by offering incentives, including rent-free periods of up to two years on five-year leases for businesses, more relaxed terms and lower prices for residents.